Saturday, October 25, 2008

Integrating New Blood

Yesterday, at the opening session of the Fellowship for Intentional Community's three-day fall organizational meetings (a semi-annual event being held this time at Dancing Rabbit), a regular member of our circle brought up the tender topic of why we aren't attracting more people to the organization—especially younger people. After getting involved with FIC in a regular way in 2002, she reported, with tears in her eyes, that she didn't feel there was room for the passion she had for regional networking, and that she didn't feel accepted by the old guard of the organization. Today she's questioning whether to continue her involvement, despite her longstanding interest in community organizing.

It was a tender moment. All the more so in that it's a conversation we've had in some version many times in FIC's 22 years, and is something we've been actively working on. All groups need new new blood, and yet it's exhausting to conduct every meeting as if there is no history, or no prior decisions to build on. So how to navigate this tricky dynamic?

Here are some of the tough questions we (and any longstanding organization) must wrestle with:
o What is the appropriate amount of opening for long-term members to offer newcomers, that allows the fresh energy and ideas some room to percolate, while respecting that there may be a deep investment in creating what already exists? In particular, what is the guideline for when to reconsider old topics (things for which the newcomers have enthusiasm yet no sense of the organizational history, and which the old-timers have already gummed to death)?

o Just as for the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the newcomer tends to be the last person to recognize their acceptance into the group. What, if anything, can be done to shorten this gestation period? I think the key here is for the established folks to understand what the new person recognizes as markers of acceptance; offering what you want
(everyone's default tendency) may not translate for the newcomer, who may wait for years for what they consider to be the key to the executive washroom.

o How much guidance/mentoring is appropriate for established members to offer new folks? If done too much, it may come across as micro-managing or mistrust. if done too little, it may be perceived as callousness, or an unwillingness to share power. It's a gauntlet, and the answer to this tends to be person specific.

In general, the naive dream is that the new blood will simply continue the programs and directions already established, honoring what has gone before through emulation. In fact, it rarely works this way. New people bring new ideas and different styles, and their excitement is generally not for maintenance or the status quo; they are jazzed about new ventures and alterations to existing programs that they perceive as enhancements, and provides them with a platform to strut their stuff.

Viewed with this understanding, embracing new blood requires some amount of letting go, and a willingness to see your work transformed under the management and implementation of the new. Wishing them only to be a younger you is the road to disappointment, and leads to no new faces in the room.

The woman I mentioned at the outset was afraid to bring this topic up, for fear that the long-term people would feel trashed. While that didn't happen (whew), it remains to be seen what relief she gets from having named the hard thing, and the extent to which we'll respond in such a way that she'll feel more accepted and more encouraged to align her FIC commitments with her passions.

While I doubt that FIC has any magic beans for integrating new blood, I know that if we can't talk about it openly, we'll die.

1 comment:

MoonRaven said...

As usual, you lay out the dilemmas so clearly, Laird. As someone who has been involved with communities and co-op houses for a while, I've seen this happen again and again. People who been involved a while want the new energy, but they also want what they've had--they don't want to see their home changing again and again. The newcomers want to make the place theirs--to remake it so it is comfortable for them and more in line with their values and ideals. The tensions are predictable but no less anguishing for all that. How to live with perpetual change vs how to feel part of things--like this place is yours, too... It's not easy, I can tell you--especially as I have been on both sides...