How to Connect for a Deeper CommunityIf you have worked in more than one organization, then you know the same clowns will show up.
Community comes before competition in the dictionary and should in our lives as well,” said Dr. Anita Pankake, professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas Pan American, speaking at the Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln NE in October.
Many barriers get in the way of connecting in community. One is the impulse and pressure to compete. Competition has its place; the problem comes when we place it ahead of integrity, relationship and the good of the community. Competition puts the focus on self instead of a larger purpose, Pankake said.
“Competition is good until it keeps us from doing our best,” she said. The Super Bowl is an important cultural phenomenon that exists to determine which team is best. But the score doesn’t measure whether the players cheat, bet on themselves or abuse their wives.
Pressure to be the best can do bad things to good people. Pressure for ever-rising student test scores led teachers in Atlanta GA to change student answers on a wide scale, implicating the majority of the city’s public schools including some principals. Students suffered because they didn’t get the extra help that would have been provided in response to low scores. How many other potential cheating scandals have gone unreported?
Competition on campus can push faculty and staff to protect their turf or resist sharing research tips. That isn’t good for the individuals or the school. It’s time to put the horse back in front of the cart and promote community ahead of competition. That may be harder than it sounds.
Simple, not easy
Lots of things are simple: Telling kids to “just say no.” Purchases labeled “some assembly required.” We all know it’s a lot more complicated than that. Declaring something doesn’t make it so.
Stamping out world hunger should be simple enough: Take all of the food in the world and divide it up so that everyone gets enough. But the media often feature stories of power and control that keep food from reaching the starving children and adults who need it.
Connecting with the people around us is another of those things that seems simple. Of course we know we should work together and support each other. Of course we should celebrate each other’s successes. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Communications technology surrounds us; in some ways we’re more connected than ever. We have dozens of ways to connect these days: cell phones, land lines, Internet, email, fax, webcams, text messages, tweets and an array of social networking sites such as Facebook, to mention a few. Some people carry two or three cell phones, each one for access to a different group.
Yet how often does the cheery, insistent ringtone of a cell phone interrupt our conversation with the person standing in front of us? How often have you seen a mom pushing a baby stroller and talking not to her baby but to someone on her phone?
Have you watched people walking together or seated in a restaurant, one on a cell phone while the other is left alone? Pankake’s saddest example was watching a couple in a car, each talking on their own cell phone as they drove away.
It seems the more ways we have to connect, the more ways we are growing apart. Bonnie Jensen wrote in A Lifetime of Girlfriends that she’s glad there’s no limit on the number of friends we can welcome into our lives. Our hearts were created with the capacity to have as many friends as we want.
Risk and trust
“Trust is a must, but that’s risky at best,” Pankake said. We all know somebody we trusted who did something to violate that trust. They can do the next hundred things right, but we’ll still never quite trust them again in the same way.
Have you ever played those games where you fall backward and trust the group to catch you? It’s harder than it sounds not to put a foot back reflexively to catch yourself.
Sure, let’s trust each other, but how about you go first? A student in one of her classes nearly 10 years ago showed her James Patrick Kinney’s poem “The Cold Within.” Six humans trapped in bitter cold watch their fire go out while each refuses to be the first to add her or his last piece of wood to the fire.
Because of differences in race, wealth or religion, they decline to help each other and as a result, they all freeze to death. The poem concludes, “They did not die from the cold without / They died from cold within.”
Selfishness, bigotry, sure, but the poem is also about unwillingness to take the risk to trust. If one had put her stick on first, she might have been the only one . . . or the others might have followed her lead and all survived.
Trust involves risk, and risk means sometimes you’ll lose. But if you refuse to take the risk of trusting, you’ll lose every time.
It’s your choice. You can choose to trust the college community, the board, the staff and the faculty, or you can say you won’t trust them until they prove themselves. Somebody has to go first or the cold within will freeze us all.
“So, I admonish each of us to agree that we do need more trust—and each and every one of us will go first,” she said. Proceed as though all will be well. Sometimes you’ll lose but it beats the alternative.
Different circus, same clowns
In the western miniseries Lonesome Dove, the character played by Robert Duvall tells a woman who thinks everything will be all right if she can just move to San Francisco, “If you are not happy where you are, you probably won’t be happy where you are going.”
That’s the observation summed up in the expression, “Different circus, same clowns.” Early in Pankake’s career, when she found herself working with difficult people her first impulse was to move somewhere new. But shortly after she arrived in the new place, there were the same characters all over again!
“If you have worked in more than one organization, then you know the same clowns will show up,” she said. No matter what community you’re in, the characters are likely the same. In fact, the characters in the next place may be worse than the ones you left.
So what can you do about the clowns on your campus? First, see if you’re part of the problem. If you are, then fix it.
Next, cool it. Remember that in the greater scheme of things, what’s going on right here and now probably doesn’t make much difference.
Finally, collect the stories. Persevere and you’ll have the best stories to share with your friends. Learning to laugh can carry you a long way.
While men tend to respond to stress with “fight or flight,” women more frequently “tend and befriend.” For women, connection in community appears to come more naturally than competition when the going gets rough.
Research continues as to how much this is an effect of social conditioning and how much it’s grounded in biology. There appear to be gender differences in processing of oxytocin, a hormone involved in mammal bonding. Systems that evolved to help offspring survive lead women today to gather around the kitchen table or the coffee machine in situations where men are more likely to compete or withdraw.
Today the threat is rarely a literal tiger, and the “tend and befriend” response is usually most helpful for everyone involved, regardless of gender. Women aren’t free of the impulse for flight, whether by changing jobs or moving to San Francisco. But unlike tigers, most of our demons move with us or are waiting for us in the place we go. We conquer them best by learning to trust and building relationships right where we are.
Though she titled her talk “Connecting with Our World, Our Work and Each Other,” she said the list was in the wrong order. Start with home and then office before you try to encompass the world. The phrase “Think globally, act locally” applies not just to ecological or social justice issues but to building community through human connections.
Change is said to result from “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.” Your sphere or context is the key. Do you say you want more contact with your family? Make the call. Is there someone you’d like to know better? Suggest getting together for lunch.
Is it necessary to take a risk? Absolutely! It may or may not work out. Your outreach may be rebuffed. But someone needs to risk throwing her stick on the fire so the whole group won’t freeze in the cold. Take a deep breath and go first.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2011, November). How to Connect for a Deeper Community. Women in Higher Education, 20(11), p. 26-27.