Community Circles

— some thoughts for organisers and networkers

by vivian Hutchinson

March 2021 7 min read download as PDF

notes written for a special meeting of Community Circle organisers
held at the New Plymouth District Council Chambers on 26th March 2021


THESE COMMUNITY CIRCLES have not been just events for me.

They have been part of a mission I have been on for much longer than the ten years they have been operating.

That mission has been about fostering more active citizenship and generous engagement in our communities, especially as we face some major issues affecting the wellbeing of our place.

This mission has encompassed many things for me over the last decade ... including establishing the Masterclasses for Active Citizenship that many of you have been on, and also the Action Incubators which have fostered new community projects.

The Community Circles here have tried to achieve both a community and a civic purpose:

Invite the active citizens of our district to meet on a regular basis and get to know each other better.
Talk about what we can and are doing to make a difference to the well-being of our people and our place.

I draw a difference and distinction between just booking a room and running an event ... versus regenerating a culture of “community”.

This is because I have essentially been in the business of regeneration and, when it comes to the community circles, this regeneration has been driven by three simple notions.

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The first is a simple idea: These are critical changing times, and we need to talk with one another.

The pandemic might seem like some sort of waiting room where we just sit things out until we get back to normal. But for far too many people in our communities — and for the planet itself — “normal” has not been a very good place for them.

We are on the edge of some historic issues, and it is critical that we have the conversations about what's going on.

The decisions we take together over the next 20 years will affect the quality of life and the well-being of all our descendants over the next 200 years.

We are also now part of the generation which is being called to make some fundamental changes.

The changes will touch all areas of our social, economic and environmental well-being, and our impact on these issues all hinge on our cultural capacity for diverse people to talk with one another well.

So that's the first thing — we need to talk with one another.

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The second distinction is that these circles are driven by a simple insight: We need to change the nature of the conversations we are having with one another.

These circles have been confusing to some people because they are not the usual public meetings that are topic or issue-based, or driven by a crisis, or dominated by the big personalities of invited speakers.

Public meetings such as these have always been useful. But they have often also made us just spectators to our changing times. These meetings very often end with a call for the better management of the symptoms of an issue, rather than opening up the space for us to really pay attention to the fundamentals involved.

And these events seldom invite us to turn to one another and figure out how we are both connected to our problems, and part of the solutions.

So our circles try to do something different. You know they are different because we break up into small groups. It's much harder to be a spectator in a small group.

Some of you have acted as secret facilitators of these small groups, armed with your yellow question cards. You've stepped into the job of encouraging people to listen and question and reflect.

That's the simple insight ... if we want to change the nature of our communities, then we need to change the nature of the conversations we are having with one another.

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Which brings us to the third thing. These circles have a simple vision that all our actions, all our work for the common good, will be different if we are better connected with one another.

Human beings are social creatures who survive and thrive through our connections and our relationships. That's the talent of our species. We don't always remember this in a consumer society with the self-interest that breeds individualism and isolation.

But gatherings such as these circles are cultural instruments of connection.

Doing this every three months is a simple affirmation of our need to be better connected, and to foster the many outcomes that flow from these relationships.

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It's all very well having an idea, or coming to an insight, or seeing the potential in a vision. It is another thing entirely to be able to weave it into our shared sense of culture so that it just becomes the way we do things.

It would be fair enough to say that most of the work of Community Taranaki has been under-resourced, certainly under-funded and sometimes actively marginalised. Our own active citizenship has been carried on the shoulders of volunteers, in our spare time, and with our own money.

This is a working environment that is very familiar to me as a social entrepreneur at a time when the concept of “community” is very low down on the totem pole of the things we most value.

This is another thing that must fundamentally change in the next 20 years. That's because I think that there is an underlying truth in the notion that whatever problems we are facing, they get better if we have a more healthy community. 

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One of the reasons we have held our circles here in this civic space is in recognition that this is one of the few places in our district where the fact of active citizenship is celebrated ... and you can see that in the annual Citizens Awards that are listed on the walls outside of this room.

My own name is there — dating from 2004 when I had already spent 30 years working in this district on fostering positive community action on unemployment and poverty.

That's 17 years ago ... almost two decades in the other direction. And I’m not sure I can look you in the eye and tell you that our collective acts of citizenship in the last 20 years have been the best that we could offer to our times.

But since the occasion of that Citizen's Award for my community initiatives on unemployment, I have come to realise that what is most in danger of becoming unemployed is now the concept of "community" itself.

So these circles have been one of the strategies for the practical regeneration of what we mean by community and how we strengthen the connections between us, and step up to the work that communities need to do.

I look forward to the conversations here today that will shape where this work goes from here.

vivian Hutchinson
March 2021


Notes and Links

vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur based in Taranaki. He is the author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012) and How Communities Awaken — some conversations for active citizens (2021). For more information see www.taranaki.gen.nz/vivian

First published online in March 2021

This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en