Building Community to Take You That Extra Mile

I first experienced the power of community in cultivating my resilience 20 years ago when I was training for my first marathon. I was not a runner, but I had just moved to Austin, TX and wanted to explore my new home and meet people so taking up running seemed like the perfect solution. I joined Team in Training, an organization that raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society while providing running coaches and training for its participants.

Every weekend for about six months started the same way: with a very early morning alarm because we needed to beat the summer Texas heat. The first time that alarm went off all I could think was, What have I gotten myself into??

Every weekend I got up and showed up because the answer to What have I gotten myself into? became clear: A community. I belonged. I was a part of something larger than myself. We shared a common goal and we shared many laughs. Here are a few more ways my community took care of me so that I could go that extra (26.2!) mile:

  • When we all met at the trailhead on Town Lake in Austin, TX, the local running company set up tables with huge jugs of water and Gatorade available for anyone who happened to be out on the trail that day.
  • Our Team in Training leaders thoughtfully divided us up into smaller groups by pace so we always had people by our side and wouldn’t get left behind.
  • Our coaches ran with us, checking in to see how our week went and offering support and encouragement as the miles increased.
  • There were aid stations with orange slices, pretzels, chocolate, and peanut butter…anything we would need to make it through our long training runs.
  • Our training schedule was designed to support a successful experience with this race.

In the moment, these small, but intentional, actions resulted in my feeling taken care of on so many different levels—physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.

I relied on this community during the six months of training and then again on race day as I continued to put one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles.

I learned a lot about myself and my resilience during that race as well as during the additional three marathons I ran after this one. I learned that I am a lot stronger than I think I am. I learned that the present moment is really the only moment that matters. I learned the power of a deep, full breath. And one of my biggest learnings is that in order to keep pushing on and thriving, we need to be part of a supportive community. This lesson has also been reinforced for me each and every year of my 23 years in education.

For too many of our students, successfully completing school is an uphill battle. For students of color, and those from under-resourced communities, the systems that seemingly are in place to support them are themselves additional barriers. Rather than propel students to new heights, these systems replicate and reinforce social hierarchies. If we are committed to schools where every student succeeds, our schools need to be healthy places of community where students, staff, and parents feel taken care of physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.

So how do we go about building those healthy places of community in our schools?

First and foremost, we need to be intentional. I think back to all that went into the community building by my Team in Training coaches from the well-supported training runs to the well-planned training program. Our coaches made sure that each week we added on miles to build our endurance. Every few weeks we had “drop back” weeks where we lowered our mileage to rest our legs. We had weeks scheduled to run races to get a sense of what raceday feels like. Our coaches also built in cross training days so we wouldn’t overuse our muscles. They knew the exact pieces that were needed to develop a highly effective running community.

When I think about the effective communities we need to build in our schools, I also know that there are many pieces that are essential to the building process. This is why I love the approach that Elena Aguilar shares in Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. She talks about the need to build thriving communities and shares her strategies in a way that is actionable, but that also honors the depths and challenges of building communities. The following diagram and explanation (downloadable by clicking here) breaks down the pieces so you know exactly what is necessary to ensure every member of your community can successfully make it to the finish line.

4 Ways to Build a Healthy Community (adapted from Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators)

  1. Refine Communication: Think about the questions you ask and the ways you listen. We know listening is at the center of healthy social relationships, so practice by exploring expansive ways of listening. We often listen with judgement or to fix a problem. We need alternate ways of listening. Try these expansive lenses and notice how it gets to the heart of the work, your way of being.
  2. Learn from Body Language: Nonverbal communication may say more than the words that come out of our mouths. As we build community, we need to examine our own nonverbal expressions and consider how we interpret those of others. Love this TedTalk that explores the power of our body language.
  3. Focus on Cultural Competence: Cultural competence is the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures and belief systems different from one’s on. Developing your own cultural competence is essential as we look to build communities that will help us thrive. This On Being podcast, The Call to Community in a Changed World, explains how “No challenge before us is more important—and more potentially life-giving—than that we come to see and know our fellow citizens, our neighbors, who have become strangers.” And with our current political climate, developing our cultural competence is essential to building the communities that we need to create resilient, thriving school communities.
  4. Address Conflict: Strive for healthy conflict where there is an exchange of ideas, a sincere asking of questions, and a genuine willingness on everyone’s part to listen and learn. When unhealthy conflict arises, try these practical strategies for addressing that conflict. And try planning proactively for conflict so you aren’t caught off guard. If you haven’t done so already, read Chapter 12 of The Art of Coaching Teams that it dedicated to conflict.

Tap into our desire to belong, and think about ways to build community within your school or organization. If you need some ideas, check out 66 Ways to Build Community.Before I started my training, running a full marathon seemed daunting to the point of impossibility. But day by day, step by step, with a clear goal and a plan to get me there, the once impossible became possible. That’s my vision for education. With a clear goal of educational justice for all kids and the plans, supports, and commitment to the long haul in place, we can achieve what right now can feel impossible.