Basic building blocks of community: trust and relationships

I have been referred to a number of books, research papers and TED Talks in the past couple of months, and I have observed a common lens through which I am viewing most of these resources – the blueprints for how people optimally work with each other.

Since this post is a little long, I’ll give you the cliff note up front (aka, “too long; didn’t read” or tl;dr). If you want things to get better in our community, you gotta put your pride on the shelf and go listen to someone else. You gotta walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while.

Make sure you check out the references before you completely walk away from this post; the TED talks in particular are quite engaging (Mitra, Semler, Sirolli, Varty).

And now for the full-blown version….

Frankly, it is a bit overwhelming. Even now, as a I finish up the Putnam book (see references below), the many ideas and wonderful pieces of insight jostle around like a house of playful cats. And note, there is so much more in each of those pieces of work than I will touch on.

The bottomline for me is nicely encapsulated in the idea of “ubuntu” as reiterated by Boyd Varty – “people are not people without people”. The definition of that word is very similar; “humanity or fellow feeling; kindness.” I love how Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “I am a rock” makes a satire of the antithesis. Varty goes on to say “our own well-being is tied up in the well-being of others” and how we share happiness and sadness, success and failure. Doctor of Philosophy and environmental activist Vandana Shiva gives you the rocket science version in her dissertation on quantum entanglement – essentailly, “everything is connected”; read her paper if you want to learn how our planetary life reflects this puzzling but most fundamental principle.

I am convinced that people are hard-wired to connect and relate to other people. If you widen the scope, you will see that other animals seem to naturally cling to social groups of one sort or another. What I really appreciated about Callahan’s 1960s anti-efficiency book is that it acknowledges we have applied shortcuts that work well in some facets of life (ie, manufacturing), but not when those same shortcuts are applied to all aspects of life as a blind panacea. People are not manufactured. Relationships are messy, slow and very inefficient. And that’s a good thing. 🙂

So by now you are probably thinking “yeah, so what?” Duh, common sense, right? With help from the folks listed below, let’s play this out in a school setting. My premise is that marriage is a perfect archtype relationship, and that marriage is a good model for how two people can collaborate towards mutually beneficial goals despite the challenges and rocky road along the way.

Sirolli and Mehta tell us that, in a sense, order can rise out of chaos. It has to be teased but not coerced, pampered and not forced. “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” In a traditional school setting, we have attempted to enforce a system of contrived order; there is a certain routine and a very regular pace in which things happen, with bells to mark transitions and report cards to measure progress. As we have seen, this system seems to work for some children. There are also a number of children for whom this system does not work at all. The latter group becomes disengaged and/or disruptive. And then you have those for whom the system is adequate – not excellent, but not horrible either. What if students had a little more control over what their school day looks like? What if each child had a mentor/advocate who could share their burden when needed?

I have personally seen children come from homes with unique sets of challenges, and then get to see how “school” works for them. Imagine having one teacher and 24 students; on top of everything else, the teacher has to prepare lessons that somehow adhere to Common Core, even to the extent of administering multiple standardized tests. I have seen what a challenge this is for both teacher and student; I have worked with a child who was not cooperating at all for whatever reason, and I was able to find out what he likes and then integrate that into the topic at hand. I have witnessed teachers deftly and subtely provide a special word of encouragement to individual students to help them get over whatever was blocking their progress. I have watched the beginning of a restorative justice session and social refelection at ACTIONS, and I have seen small classrooms engage with speciality teachers at Novak.

Reading through Dr. Laura Taylor’s doctoral dissertation, I was struck with the impact of this thing called “teacher care”. Dr. Taylor has four poignant portraitures in her work, which give a deep and intimate insight into what is important and significant to a student. Putnam does something similar, highlighting people longitudinally of various different backgrounds (white, black, poor, rich, highly educated, not-so-highly educated, etc); it seems that one of the most significant aspects to whether a child can rise out of suboptimal circumstances is wrapped up in the system of support they experience.

Which brings me to the following conclusion. Our overall community health will be measured more by how much we care for each other over and above how rigorous the academic curriculum is. I am not saying we should give up on rigor altogether, but rigor should not trump other efforts to form meanginful bonds.

Mitra, Semler and Sirolli talk about the idea of “person centeredness”, using different words. Mitra calls it “student-driven”, and has some amazing examples of what children can readily teach themselves (“self-organized” clusters of schools, wow!). Semler’s focus is more on the workplace, but easily applied in the school setting as well; let people pursue their passions. Sirolli is a bit more blunt with the famous “shut up and listen”; if want to have any shred of a hope of being helpful, you have to find out what others want and how they define “help”.

I firmly believe that by taking the time to care for each other, we can begin to address the deeply seated ills that manifest as the tragedies we hear about in the public news media; rise in shootings, the tragic death of Rayvonte Leshoure, hate crimes, etc. Even the rampant distrust between various groups (of all stripes) is evidence that something is not right. You cannot truly trust someone until you get to know them.

This is what I love about Freedom Schools, Tap In Leadership, At Promise of Success and many other local initiatives – it’s that idea of getting to know someone as you walk side-by-side, and together you make progress towards a goal. It’s not pulling from the front or pushing from the back. I believe that this is only way we can build consensus for future referendums while at the same time counter-acting the education and discipline disparities.

PS – lastly, wanted to give a special shout out to the Joy Team and Adams Outdoor Advertising – loving the “think happy” signs (hat tip to Chambanamoms). Saw one today which is relevant to this post: “Be excellent to each other“. Preach!

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) If you find something that works even better than this, please let me know.



Thanks to the following folks for dropping these works in my lap; Chuck Jackson, Imani Bazzell, George Reese, Steve Gardner, Judy Wiegand and Laura Taylor.

7 Responses to “Basic building blocks of community: trust and relationships”

  1. George Reese Says:

    Thanks for this list, Charles. I hope we can be citing from it as we work in the coming weeks and months. I’ve finally got a copy of the Sirolli book and I look forward to some time with it.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      You are going to like his book. There is so much that lines up with what Kerris has been trying to push as well.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    I am really digging D’Allessio’s article about the clergy’s response to the AEME tradegy in Charleston:

    We cannot change the hater, but we can change how we respond to hate.

  3. kshannon617 Says:

    Thanks for posting this. There is a lot of relationship and trust building that needs to be done in C-U!

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Agreed – and I am glad that some folks are already taking steps to do so. I think the hardest part is realizing that trust building is a slow process. You almost need to wear a t-shirt that says “work with me here, I am trying to build trust”.

      I’ll have to market that along with my +5 Hat of Patience.

      • kshannon617 Says:

        I’d wear that! Although to be fair, people have been great so far. 🙂

  4. Jon Greenberg: “Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism” | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] I am constantly reminded how important it is to focus on building relationships. What does that mean? If you want to help make the world a better place, that’s great, but the only way you can do that is by getting to know what other people really want and need. Otherwise you fall into the trap of “helping” other people your own way, and it may not be helpful at all. It might even be counter-productive. (recall Ernesto Sirolli’s “Shut up and listen” TED talk – long blog post here) […]

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