Home Is Where the Furniture Is
Growing up I moved around every three to five years. The moves were big – kindergarten in eucalyptus-filled Addis Ababa – grade school in kind, gentle and traffic-clogged Bangkok – middle school in Bad Honnef, a provincial town outside of Bonn, Germany – and high school in the chaotic, poetic jumble of Cairo. I started university in Denton, Texas, and then moved to New York, where I finished my bachelor’s. There I spent the last 15 years enjoying the diversity, enduring the struggle, and trying to find myself and understand where I really belong.
This experience of moving between very different places, leaving friends and familiar places behind, has shaped me profoundly. There are many joys and privileges that come with that experience, but also challenges. Finding and redefining my place in those new cities and countries, among my new friends and within the schools and social structures, wasn't always straightforward or easy. It's that experience that led me here – to thinking and writing about community.
It wasn't the abundance of connections, family or familiarity but rather the upheaval, change and often lack of community that made me desire, analyze and feel deeply about what it meant to be part of something. The fact that I didn't belong anywhere naturally or automatically meant I had to find my place. Not only was the world around me changing, but so was I by growing up, learning and trying to make sense of it all. There was always a constant flow of people, leaving and arriving, changing or upsetting the social fabric
People often asked what my favorite place to live was. I never had a good answer. There wasn't one country or city that was simply better than all others. My experience taught me that any place can be your place, can support you and make you feel home, as long as the people around you do the same.
By the same token, places change when the people change. I felt that in high school, when entire friend groups would reshuffle or sometimes dissolve because that one friend who was holding us all together would leave. Place matters, but people make the place.
Once an adult asked my 5-year-old self: "Where is home?" I looked at the adult in surprise and without hesitation said: "Where the furniture is!" It’s a complicated question for me, and to this day that’s still my best answer.
Designing Systems & The Community Canvas
I was always interested in communicating visually, organizing information, building and creating things. I read The Design of Everyday Things in high school – it changed the way I looked at the world. It taught me a lot about implicit communication and how we interact with each other and the objects around us.
Over time I became more interested in interactive and user experience design, which led me to work at The New York Times, then Google and finally with a number of startups. I enjoyed working on innovative projects, immersing myself in a variety of fields and finding solutions to new problems. I wanted to build tools for people, and technology could enable that.
One of the companies I joined, Urtak, was building an app that allowed an audience to speak their mind through a set of questions. It was a community tool, even though back then I didn’t think about it that way. These work experiences made me appreciate the complexities and relationships between information and people. I enjoyed and became good at bringing together disparate ideas, and communicating them in concise and precise ways that would help people take action.
In 2017 my friend Fabian approached me and asked if I wanted to help him design a community building guidebook. He had started a community for young entrepreneurs called Sandbox and wanted to formalize his learnings. I was immediately intrigued as it brought together my experience finding and building community and my expertise in communicating complex sets of information. I also loved that we were building on the ideas of the Business Model Canvas, which I had used often in my startup work.
Our Community Canvas proved to be incredibly relevant and helpful, and was downloaded and shared by over a hundred thousand community builders from around the world. Since its launch, through talks, podcasts, workshops and conversations with many fellow builders, I realized there was still a lot of work to be done: from highlighting different perspectives, showcasing more examples, collecting resources and outlining methods to creating practical guides.
Weaving a Community Fabric
As important as community work is, it can also be an intensely complex endeavour. I wanted to improve on what we created with Community Canvas. I wanted the framework to be more modular, with more worksheets and examples. I also wanted to make these ideas available to a broader audience because community shows up in many places: at work, in our civic life, or when we’re learning or through our hobbies.
They all allow us to grow, promote our physical and mental health, and connect with people who are potentially very different from us but with whom we actually share much in common.
I hope I can reach HR professionals, to put more “human” into human resources, civic leaders to power our local and global governance structures, as well as businesses and startups who are building community-centric products. Above all, I hope to help those who are doing the very important work of passionately bringing people together around their causes and interests.
“Names are portals for love and care. We rarely care for what we cannot name” – Robert Macfarlane
In my design and systems thinking work, I realized how valuable it is to give language to and have a shared language for the work we’re doing. There are many conceptions, ideas and terms around community out there – with this framework I wanted to create a cohesive repository that puts them all into context. It's a collection of ideas, tools and methods assembled from my own experiences and from what others have shared and created. The goal is to give community builders a deeper and broader understanding as well as tools to better manage the dynamics of being and doing together.
I hope this has shed some light onto my perspective, what angle I’m approaching this from and what my intentions are.