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June 2, 2008

Self-sustaining communities

Had been following a recent thread on Tango-L on community building with a lot of interest. I was particularly impressed with the comments made by Sean of the Pittsburgh Argentine Tango Society, who made a number of telling observations.

I will try to paraphrase some of the discussions below.

Firstly, it is fair to say that established communities are more or less self-sustaining, which in turn suggests that there are no essential members. However, as many of us is well aware, established communities don’t spontaneously appear. Communities need to be started by someone, and those pioneers deserve credit for that. As a community grows, some people become the essential, sustaining members. Unfortunately, those same members often end up being the very people who arrest the growth of the community when it is on the verge of becoming self-sustaining. They aren’t prepared to become mere “mortal” and therefore nonessential members. In other words, they don’t want to give up their power.

To illustrate, Sean and his partner right from the start acted to marginalize their own importance, who went on to mention that their most successful strategy for community building was to foster their own competition by:

  • Helping to start tango clubs at two local universities, and then leaving the operations on their own.
  • Promoting everyone’s events in a weekly email newsletter.
  • Inviting all of the competing teachers in Pittsburgh to take turns teaching the class before their weekly milonga. This apparently gave every student a chance to meet all of the other teachers.

Finally, some tough questions from Sean (which I whole-heartedly agree) for all the self-proclaimed community leaders:

  • Are you building a self sustaining community (one that doesn’t need you)?
  • Are you building a little tango fiefdom, totally dependent on you, so that you can play petty tango tyrant?
  • Or are you just a tango merchant, building a captive customer base for your personal profiteering?

My comment: While this approach may not be the only or even the best and there will be skeptics, but from my personal involvement for the past two years in a Tango studio as a venue to foster commaraderie in our community – at a time when there was no fixed venue devoted to Tango, I might add – I can definitely see the merits of an approach that tries to minimise conflicts that arise as a community grows. Naturally the process can be accelerated if so-called community leaders are more willing to give up their power.

Some food for thought.

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