I am deeply troubled by the fragmenting of our increasingly homogenized communities and the widening of the social boundaries separating different cohorts in many domains, whether of power, wealth, education, culture or otherwise. My dismay, however, is alleviated by a belief in the capacity of conversation to bridge those rifts. That belief received validation at the Neighborhood Table Talk hosted by the AmeriCorps service team at Habitat for Humanity of Omaha.
The Neighborhood Table Talk was about fostering community connection through storytelling exchange. Residents in north Omaha and south Omaha neighborhoods shared personal stories about their neighborhood on a postcard. The AmeriCorps team mailed those postcards to random people in different neighborhoods around the Omaha metro to break down stereotypes and build community. The postcards included an invitation to the Neighborhood Table Talk event and the opportunity to join others in food, conversation and a chance to meet new people.
At the event, a theme of deliberate engagement repeatedly emerged. None manifested deliberate engagement more than pastor Vanessa Ward, who described the courage, vulnerability, empathy and listening that enabled her to create an environment of hope in her neighborhood. Another theme that consistently arose was that of walkable neighborhoods, where opportunities to access daily personal and social needs also facilitated our ability to be accessible to each other.
In reflecting on the Neighborhood Table Talk, I recognized that these themes are not restricted to community building in a social setting. Many of the corporations that I consult with suffer with disintegrating internal cultures, characterized by polarized and narrow-minded attitudes, inadequate capacity for innovation and change, and diminishing employee engagement. They also feature physical environments and policy-driven protocols that do nothing to foster a positive, sustainable corporate community. These businesses could well learn the lessons from the Neighborhood Table Talk and provide the circumstances to encourage deliberate engagement and welcoming accessibility.
In 2009, as we helplessly watched our $750 million general contracting company shrink, job-by-job, body-by-body, friend-by-friend, from an economy we couldn’t control, our CEO challenged us to make a bold change: knock down the inner silos and help each other. Project Management and Marketing were always at odds; necessary evil collaborators for sales success. The time was upon us to work together, to pump up revenue and even dare to establish backlog in a time when there were less than a handful of jobs, important subcontractors were nearly out of business, and general contracting was now a commodity. If you’ve seen the meme where the squabbling, red –eyed, and runny nosed siblings are put into their father’s big t-shirt – both of them inside the one shirt that reads, “our get along shirt,” you’ll understand what Project Management and Marketing were up against. But it worked. It worked through trusting our brains wouldn’t fall out with an open mind. It worked when we listened for the gold and not how to simply reply. It happened with hearing each other’s stories. It happened because we became friends with a shared mission. It all started with deliberate engagement.
That is a fabulous story, Lori. What an astonishing lived experience of building community within a business environment. Thanks for sharing that.
What an interesting way that a corporation could help create a sense of community. I wonder if it would have beneficial impacts, like preventing attrition or reducing sick days. Maybe there would be other measurable benefits, if an innovative corporation chose to develop new measures.
Indeed, Dedrick. There is data that shows some of those outcomes and others. Employee productivity is higher, for example, in what are in fact “conversational” environments even if they are not defined as such. Innovative businesses manifest and encourage conversational situations, as do those with a more robust capacity for change.
I work in a “cubicle corporation.” For the first 2-3 years, I worked on a team that utilized low-wall cubes. Low enough that your head stuck above and you could see and hear all those around you. There were times when that wasn’t great, but those low walls allowed us to become closer. It was a very intimate environment, kind of like a family. Then I moved out to a new team whose cubicle area has high walls, where everyone is boxed out from each other. I have found it to be less desirable, as it is more difficult to collaborate and share ideas quickly. It also creates a separative environment, much like our segregation of Omaha neighborhoods. A culture change for many businesses can be as simple as knocking down the walls, or at least lowering them.
Good point Dusty. I believe that the physical environment that we create for our business spaces requires as much attention, if not more, to their impact on human engagement and shared community.