Three Supports for Comm Development


Let’s begin with a quote from a friend of mine who is an advocate in the free software movement.  In an upcoming book “Cookbook for Community Outreach” (a collaboratively written text), Deb Nicholson contributes the following sentence:

“Fundamentally, the key to successful community management and outreach is intentional, structured empathetic thinking.”

I fell in love with that sentence immediately, but would modify it to say this:

“The key to successful community management and mission-based organizations is the intentional creation of structures and norms that can bring out the best in people.”

I would consider “the best” in people to be their highest capacity for empathy and appreciation for others’ experiences and perspectives.  Any style of leadership that excludes this capacity will be ineffective at best, and destructive at worst.

Before I introduce the Three Supports, I want to define two important terms: rubric and mission-based.  The word rubric has become popular in the education field over the past decade.  A rubric is both a guide for moving towards  an overarching goal and specific sub-goals and an assessment tool for determining whether the goal and/or subgoals have been reached.

Mission-based means simply that whatever is said and done is based on the mission.  The word mission can mean a lot of things, but a simple definition is that the mission is “the main reason why we are all here outside our own individual interests.”


Where did this rubric come from?

When I was in graduate school, I developed a rubric for assessing the health of a workplace environment.  At the time, I was a public school teacher and the laboratory for this experiment was the school district I was teaching in at the time.  Since my sabbatical in 2012, I’ve been working on a number of projects in which I had the formal authority to completely test this rubric and its values.  I am currently writing an essay about one of these projects.  Though I do not explicitly mention or refer to the Three Supports rubric, the emphasis on building empathetic relationships in a community is explored in the same spirit.

The Masters program where I received much of my training was a dual degree that combined Education and Organizational Change.  The thesis I developed was called “Educational Transformation from the Inside Out” and argued that true change can only come from those within the institution rather than those from the outside.  After re-reading the thesis, I determined that the original nomenclature for the rubric I created for assessing healthy communities (or organizations) needed to be simplified.  For example, Participative Infrastructure was changed to “structures for participation.”

For now, I want to say that in my experience outside the traditional bureaucratic environment, the three supports for community development, as I have defined and practiced them, seem to be spot on.  I am not certain that these principles are easy to apply in large organizations, but they certainly can be applied on smaller scales, such as individual sites, departments, and perhaps, temporary projects.

We can call the Three Supports a model, a rubric, a metric, or a system.  Or we can just call it a tool for guiding us towards creating a “work space” that it is more likely to yield the best possible results for an organization’s mission.

The premise upon which the Three Supports rest is a very simple one.  If you really want your project, organization, community or group endeavor to succeed, you have to believe in and care about people.  In every way possible, you have to create opportunities to build a sense of agency in those you are working with (or who are working for you).

It is beyond the scope of this presentation of the Three Supports to go into the many ways that empathy for your people impacts your bottom line, so I will simply ask you to take my word on the power of the overarching value of empathy in all group endeavors.  At the end of this essay, I include a bibliography as well as links to websites and publications that elucidate the principles of participative democracy and its effect on the health of communities, including workplaces.

1.  Building a Culture of Architects