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Friends and Family: Let’s think twice before using them in our community work

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

At Salsbury Community Society we are learning a lot about our values - one of our values is Friendship “We companion one another, nudging each other toward greater trust and openness”.

I’ve found this value particularly challenging to navigate and lead others in. In some ways, I like the word ‘kinship’ better as it’s less commonplace and rooted in ‘sharing’ but maybe I’m just trading a bad apple for a slightly less bad apple. In any case, here are a few ideas of why these words have been difficult for me.

“‘We're like a family here' ' is often used by (white) people who are being paid to help - attempting to communicate mutuality even when it’s not there. Using ‘friends’ to describe a group of people - again attempts to neutralize relationships and carries a ‘we’re all in this together’ sentiment. But just as there can be power-imbalances in actual friendships and families, so too are their certain decision making powers given to some and not others in our communities.

So, how can we reach or find ‘friendship’ within such a power imbalance system like housing operations? Or can we? I’m not sure, but we’re trying. I think it matters how we define friendship and I like the explanation SCS provides of ‘nudging each other toward greater trust and openness’. I can work on that.

One way we can work on trust and openness is by noticing and naming power imbalances and identifying when I can have soft conversations - especially when I want to have hard conversations. This is a learned skill (and I’m a slow learner). Over the years, I’ve come to understand that I can approach tenants and my colleagues with an intentional care and respect (which is soft) - the same way that I would approach a friend (knowing full well that we may not actually BE friends).

Learning to say

  • I’d love to help, but I can’t right now.

  • I can see this is really troubling for you - I’m so sorry. Who can you talk to about this?

And then taking the time to acknowledge that I care about people’s well-being and not just their rent (tenant) or productivity (staff):

  • What’s on your mind these days?

  • I’ve missed seeing you - how has life been the last few weeks?

  • I love that you live here! Thank you for watering those plants and making this space feel so welcoming.

Organizational values (like friendship) help to inspire and direct who and where organizations want to be. But as James Clear aptly puts “we rarely rise to our goals (or values); rather we fall to our systems”. If our systems reflect an ‘us and them’ reality with little imagination for collaboration - it’s going to be impossible for friendship to grow between staff and tenants. And if it does happen it will take (tons of) time and (hundreds of) repetitive small acts of building trust and demonstrating openness.

In the spirit of openness - let me get personal for a moment…

I live in a 3-level house in so-called “East Vancouver”. My husband and I were able to purchase the house several years ago (with the help and generosity of others). On good days, we try to live lightly and hospitably; sharing food and life as well as providing affordable rents (1 suite up and 1 suite down). Over the years we’ve made home with 7 adult housemates, 3 kids, various house guests, 3 cats and a fish. As I’ve been learning and working at Co:here on how to cultivate connection in community - I’ve had a lot of real life homework to draw upon.

I’ve been told I’m a kind-of-‘glue-person’ in our house. I love an organized calendar and slip into a ‘house-mom’ role a little too easily: managing various house-projects and meal schedules. At times, when I’m not grounded, I find myself likened to an over-tired mother bird protecting her nest of eggs: checking in to see how folks are doing emotionally, if they got my email and whether they’ll be home for dinner (Ugh - this is embarrassing to write). Sometimes, I forget that I’m not the ‘house mom’ and I’m definitely NOT my housemates’ mom. I do have an important role to play - provide housing, demonstrate openness and build trust from an authentic place. One thing that's helped me on that front is realizing the power I have and the connection we build when we listen to one another.

Listening might be the most healing gift we can give each other in our community.

It’s also one of the hardest things to do well. Especially for those of us trying to do all the listening. The love I experience when my housemate listens deeply to me has been transformational. It’s also hard to make time for, especially with kiddos running around, shifting schedules and pandemic fatigue.

As Margaret Wheatley puts it “listening creates relationships. And we know from science that everything takes form from relationships…subatomic particles, sharing energy, or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life nothing lives alone”.

Given this reality - the way we speak about our interconnectedness and interdependence matters and should be given our deep consideration. Someone once shared with me their confusion when neighbors he was close to, and who called each other ‘family,’ made the difficult decision to move far away. The reason it was so difficult for this person was that he was informed after their decision was made - there wasn’t a conversation or consultation. For him, it was a complete shock. He told me “if they hadn’t called me ‘family’, it would have been easier to say goodbye”.

When we use words like ‘family’ or ‘friends’ it comes with expectations attached. It’s not a label we can place on another person - it’s a mutual experience.

What do you think?

What words do you use to describe the people you work with and for?

Would love hear from you:

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