Collective Mind Community Conversation
by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.
In September 2022, Collective Mind hosted a Community Conversation about engaging local networks. The session welcomed Gillian Perera, Coordinator of Grassroots Networks at Openly Connected (C3) a community development strategy organization that leverages the power of connected communities to create a more equitable society; Cassie Harter, Network Manager for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, a local impact network funded by Arcora Foundation focused on improving access to oral health; and Kennedy Miruka, Director of Alumni Relations at Future First Kenya which champions and mobilizes alumni engagement in Kenyan schools, learning institutions, and organizations. Each panelist shared their unique experiences and perspectives of managing and working at the local level in their networks.
Highlights from the conversation
In many ways, the experience of local networks — networks that operate at the strategic level of a specific geographic unit — parallels that of other networks models. They face challenges related to power, accountability, and lack of engagement that can, at times, hinder the network’s ability to consistently and effectively harness collective action. Yet, a unique aspect of a localized approach is the ability to more directly tap into local experience and leadership and create meaningful and trusting relationships, which can thereby have a positive influence on what and how things flow throughout the network.
One of the main advantages of a localized approach is its ability to foster participation directly by the communities affected by the issue at hand, potentially attracting a more diverse and representative member base. This may contribute to making those members feel more connected to the work and its results, as they are often the direct beneficiaries of the network’s efforts. In a sector where member engagement is a consistently common challenge, this can be an important and strategic value-add. At the same time, the horizontal, and at times, informal nature of network leadership can be an unfamiliar concept for some working at the local level, adding a barrier to them staying motivated and engaged. It may even contribute to a sense of disparity they may already be facing in their communities.
For local networks, cultivating safe, respectful, and equitable spaces for members to feel heard is especially important. This can be particularly relevant in the midst of a local network’s experience during a crisis, as was a common issue mentioned by the panelists’ local networks during the pandemic. At any time, creating such spaces and complementing them with consistent communication are essential elements of engaging local networks.
It can also be difficult for local network coordinators to find the right balance between providing meaningful levels of support to spur or maintain active engagement and respecting the time that local network actors need to implement the work. To address this, network managers can look for ways to honor the time and energy of local network actors and reduce their barriers to participation, for example, by offering reimbursements for expenses or providing honorariums for their time. Or, as suggested during the conversation, another approach could be to provide training and tools to local network stakeholders to help them communicate, convene, and take action on their own.
A key takeaway shared by all three panelists was that the power of and investment in building trust cannot be overstated. In situations where accountability and power dynamics are active issues within the network, building trusting relationships amongst and with local actors and community leaders is essential to the functioning of the network as well as the culture the network wants to uphold. It has the potential to open up multi-pathway, power-neutral communication channels that can help motivate and sustain engagement, build trust in the network manager’s ability to guide structures and processes, and build trust in the local capacity to take on additional responsibilities and leadership to move the network forward.
One way of building that trust is through open, authentic, clear, and equitable communication. An example highlighted was to rely more explicitly on the local membership to provide answers to questions that may arise from the network instead of having the network management provide the answers. The role of the management can instead be as a communication intermediary. Pulling directly from the members can lend authenticity to the communication going out to the network, share in the accountability, and also continue to breed trust. Another way to build trust is for network managers to be accountable to all members at equal levels, regardless of the resources the individual members are able to contribute to the network.
Finally, the idea that local networks, especially those operating at the grassroots level, can often possess vulnerability, transparency, and humility unique to their way of operating, can be seen as an asset. It can lend itself to an authenticity that contributes to many of the aspects of trust-building discussed above.
Miss the session? View the recording here and check out the resources provided by our co-host!
Thank you again to our panelists, Gillian Perera, Cassie Harter, and Kennedy Miruka!
Have your own experiences with local networks? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Or email Seema at email@example.com to co-host an upcoming session with us.