OpenNews

What it takes to be in community

by Erika Owens

one person listening in focus with a crowd behind

Events like this one from Denver are an important part of how we build and sustain connections. (photo/Alyson McClaran for Colorado Media Project)

This week the Online News Association will give the second ONA Community Award to the admins of the JOC Slack. I received the first such award and am honored to share company with this team of devoted community leaders. This award is an opportunity to reflect: What does it take to be in community with each other?

There is no “building community”: build structures for community

To start, I can dispel one myth. There’s no such thing as “building community.” It’s a common shorthand for describing community work, but it obscures what that work actually is. That work is all about creating structures, systems, spaces, ways for a community that already exists to get to know one another. It means creating pathways for people to deepen connection with each other, to build trust, to invest in one another, and to make decisions about how they would like the group to continue to evolve.

It’s organizing work, and it has many forms. The structure can be flexible or firm, existing for a moment or for decades. For the JOC Slack, there’s the obvious Slack space itself, and within that there’s room for channels and DMs and subgroups and in-person parties and potlucks and conference sessions. The admins ensure the continued development of the space. For me and for OpenNews, there hasn’t been a single specific platform, instead I’ve sought out ways to connect networks and through OpenNews, we’ve created a range of supports for these networks.

There is no either/or: create new spaces and work within existing institutions

One of the things I love most about community work is how it is all about intersections of networks. Networks thrive when we make space and celebrate the connections between the different aspects of our lives. For me, being a part of donor organizing in Philadelphia has taught me about organizing and informed work and program design at OpenNews, where we constantly look for ways to connect folks with existing organizations and never reinvent the wheel.

I see this same cross pollination throughout the community efforts and, really, movement-building happening in journalism. People are revitalizing unions and internal efforts for change in their organizations, people are looking at other disciplines to reframe our understanding of journalism and working from research on how power operates in communities and our obligations as journalists. We have such a rich history to draw from, and to adapt and reimagine as necessary, too.

With the JOC Slack, the admins created a space that did not exist before. At the same time, each of those admins is also leading efforts within long-standing institutions: on the local boards of AAJA, NABJ, NAHJ; leading up internal efforts within their organizations and external efforts under the umbrella of other organizations; helping plan ONA and SRCCON. Being in community means finding the places that give you sustenance, whether that be one spot or finding the constellation of spaces that support all of you.

There is no magic: honor and invest in the time it takes

The results of this community work can be nothing short of transformative. Both the JOC Slack and OpenNews have numerous testimonials about how our work has been critical to helping journalists stay in the field, especially journalists of color and from other marginalized groups. We know this work is important, and yet aside from the ONA Community Award, it is rarely acknowledged. The JOC Slack admins are all volunteers. If we as an industry care about the future, about keeping incredible journalists in journalism, in being able to build from their expertise and not re-learn institutional memory every two years, we have to invest in this work.

We know that community members are already invested. During a SRCCON session earlier this year, participants asked for more ways to help OpenNews and shared how much they valued being asked! Part of moving away from the “building community” framework means understanding that communities are interdependent: We find ways to show up and support each other. I’m tremendously privileged to have it be my full-time job to plan and design more and more of those supports.

Collectively, we need to find ways to make sure more of this work is sustained, especially by the companies and systems that are already benefitting from the labor and care it takes—mostly done unpaid by journalists of color—to reshape our relationships with communities and support the people who cover them.

Bringing visibility to this work helps make these networks of support more accessible and transparent too. Instead of a small number of people being able to call their well-positioned parent’s friend for advice, we’re building larger, broader networks of advice and support that anyone can have access to.

There is space to learn, support, and connect

If you want to know more about how these community efforts have taken shape, join me and Lam, Sisi, Lo, and Julia from the JOC Slack at 3:30pm on Friday at ONA.

In addition, you can bet there are so many more opportunities for support including:

  • Peer data review - we’re just launching this experiment to give a little more structure to the support we know so many community members offer already, to make it a little easier to know that you can ask for help and to give that support.
  • MozFest House event - we’ll spend October 24 with journalists in London to discuss teams, collaboration, and the interdisciplinary perspectives that help us to work well in journalism and tech and what we need to create cultures that are welcoming to all perspectives
  • SRCCON:LEAD - how does journalism leadership need to operate differently to better support our teams and create the journalism our commnities need? On November 19-20 in Philly we’ll figure out ways we can support that change making.
  • SRCCON:PRODUCT - this will be the first conference by, for, and about product and news, which will also help envision what kind of community structure would support this growing group in journalism. It’ll also be in Philly on February 8.
  • SRCCON 2020 - our biggest annual opportunity to vent, compare notes, recharge, and plan for the future of journalism we want and need. It’ll be back in Minneapolis on July 16-17.

There is space for each of us

I was asked recently what motivates me in this work. I still don’t know the best way to put it, but basically, I want to help people feel less alone. I’ve been a part of so many communities, really thoughtful, intentional ones even!, where I just always felt apart from the group. I don’t really know where I belong. I hear from a lot of people who feel the same way. It’s probably a lifelong process to find that place of belonging, but my purpose in this work is to smooth that path for as many people as I can. I hope that we can all find at least moments of belonging as we work to make the world what we want it to be: a safe and welcoming place for all the communities we inhabit.

Thanks to Lam Thuy Vo and Ryan Pitts for feedback on this piece.

posted September 10, 2019 | posted in OpenNews 

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