Jul 18, 2023 34 min read

Preparing the Community Soil

Community members preparing the soil of a community garden project

Episode 50, 59 min listen

Real and lasting community change is about broad community engagement, commitment, and change. That doesn’t just happen. It has to be cultivated. Join us in this episode as our co-hosts, Emma Winiski and Ame Sanders, talk about the practice we call GroundWork. It’s about reaching across the community and preparing the community soil for the seeds of equity and inclusion to germinate, take root, and grow. This is the third episode in the series: The Practice of Building a More Inclusive Community.


Listen on Apple Podcasts or Listen on Spotify


-General References

Learn more about Asset-Based Community Development from my discussion with De'Amon Harges in Episode 15, Building a Practice of Community Abundance.

Bookshop.org link to When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation, by John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach.

-References for Pillar One - Community Learning

Post: The Lasting Power of a Simple Ah-Ha Moment

Episode 12, Davelyn Hill, Creating Community Conversations.

Episode 45, Janeen Bryant, Building Community in Charlotte, NC

Episode 46, Vicki Meath, Economic Justice in Western North Carolina

Post: Poverty Simulation

Episode 24, Kristy Kumar, Finding Joy in Working Toward Equity

Episode 25 , Rachel McBride, Katie Spears Warner, Denise Webb, Empowering Youth for Equity

Episode 33, Gery Paredes Vásquez, Values-Driven Racial Justice with the YWCA

-References for Pillar Two - Preparing the Hearts

Episode 5, Monique Davis, Building Community Equity Through Art

Episode 35, Nick Cave & Bob Faust, Community Conversations and Racial Justice Through Art and discussion of AMENDS project.

Bookshop.org link to Lisa Cron's book, Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life

Episode 23, Patrice O'Neill, Not in Our Town

Episode 11, Dr. Feliccia Smith & Ellen Stevenson, Racial Truth and Reconciliation Through Community Remembrance

Episode 4, Dr. Susan Glisson, Equity Warriors-Dr. Susan Glisson

-References for Pillar Three - Shifting the Culture

Paper: Making Waves, a Guide to Cultural Strategy

Paper: Narrative Strategy: The Basics

Episode 8, Kory Wilcoxson, Awaken Compassion in Your Community

Additional resources on social capital at The Institute for Social Capital.

Learn more about john a. powell and the Othering & Belonging Institute

Post: Both, And..., including discussion about Damon Centola's book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen.

-References for Emergence

Post: Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Margaret J. Wheatley

Bookshop.org link to Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown

-Previous Episodes in this Series

Get an introduction to the Practice of Building a More Inclusive Community

Listen to the two practice areas we've covered so far:


Emma Winiski is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, where she worked extensively with city governments to address the opioid overdose epidemic and develop 911 alternative response programs. Previously, she was a Research Analyst in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Emma has been working with Ame at State of Inclusion since 2018 when she was an undergraduate at Furman University.



Ame 00:11

This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better. And we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome.

Hi this is Ame Sanders

Emma 00:37

And, I’m Emma Winiski

We’d like to thank you for joining us for another episode in the series, The Practice of Building an Inclusive Community. In this episode, Ame and I are going to dig a little deeper into the practice we call GroundWork.

-Series Review

First, let’s take stock of what we’ve covered so far in the series…

The first practice we covered was the practice of Self-Work. The practice of Self-Work is all about preparing ourselves for our personal journey toward equity and inclusion.

In that episode, we talked about the concepts of:

  • waking up,
  • listening up,
  • opening up,
  • speaking up and
  • finally, stepping up.

In our last practice episode, we shared information about the practice we call Program Work. There, we learned about communities that have established a team or program to pursue a collection of projects, actions, and initiatives meant to bring about a specific result in their community. Maybe it was to improve education equity, improve economic mobility, eliminate health disparities, or even strengthen resilience.

We gave some general program management tips and techniques--what we called program management 101. We also talked about some of the unique and challenging aspects of equity and inclusion programs.

So today, we’re going to talk about the practice of GroundWork.

Ame, why don’t you kick off this episode with an explanation of what we mean when we talk about GroundWork?

-Definition of GroundWork

Ame 01:59

Sure, Emma.

It’s probably pretty obvious, even to the casual listener, that building a more inclusive and equitable community doesn’t just come from havin a group of people who have done a great job on their own self-work. It doesn’t even come from a community executing a program of change actions and initiatives, no matter how well-run and organized that program might be. Those things are necessary, but this work of building a more inclusive and equitable community requires a whole lot more than that.

Real and lasting community change is about very broad community engagement and with some level of commitment and change across the whole community--even something like a shift in community culture. And, I think we all know that doesn’t just happen. It has to be cultivated. We do this through the practice we call Groundwork.

It’s all about reaching across the community and preparing the community soil for the seeds of equity and inclusion to germinate, take root, and grow.

This means progress in areas like: Individual learning, but also Community learning. It is about motivating more people to move forward with you and be part of the change in your community. To make that happen, we’ve got to move far beyond facts and numbers. We have to reach out and touch the hearts of people all across the community.

It also means building, or re-building, the kind of relationships and community trust that is so necessary for this work of equity and inclusion. That likely means acknowledging and even helping the community to heal from past hurts and traumas.

In our discussion today, we’ll share some of the ways we’ve seen this come to life in communities all across the country. So, you might ask me how you know if your GroundWork practice is making a difference? I think we can tell that our practice of Groundwork is going well when we have increased the breadth of both individual and collective engagement, commitment, and ownership of this work of equity and inclusion.

Emma 04:21

I think it is interesting that so many of the podcast interviews have touched on or were directly related to this practice of Groundwork. It reminds me that there are many different ways you can develop and advance this practice in your own community.

Again, I also really like the word practice when applied to the concept of Groundwork. It really is a practice and one that will resonate, deepen, and expand as a community moves forward.

-3 Pillars of GroundWork

For today’s discussion, we’d like to introduce three main pillars for our practice of Groundwork. We’re going to cover each one of these in a little more detail, but let me put them out here first:

  • So, first of all, we have Community Learning,
  • Second, Preparing Hearts, and
  • The last pillar, Shifting Community Culture.

Ame 05:03

Right. So, Emma, in addition to the three pillars of community learning, preparing hearts, and shifting culture, I’m also going to talk a little bit at the end about the concept of emergence and how that applies across this practice of GroundWork.

Emma, maybe our listeners are thinking to themselves… this Practice of Groundwork is big, complex, and challenging.

Well, from everything we’ve seen and heard in our interviews and our research, they’d be right. It is.

-GroundWork Asks a Lot

What I’ve found is the practice of Groundwork, perhaps more than any other practice, is going to stretch us… and ask a lot of each of us -

  • We’ll be asked to think about how to help and encourage both individual and collective growth to emerge over what’s going to feel like a really long time horizon while also reminding ourselves that change happens along the way in the smallest of moments as we live every day into the community we wish to see.
  • We will be asked to act with a forward-looking focus while still being willing to honestly look back and reckon with our individual and collective past and how it has brought us to where we are.
  • We will want to recognize and celebrate progress while acknowledging it may not be evenly distributed to everyone, and
  • We need to recognize that some of our past mistakes may still hinder us, and
  • Even be willing to acknowledge that despite our best efforts, our community may still fall short for some.

That means that as we are working to co-create an equitable and inclusive community that lifts everybody, we have to be willing to acknowledge that trauma and healing may still be ongoing for so many.

-Leveraging Asset-Based Approach

Emma 07:00

Because this work is big, broad, and reaches all parts of the community, it reminds us of how important it is for us to remember our discussions of asset-based community development as a way of approaching this practice of GroundWork.

This isn’t a task for a few people or even one organization. The more people engaged in this, and the broader the commitment, the better. That’s why in this particular practice, we want to focus on the asset-based approach De’Amon Harges shared with us in his interview. We recommend looking across the community to find who is already doing this work or who’s ready to stand as active partners.

In most communities, there is a lot of need and opportunity in the practice of groundwork. Still, it is so important to prepare the community soil for this work of equity and inclusion.

Ame 07:47

Yeah. The interview with De’Amon is a great example, Emma.

I want to mention here that we have developed a template, maybe a simple kind of approach, for mapping out within a community those organizations and people already involved in this work.

For example, when I did a rough draft of this map in my own hometown of Greenville, I was able to quickly identify over 30 organizations that are already doing some type of Ground Work in my community or who had demonstrated a willingness to partner on the work of equity and inclusion. And I wouldn't suggest you do this by yourself, but even by myself, I was able to identify about 30 organizations, and it included everybody from the Racial Equity and Economic Mobility team that was part of the United Way. And if you've been listening for a while, you may remember that we interviewed Reverend Stacey Mills, who is the director of that initiative. It also included the interfaith justice coalition who we also interviewed. But it also included our fine arts center, which has screened films and hosted events for the community, and even a newer nonprofit organization working on Juneteenth Celebrations like the one we just had. Even a local foundation who has aligned most all of their work around equity, inclusion, and social justice.

And I have to say that seeing that on the page instantly transformed my thinking. I stopped thinking about just the problems and the gaps, or what my community was missing. I even stopped feeling quite so overwhelmed and instead found I had a feeling (as De’Amon talks about) of abundance and gratitude for the community around me. It was actually quite energizing and reminded me that my community was full of so much potential and people and organizations of good intent. It reminded me to recognize and reach out to kindred spirits in the community.

You know, we all know this work is long and challenging. We’ll need to support and lift each other up as we move our communities forward.

-Getting Proximate

Emma 09:57

Yeah, and if I can jump in here, this practice of GroundWork also requires us to get proximate to one another. This doesn’t happen over Zoom or from a distance. It happens up close.

Ame 09:49

Emma, you are so right.

John Lederach and his daughter, Angela Jill Ledarch, in their book, When Blood and Bones Cry Out, talk about healing and reconciliation. They work on healing and reconciliation at a global level in some of the world's most difficult conflict zones. They say healing:

Initiates in shared collective spaces that permit proximity of voices and interaction.

In the next part of this episode, we are going to delve more deeply into each of the three pillars we’ve identified as part of Groundwork. That includes:

  • Pillar One – Community Learning
  • Pillar Two – Touching the Hearts
  • Pillar Three – Shifting the Culture

-Pillar One - Community Learning

So Emma, let’s talk about the first pillar – Community Learning.

Would you like to kick us off with this one?

Emma 11:09

Sure thing.

So, when we think about community learning, it really happens across at least 4 different domains.

The first domain is in the Individual Learning Domain – here, we’re thinking about individuals in the community and how we might help each of them to advance in their personal learning and community awareness. Making learning opportunities available, creating safe spaces for learning, things like that.

The second is the Interpersonal Learning Domain – That’s where we build and develop the collective skills and “muscle” required for more inclusive interactions with our neighbors. This includes learning the ability for constructive and inclusive collaboration, empathic listening, conflict resolution, holding space for difficult conversations, and more.

The third is in the Systems Learning Domain. So, understanding how our systems are working, and how they are creating inequities. Learning how to articulate, visualize, and share our understanding of these systems and also understanding our own role and place within these systems is important for this domain. Even identifying and learning where power is held and where potential levers of change might exist is included in this.

The fourth domain is Transformational Learning – this is about building the skills and knowledge necessary to model and facilitate the change we wish to see in our community. It might include things like learning to share power, as well as mastering skills and processes for co-creation, and learning how to shift community culture.

As an example, when I think about the Individual Learning Domain, Ame, I think about the spotlight that you put in a recent newsletter. You talked about creating ah-ha moments of learning and how sticky those moments can be.

In this domain of Individual Learning, we’re trying to create more equity and inclusion-related Ah-ha moments for individuals across the community. In your spotlight, your story was about a personal work experience from some years ago, which also reminds us that employers in our communities can be great partners in this work, especially in the area of learning. Many of them have been at the work of DEI for many years and regularly create learning experiences for their employees, who are (by the way) also some of our neighbors.

Ame 13:27

Yeah, Emma. Thanks for mentioning that example. And it's a good example, too, about always thinking about who we can have as partners in this work and who is already on this path ahead of us. So, let's keep on going with some more examples.

You know, when I think about the Interpersonal Learning Domain,

I think back on our discussion with Davelyn Hill. You may remember our conversation with her about Speaking Down Barriers. The mission of their non-profit is all about enabling rich community conversations and group learning experiences. For them, this has taken the shape of all-day intensive training experiences (Emma, you, and I have both attended one of those). They also have created opportunities for community conversations. They’ve done that around potluck suppers, book clubs, and short facilitated group education sessions. They use professional facilitators, but I also found it really interesting that they use community members as peer mentors and guides that they bring into these workshops and some of their sessions, such as the intensive training. They even include elements where we share our own personal stories as part of that learning experience.

Then you probably remember our conversation Community Building Initiative in Charlotte also works in the same area of interpersonal learning. In my interview with Janeen Bryant, she told us about their, what she calls, “equity impact circles,” where participants get together in small groups from the community, and they learn to exchange perspectives, ask questions, and articular ideas, and they do this over several weeks. The Community Building Initiative supports people to learn and use a common “equity vocabulary” to help them develop an equity lens to analyze community issues. And they guide them toward action. Janeen also shared about the leadership development training that they have to equip leaders across their community, and we have something similar to that in Greenville. So, those are just a couple of examples. There are lots of ways to facilitate interpersonal learning.

If you don’t mind, Emma, I’ll keep going. I’ve got some other examples in my head. I want to take the topic of systems learning.

You know, when I think about the domain of systems learning, I think first about how we see ourselves in the systems that exist in our community and how we break down assumptions about others in our community and about those systems.

For example, when we talked with Vicki Meath of Just Economics in Western North Carolina, she talked about facilitating community learning through hosting poverty simulations. That was one of the ways they did it. Lots of communities use simulations as a path to systems learning. In fact, I’ve participated in our local poverty simulation with two different community teams.

Sometimes, we can have a really hard time seeing and relating to our neighbors’ lived experiences when it’s not our lived experience. Stereotypes and social messaging that we absorb can be so strong that we can’t suspend judgment and cynicism enough to understand and recognize the challenges our neighbors face. We simply don’t understand how barriers, scarcity, and daily struggles would alter even our own decision-making and priorities. One way to achieve a deeper level of understanding and awareness is through participating in these kinds of simulations. Through these experiences, we have a tiny moment to better empathize with our neighbors, better understand the systems at work within our community, and move beyond stereotypes. These kinds of sessions also typically include at the end a group debriefing, where the participants discuss and learn from one another’s perspectives. That helps broaden and deepen their experience.

So, one path to systems learning is about giving more community members the opportunity to step into a role and experience the system up close, even if it is just temporarily, but from a different perspective than their normal perspective.

There are other ways that communities also approach systems learning.

I’m currently studying with a team at the Systems Sanctuary about the techniques and methods they use in communities across the US and even internationally to help community groups better understand, analyze, and diagnose the systems that are at work in their communities and begin to consider what kind of interventions they might use to improve the system outcomes for everybody.

Emma 18:36

I’ll jump in on the domain of Transformational Learning.

When I think about the domain of transformational learning, I’m reminded of your conversation with Kristy Kumar from Madison, Wisconsin. In that interview, she told us:

We’re not where we are for a lack of plans, right? We haven’t yet reached racially equitable societies for a lack of plans and research. The reason we’re not there is because we haven’t necessarily been taught or allowed to do an embodied practice where we are connecting the joy and the dignity piece, the belonging piece, the care piece, into our work.

So, in some areas, we have to learn the skills we need to bring this kind of dignity, belonging, and care into our work.

As you said earlier, we may also have to learn skills around how to share power, techniques for co-creation, and learning how to shift community culture, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

As an example, in the interview with the team from YES! for Equity, they described methods and techniques for power sharing with youth, and how they work with communities to help them become more skilled at power sharing.

They reminded us that in power sharing, for example, we have both things to learn and things to unlearn.

So, now that we’ve talked a little about the four community learning domains:

· Individual learning

· Interpersonal learning

· Systems learning, and

· Transformational learning

I think that for any community, a good place to start on this work is with inquiry and deep reflection that helps us to consider what our community might need in terms of learning.

So this could include asking ourselves questions like:

  • What does our community know and not know about inclusion and equity?
  • What do we believe and not believe about one another?
  • On this journey of equity and inclusion, what do we need to learn, and what things do we need to unlearn?
  • What is our community identity and culture, and how might that need to shift?
  • What kinds of skills, knowledge, and tools do we need to equip ourselves with for the journey ahead?
  • As we mentioned, we should also ask who has already been on this learning journey ahead of us and who could be partners in this work.
  • And then, how can we begin to practice and exercise new behaviors, skills, and knowledge – even in small ways to move us toward mastery?

Ame 20:45

Emma, those are really good questions for anybody in a community to consider as they think about this practice of Groundwork.

We could talk about this pillar of community learning all day, as you said earlier, there are so many good examples in our interviews. They were just packed with learning on this subject. Still, we’ve got a lot more material to cover.

Before we wrap up this pillar of community learning, there are a few thoughts I’d like to leave our listeners with.

  • First, I know this is obvious, learning does not equal change. Learning can happen in an instant with a powerful Ah-ha moment, but change takes time, it takes reflection, it takes commitment, it takes practice.
  • Another point is that All learning is personal. Even interpersonal learning, systems learning, and transformational learning occur inside each of us as individuals.
  • This practice also requires constancy to purpose and developing a container for ongoing community learning. To show you what I mean, In Madison, Wisconsin, the YWCA there has held a racial justice summit for their community each year for 21 years. Also, The Community Building Initiative in Charlotte is a non-profit that is almost completely dedicated to this area of Groundwork and Community Learning.These are both examples of lasting containers and teams demonstrating constancy to purpose.
  • Finally, when I think about community learning, I’d also like to go back to our metaphor of the soil. I think of community learning as seeds, planted across the community to take root and grow over time. Still, it is also much more than individual seeds, It creates a type of interconnected network as community members contribute to and share learning experiences together.

-Recap - Community Learning

We’ve just reviewed the first Pillar: Community Learning.

In this pillar, we covered 4 different Learning Domains:

  • Individual learning and the power of ah-ha moments
  • Interpersonal Learning with examples from Speaking Down Barriers and The Community Building Initiative of Charlotte
  • Systems Learning and the power of using simulations. We also talked briefly about techniques and tools used by communities to understand, analyze, diagnose, and create interventions.
  • And, Transformational Learning which includes the skills we will need to model and facilitate the community changes we wish to see, including things such as power sharing, co-creation, and shifting culture

We wrapped up with some things to remember:

  • Learning doesn’t equal change.
  • All Learning is personal.
  • Constancy to purpose is key and requires long-term containers for ongoing learning.
  • Thinking of Learning as both seeds and network

-Pillar Two - Preparing the Hearts

So, are you ready to transition now and talk about the pillar of Preparing the Hearts?


Let’s do it.


A long time ago—it feels like a long time ago-- in episode 5, I spoke with Monique Davis from the Mississippi Museum of Art. She said something that has really stuck with me, and I’ve repeated it many times. She told me,

We need to do more heart work and less head work.

It was an important reminder to me that on this journey of building a more inclusive and equitable community, it is not just about head work but also about heart work.

We can think about this work of preparing the community hearts as something like a collective opening of sorts, touching and opening the hearts of our community. Then encouraging and motivating others to joins this work.

Emma, can you start us off with an example of how this might work at the community level?

Emma 25:14


I think of art as one of the most engaging ways to touch the hearts of a large group. It can create powerful personal and community “opening experiences.”

Art can be experienced passively, but it can also involve engagement or even be co-created.

I love the AMENDS installation by Bob Faust and Nick Cave, both well-known artists from Chicago. In your interview with them, they talked about how this project was created in response to the murder of George Floyd. They gave the local community around their gallery a way to give voice to their feelings in community conversation, a collective way to process that horrendous event. But, also a way to move toward positive transformation and action.

The art installation they created had 3 distinct elements:

The first element was about hope. They asked their collectors, curators, and civic leaders to come and write about racism within their own upbringing and write letters toward the eradication of racism, offering examples, quotes, and stories. Individuals wrote their letters with markers in public on storefront windows along the street outside of Nick and Bob’s gallery. Letters toward the eradication of racism.

The second element they called Dirty Laundry. It was about reflection and about honesty. It was also about what The Practice of Adaptive Leadership calls “owning our part of the mess.”

They asked individuals from their neighborhood to Identify the pieces of themselves that have “contributed to holding society back from genuine equality and equity.” Individuals wrote their response to the prompt on a yellow ribbon and tied it to the AMENDS community clothesline that hung on the front lawn of the neighborhood high school. In doing this work, we all have to be willing to air a little of our dirty laundry.

The third element was about a shared call to action. In response to the words on the strips hanging from the community clothesline, they commissioned a series of local artworks and performances that centered Black Voices – They included poets, spoken word artists, dancers, and other creatives. In this step, they transformed the community conversation and what they’d heard into art, which they gave back to the community as inspiration for action.

Ame 27:27

I love, love, love the AMENDS example. In this installation, people could participate or not, share what they felt comfortable. It met them where they were at, but asked them to take some risks, even making things they felt and a little from their history visible to their neighbors.

At scale, it included co-creation, it included reflection, as well as something that created movement towards action. And the neat thing about this is this installation could be done anywhere. They did it outside of their gallery, first in their space and in their neighborhood. But it can be done anywhere. But whatever is created out of it is uniquely of a place and is created out of a specific moment in time. I just think it's brilliant.

Through the AMENDS project and in my discussion with Nick and Bob, they also reminded me that art can have even more impact when it is out on the street than when it is in a studio or gallery.

Emma, art is one way for opening and touching the hearts of the community, but there are others.

I could also go on forever talking about how important poetry and music are for touching, opening, and preparing hearts. But I want to just take a few minutes to say something about music. There is science, real science, that suggests as a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. Through music we can make connections with one another, elicit memory, align with others around us, joining our voices in solidarity. Music even helps contribute to how we see ourselves and our identity, especially as we look back at a moment in our past.

At the racial justice summit hosted by the YWCA at Madison Wisconsin, I felt that some of the most powerful moments of their conference were the performances. They had music, dancing, they even had Native American jingle dancing as part of a performance. They had poetry and singing. Those moments touched my heart, amazed me, and even brought me to tears. Recently, I was also moved deeply by the opening of a Juneteenth event where we all joined together in singing the Black National Anthem. Those moments are indelibly part of those experiences for me and now indelibly part of who I am.

Music has always had a place in the journey toward justice and liberation. There are so many reasons why it should continue to be part of any community’s journey toward equity and inclusion.

Emma, you know that another great tool for heart work and that is storytelling.

We’re wired for story. Stories can inspire and motivate. Stories help us make meaning out of the world around us. Stories can even be used to build or rebuild a community’s identity. Stories can also be a way to revisit and re-frame the past along our journey of collective healing. They are a way to build empathy to acknowledge and, for a moment, to see through the eyes of another.

Lisa Cron, in her book, Story or Die, reminds us that:

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.

It reminds me of my interview with Patrice O’Neill from the nonprofit, Not In Our Town.

Patrice is a filmmaker and storyteller. In her film “Not in Our Town,” she tells the story of Billings, Montana and how the community of Billings, the individuals across that community, joined together and stood up against antisemitic hate and aggression in their community. Her film showed how a community can choose to respond to negative events and can also own its own story. The work that Patrice has done to share this film in communities across the country has inspired many other communities and also led to her creating a national network of anti-bullying programs.

Emma 32:16

You haven’t mentioned this yet, but I think that part of community heart work can also be about healing. There are many communities that make collective actions in the domain of remembering and honoring part of a larger community healing journey.

I think of the work of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The Memorial, located in Montgomery Alabama, is dedicated to:

  • the legacy of enslaved Black people,
  • people terrorized by lynching,
  • African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and
  • People of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

One of the memorial’s most unique and impactful aspects is its ongoing collaboration with local communities across the country to host conversations, erect historical markers, organize soil collection ceremonies, and hold essay contests for local high school students. All of this is done in support of local, community-led efforts to engage with and discuss past and present issues of racial justice.

The conversation that you had with the local Remembrance team in Greenville, South Carolina really highlighted the importance of a community acknowledging and reckoning with its past.

Ame 33:26

Emma, I’m so glad you brought that example up. The local Remembrance events that I’ve attended, soil collection ceremonies, and that kind of thing, were beautiful examples of how communities can demonstrate respectful and public remembrance of even what are past horrific events.

They were always so carefully and skillfully prepared. They didn’t just look back but also looked forward. The services were conducted in a way to educate and provide context for both our past and current experiences.

In every one of those events, I personally felt moved to be amongst neighbors who had come together with respect and positive intent to help our community heal and move forward.

I also am grateful to the team in Montgomery at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for creating such a powerful destination memorial, but also for the vision and wisdom to understand that the traumas of lynching happened in large and small communities all across our country. Which means, the real healing has to happen there too. They designed their memorial and the supporting programs with just that kind of local accountability and local healing in mind.

Emma 35:03
We can also think positively about this idea of memorializing and honoring.

Maybe it looks like asking yourself whose statues do you see around town. Not just those statues of individuals who you think shouldn’t still be there, but we can ask ourselves whose statue is missing.

Who else should we celebrate and pay tribute to? Who else has contributed in powerful ways to our community?

If someone simply walked or drove through our community, would they see and understand the full story of our community and everyone who made a significant contribution? Also, it isn’t just about sticking up a marker to say you did. It is about doing the work to truly understand, honor, and recognize what has happened.

In that vein, I loved the interview you did with Susan Glisson, where she talked about the Welcome Table approach and their work in Philadelphia, Mississippi to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

She talked about the importance of self-reflection, trust building, and community building – practicing new ways of interacting with each other. Listening to each other’s stories. Working up to the heavy lifting together over time.

Ultimately, community is not something we create on our own, or even with those we know. Community is a co-creation where we all contribute, and where we hopefully all belong.

Ame 36:25

Emma, you’re so right.

This work of Groundwork is an inside job.

Only you and others in your community can sense and know what will be required to prepare your community’s heart for this journey of becoming more inclusive and equitable.

As we did with the pillar of community learning, maybe the best way to end this discussion of pillar two, preparing the hearts, is to leave our listeners with a series of questions for their reflection about their own communities.

Here are a few question areas that come to mind for me.

Question Area 1: What aspects of preparing the heart need the greatest attention in your community? Is it healing, learning how to hold difficult conversations, motivation & shared intention, creating shared identity, meaning-making, or some other aspect? What kind of lasting container is required for that to unfold over time?

Question Area 2: Who are the partners, the artists, poets, storytellers, and musicians, that can help in your community’s work of preparing the heart? How can you move their work into the street, reaching even more community members and increasing the impact?

Question Area 3: Whose voice and whose perspective is missing and still needs to be welcomed into the room? How can you make that happen authentically?

Emma 38:07

Hmm. Those are good questions. That’s a lot to think about.

Ame 38:10

It is. We didn’t say this practice of Groundwork would quick or easy.

-Recap - Preparing the Hearts

We've just reviewed the second pillar, Preparing the Hearts. There are a lot of ways to touch hearts across the community. We reflected on Monique Davis’ advice to me of doing more heart work and less head work. We covered a few ways to touch the hearts across the community, including art, where we talk talked about the AMENDS project, poetry and music, storytelling, healing, and memorializing and honoring. We also discussed how important it is to see the community as something that is co-created by all community members. So, maybe we should transition to talking about pillar three, Shifting Culture.

-Pillar Three - Shifting the Culture

So, Emma, why don't you kick us off on that again?

Emma: 39:07

Let’s start off by sharing a couple of definitions for the word culture.

In “Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy,” the Culture Group defines culture in two different ways:

The prevailing beliefs, values, and customs of a group; a group’s way of life.
As a set of practices that contain, transmit, or express ideas, values, habits, and behaviors between individuals and groups.

Considering these two different definitions together means “culture is both the agent of change and the object of change.” We’ll want to keep that in mind as we dig into this pillar.

Ame: 39:49

Emma, those are a couple of great definitions. I especially love the notion that they specifically call out values and beliefs. Thinking about shifting culture, for most of us, is a daunting notion. At State of Inclusion, we certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but Emma and I will share some thoughts on this.

Our main question is: how do we influence culture within and across a community to move toward equity and inclusion? That’s what we are talking about here.

There is a group of practitioners and leaders working in the field of cultural strategy that suggest stories and narratives can play a big role.

They suggest that stories and narratives change how people perceive themselves and their role in the world. Their theory of change calls for us to:

Invest in the artists, storytellers, and other cultural leaders, as well as the strategies that activate them to work as catalysts for change to create a culture of justice and equity.

This is an extension of what we saw earlier when we talked about the importance of story and how story touches the heart and emotions and can build empathy. Here, we’re talking about not only stories playing a big role in shifting culture but also this idea of narratives.

They also offered an interesting metaphor that I’d like to share with you about the difference between story, narrative, and culture. They suggested that if we think of a single story as one star, then narratives are like constellations, and culture is like the galaxy.

I love this metaphor.

Another reason to focus on stories and narratives as a tool for shifting the culture is about persuasion.

Professor Michael D. Slater, a pioneer in the study of narrative persuasion, says that “Narrative overrides our natural tendency to challenge information we don’t agree with …When you have a strong narrative that’s really absorbing, it tends to suppress counter-arguing. It’s hard to suspend disbelief and counter-argue at the same time.”

If we’re thinking about how to make this happen. These different cultural experts tell us that

Narratives are most effective at making a change with three conditions:

  • One is when they intersect with the audiences’ pre-existing narratives.
  • The second is when they create a basis for stories that can be authentically told by the people seeking change - the storytellers themselves matter; and
  • The third is when they narrate a future that the audience yearns for and wants to live in.

Emma: 42:53

Whew, that’s a lot of theory on culture.

Thankfully, you’ve talked with people that help us see how this works in practice. I’m thinking specifically of your interview with Kory Wilcoxson in Lexington, Kentucky, and their initiative Lex Gives Back. It was part of Karen Armstrong’s Compassionate Cities movement.

Kory and the team have built a narrative of Lexington as a compassionate community. They built on the compassion that was already present in their community. They created a city-wide event, a call to action of sorts. Then through using stories of individual moments of compassion, they wove a narrative of the city as a compassionate city, which was, in fact, a future that many in their community wanted to be part of.

Ame: 43:40

You know, that’s a great example of how stories, narrative, and community identity can work.

There is another aspect of shifting culture that I feel like we should also talk about, and that is the idea of social capital.

Emma, could you give us a quick primer on social capital to put us all on the same footing?

Emma: 44:00

Sure thing.

So, we’re going to talk about 2 types of social capital

  • One is all about the nature and quality of relationships between people and networks. It includes elements like trust, trustworthiness, and identity.
  • The other is what is called cognitive social capital, and that is about what we were just discussing – building shared narratives, understandings, shared values, attitudes, beliefs, goals, and vision.

When most people talk about social capital, they’re most often talking about relational social capital and talk about 3 concepts:

  • Bridging – opportunities to reach across and engage with individuals and groups that you may not typically have exposure to.
  • Bonding – the idea that you are able to build relationships across groups and across differences.
  • Linking – This is about building structures and relationships across groups where you are integrally linked with others around shared interests and outcomes.
  • I’m going to also throw in the idea of belonging. john a. powell, from the Othering and Belonging Institute, talks about “Belonging is more than joining a club – it is about co-creating and co-owning structures to belong.”

He also says,

belonging is not just how do we treat each other, belonging is how do we actually organize our economy, our structures, our schools, our faiths so that everyone belongs, and recognizing we still have differences.

So, let’s talk about what this looks like in action.

Ame 45:37

I’ll jump in here.

When I think of bridging and bonding, I think of our local Hispanic Alliance and their annual La Fiesta, which celebrates how the diverse local Hispanic cultures contribute to the vibrancy and prosperity of our hometown.

But, it isn’t just about events. It goes beyond that, about mentorship, about tutoring, teaching English, and creating personal relationships.

Another great example for me was a performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which was sponsored by and held at—wait for it--our local First Baptist Church. It was a great example of bridging.

It was challenging and thought-provoking (drag queen performances in the Baptist Church?) but also powerful and beautiful, with personal stories that broke down barriers and evaporated stigma. Honestly, it created an opportunity for both bridging and bonding.

The key is to find ways to break down our natural instinct to “other.” When we no longer see someone else as “other,” we can then move to richer and deeper experiences of bonding and linking and ultimately to belonging.

Again, it isn’t about a single event. It is about circling, repeating, going deeper, and going further over time.

It is a practice.

It is about irrigating the community with these ideas. Think of your community’s soil and the process of irrigating that soil and changing it from a dry, cracked, parched desert to a fertile and rich area where growth can happen in every corner.

There are many small steps that we can all take, whether it is around including others in our church community, teamwork and co-creation as parents around the education of our children, which is important to all of us, or working together in sports booster club programs. All of these opportunities to create bridges, linking and bonding opportunities with individuals we otherwise could think of as “others” is progress on both a community and personal scale.

Emma 48:06

Right. The key here is for it to be on an equal footing, as peers, reciprocal where possible and never transactional, extractive or exploitative. If this looks like or smells like “doing for someone” or “saving someone” then you’re not really bridging, bonding and linking as we are talking about here.

Ame 48:27

Emma, you’re so right.

Thanks for the reminder about the risk of giving in to the savior complex and how this notion of bridging, bonding, and linking are connections as equals and peers. It doesn’t work otherwise.

There is another thought that I’d like to put out there. I’m currently working on a post covering some reading that I’ve been doing on how complex social change works. The main reference for that post is a book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, by Damon Centola and the research he has been doing around the study of networks.

I have got to admit that his work has really changed how I think of social change. If you’re interested, I’d suggest you start with the post and then read his book.

His research shows that complex change across social networks does not happen through things like influencers and viral posts or videos. He says those are tools for simple change or information sharing. He calls those kinds of connections that influencers have as narrow bridges and weak ties. They are useful in a lot of cases, like sharing information and putting something out there, but they’re not helpful in complex change.

Complex change, something like changing beliefs or changing our communities, requires entirely different approaches. That requires something he calls wide bridges and strong ties. Moving change through networks that have many cross connections and more personal and stronger ties. This is way too big of a discussion for this episode. Still, his approach gives us another way, more tools to think about shifting community culture.

This pillar of shifting culture is one of the most challenging aspects of our GroundWork practice. Hopefully, we’ve piqued your interest and offered some ways to think about what might be required to shift the culture of your community and where you could start.

As with the other pillars, let’s wrap up with some questions to ponder about your own community.

Question Area 1: What is your honest assessment of the culture of your community today? How does your community talk about itself? And since we aren’t the only ones who define culture, how do others talk about it?

Question Area 2: Where in the fabric of your community do you need to shift culture or what aspirational elements of culture do you want to live into, as Lexington wanted to live into compassion?

Question Area 3: Where in the web of networks across your community can these cultural shifts best be seeded and take root? With whom do you need to share power? What cultural gifts and talents does your community already possess that can contribute to this work?

Question Area 4: Where do you believe that bridge building and trust building will be required? How can you get started on that today?

Every day our communities reinforce their existing culture and build toward a new emerging culture. As we wade into the cultural waters that flow throughout our community, we may have the opportunity to influence the flow. Still, we have to keep in mind that culture emerges from the beliefs and actions of the whole community. Culture is neither built nor changed by one person or one organization but brought to life by the collective actions of all community members.

Still, cultural change begins, as most change does, through changes of individuals and small groups. As Damon Centola tells us, that it is often on the periphery that we begin to shift and change the whole.

I’ll share another quote by John Paul Lederach—he’s so wise--that speaks to me. I heard him discuss this with Krista Tippet on her podcast, On Being:

When it comes to cultural change, we excessively fixate on the critical mass and underestimate the catalytic quality of the improbable few. The ‘critical yeast’ – these small, unlikely, combinations of persistent people and partnerships committed to a new quality of relationship – dwell before and behind every instance of social change that truly shifts what is possible and transformative across generations.

Critical yeast. I love that idea.

We can ask ourselves, are we part of the critical yeast within our own community?

-Recap - Shifting the Culture

We’ve just reviewed the third pillar: Shifting the culture. This pillar had a lot of theory as we started with definitions of culture.

Then, we talked about stories, narratives, and culture through a metaphor of stars, constellations and galaxies.

We learned that narratives are most effective when they

  • Intersect with the audience’s pre-existing narratives
  • Are told by an authentic storyteller
  • Narrate a future that the audience yearns for

Emma described two types of social capital relational and cognitive. We focused on the relational for our examples as we touched on concepts of bridging, bonding, linking, and belonging.

Then, we concluded with a very brief introduction to the science of complex social change across networks, where social scientists tell us that for complex changes, we should focus on wide bridges and strong ties. Also, that sometimes complex change best starts from the periphery.

That led us to talk about John Paul Lederach’s concept of critical yeast – and the catalytic quality of the improbable few.


You know, All of this discussion leads me to wrap up with a few thoughts about emergence. Margaret Wheatley of the Berkana Institute and Adrienne Maree Brown are such great writers on this subject of emergence. So, if you’re interested in this, you should really read some of their books. These points come almost exclusively from their work.

In their work, they ask us to consider a few critical elements:

  • Margaret Wheatley tells us, “We each create our own worlds by what we choose to notice.”
  • Adrienne Maree Brown talks about fractals and reminds us that “What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”
  • These ladies also tell us that systems are relationships that we observe as structures, but we can never really capture their complex, coevolving, self-transcending relationships.
  • Then Margaret Wheatley, in her book, Turning to One Another, says conversation is the natural way we humans think together.
  • Change begins when a community of people discovers that they share a concern. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about, and that real change begins with the simple act of people talking about what they care about.

And, for any of the control-minded people in the room, like me, it never hurts to also remind ourselves:

  • Living systems can only be disturbed, they can never be directed. The system is spinning itself into existence. Leaving us no choice but to become interested experimenters, sending pulses out into the system to try and effect change.
  • Life truly changes through emergence.
  • The pace and pathways of change are nonlinear and iterative.
  • Transformation happens in cycles, convergences, and even in bursts or explosions
  • All of that happens by fostering critical connections. So, rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections.


Emma 58:45

Wow, thanks for all that, Ame. We’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode.

We started by reminding ourselves a little about the practices of Self Work and Program Work.

Then, we jumped into the deep end on the practice of GroundWork and talked in depth about the three pillars of GroundWork:

  • Community Learning
  • Preparing the Heart, and
  • Shifting the Culture

We wrapped all that up with a brief reflection on Emergence.

Our thinking on this was informed by the wonderful interviews on the podcast and also by some great social scientists, researchers, and writers. We’ll be sure to include our best references in the show notes for any of you who would like to dig even deeper.

I’m really looking forward to bridging some of the concepts we discussed here into our practices of Systems Work and Coalition Work, which we’ll cover in upcoming episodes. They are all so connected.

As always, thanks for listening.

Ame 58:25

Thanks, Emma.

This has been the State of Inclusion Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share the podcast or discuss these ideas with others. If you'd like to hear more about the practice of building an inclusive and equitable community, head over to TheInclusiveCommunity.com and sign up for our newsletter.

Also, feel free to leave us a review or reach out we'd love to hear from you.

Thanks so much for listening, and join us again next time.


Co-Host: Emma Winiski

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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