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On Building Community: Lessons from Minerva Clients

By Sara Veltkamp (As originally posted on the Minerva Strategies blog)--


At Minerva, people hire us to help them solve communications challenges. Together, we wrestle with how to tell their story in a way that resonates with their audiences or figure out which platforms will reach and move people to action. But sometimes, if we’re lucky, our clients help us, too.


I’m not going to mince words: I’ve struggled during the pandemic. While I am grateful that I am healthy, haven’t lost loved ones, and have a good, steady job and a safe place to live, seeing people close-up and in-person shouldn’t feel like a special occasion—or a risk. We are all meant to exist within a rich tapestry of relationships, not just with a few people you see occasionally from a safe distance or over a screen. As a result of these conditions, I have felt more alone this past year than I have ever thought possible.


What I’ve learned during the pandemic is that community is not something I can continue to assume will “just happen.” Building a community of people you want to live with—and more importantly, rely on when things get hard—takes intention.


Fortunately for me, two of Minerva’s clients have helped me figure out my next steps.


Great Lakes Urban is a nonprofit organization based in Michigan with the goal of connecting people to build stronger neighborhoods. Drawing from a strengths-based framework, they look at the wealth of resources in a neighborhood and help people take advantage of the gifts and talents they have to build the communities they want to live in.


Through our partnership with Great Lakes Urban to level-up their communications platforms, we supported an online event where two neighborhood residents and a community police officer talked about the changes they’ve seen and been a part of in the neighborhood of Holland, Michigan. Sergeant John Weatherwax described these efforts succinctly, “the residents have turned these neighborhoods into communities.”


In preparation for this event, I spent time with the panelists to make sure they felt comfortable and confident. Toward the end of this prep call, we started talking about life in a pandemic, and I mentioned how challenging it has been to find and build community. Great Lakes Urban Board Member Jay Van Groningen asked me point-blank: “How many of your neighbors’ names do you know?” I sheepishly made excuses like “I’m new to the building” and “I moved here during the pandemic.” These things are true, but they are excuses, nonetheless. Several neighbors have attempted to start conversations with me, and our building has held COVID-friendly outdoor events. The truth is that I have not prioritized building community in this new space. Jay was simply pointing that out—and offering a simple path to start.


In 2019, Minerva Strategies worked for six months in partnership with Sara Horowitz—labor lawyer, founder of the Freelancers Union, and former MacArthur Genius Award winner—as she attempted to build a for-profit insurance company that sold portable benefits for freelancers. While the venture, called Trupo, did not survive the pandemic, Sara Horowitz recently released a book—Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up.


In Mutualism, Sara describes the long history of mutualist organizations that, like the neighborhood connecting model of Great Lakes Urban, were able to solve the challenges by bringing their resources and power together. Unions, churches, mutual aid groups, and co-ops of all types have built an entire sector of the economy through interconnection and relying on each other. While the implications of Mutualism are broader than my personal investment in building my own community, reading Sara’s book has convinced me that this is where the movement to reinstate mutualist values in our society starts, with our recognition that we need each other.


Building a community takes work and time, and I don’t magically have a robust support system now. What I can say is that I am looking at everyone in my life with fresh eyes and engaging with a sense of possibility and hope. It’s not a solution, but it’s a good start.


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