I am lucky to call myself a member of many communities, but my favorite is a small group of #SApros with whom I crossed paths as a new professional. We differ across many aspects of identity: gender, race, religion, & home state, but are all committed to the holistic development of our students and the continual improvement of best practices. We met early in our careers and explored, together, the successes and blunders that come with your first years in the field. Those initial experiences blossomed into the kind of authentic relationships where we can be truly vulnerable, especially during professional disagreements. No matter the topic of discussion, I feel always respected in their company. That feeling of mutual respect inspired my Final Thought on the August 14th #sachat: “A community works when all members feel valued and heard. We don’t have to agree, but we all deserve a place at the table.”
One year, we sat in a departmental training on balance. I was a strong advocate for my version of balance, notorious for my delay in purchasing a smartphone and known to take vacations with zero electronic devices in tow. Conversations ranged from department expectations to generational differences to multitasking. I found the discussions thought-provoking, but it was difficult to accept that being connected to work email around the clock could be a kind of balance. In the days that followed, I reopened the conversation within my smaller community. I am quite familiar with being the voice of unpopular opinions, and was grateful for the space to have meaningful, unfiltered dialogue.
Because this community was a safe space for disagreement, I felt comfortable sharing my opinions without trying to please others or attempting to change their minds. In return, my colleagues named the pro’s (and con’s) of their strategies, shared advice they had received from others, and asked follow-up questions to take the conversation beyond specific balance tactics and into the philosophy behind our choices. We found the common theme of wanting to bring our best selves to work each day for our students and colleagues to be far stronger than the specific differences in how we approached the problem.
Creating space for this kind of dialogue can be difficult in online communities. If I have taken years to nurture a relationship through in-person contact and shared experiences, there is a foundation of trust that allows me to naturally take conversations deeper without fear of judgment or misunderstandings. Virtual communities usually lack the history and security found in these types of relationships. One misinterpreted tweet can end a relationship before it even begins. It’s easy to pass judgment on someone else’s post, and often difficult to take the time to meaningfully follow-up with everyone. If we allow some voices to get lost from the table, what do we miss? What perspective is no longer included in the decision making? What value is no longer added to the conversation?
When dissenting opinions are given weight in the community, we can begin to get to the root of the problems we are trying to solve. So how do we intentionally make room for others to “sit” at the virtual table? For me, it’s intentional invitations. One of my favorite parts of each week’s #sachat is following the side conversations that organically develop. When typed with thought and respect, asking someone to expand on a thought tells that individual that they are seen and they are heard. It can be easy to write off others for an opposing perspective shared in 140 characters, but taking the time to ask for clarification allows them to provide context. Oftentimes this ends up highlighting our similarities over our differences.
The ability to authentically voice our opinions, especially differing ones, is the key to true community. Too often I have observed groups where certain voices aim to drown out others; to take away their seat at the table. I enjoy finding solidarity among those who share my interests and passions, but often find the most fulfillment with those willing to respectfully disagree and challenge me to broaden my perspective. I hope to remain in spaces where all voices continue to be given weight so that I can continuing learning from the experiences of others. I feel the strongest sense of community when we can use our narratives to enhance one another’s experiences and approach problems with new insights. And maybe someday I’ll give syncing my work email a try.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Josie Ahlquist on Digital Identity, Social Media & Leadership