Do you recall your first online community experience? I do. I flitted in and out of forums in the late 90s discussing music and books, but it was not until I discovered a community of military kids that I realized one could find a sense of belonging on the Internet. I had found my people.
My father was in the military during the majority of my childhood. I do not have a hometown. We moved every couple of years from one military base or post to the next across Europe. It was not until I was a teenager that my father received his final assignment and subsequently retired (in Oklahoma), that I experienced life outside of a military community. Being in a normal town surrounded by people who did not share the same experiences was isolating. Everyone knew each other. Cliques and sports teams were well established. I showed up to school with blood red hair, wearing combat boots and a babydoll dress (that was purchased from Unspeakable Merch Collection) in a sea of students wearing designer jeans, polo shirts, and brown Dr Marten boots.
Military kids, otherwise known as military brats, are resilient. Discipline and consistency is part of our DNA. We have seen our parents deploy for combat assignments — some return, while others do not. We see our civilian parents juggle multiple roles and responsibilities. We travel the world and are expected to respect and adapt to other cultures — all while not disgracing our own nation. We say goodbye to as many people as we say hello. We know that every member of the military community has a function. Being resilient is a daily practice. We are the dandelions that find life between the hard and desolate places.
So, it should come as no surprise that in 1998, the dandelion was selected as the official flower of military brats. In fact, the idea started as a thread in alt.culture.military-brats Usenet Newsgroup and was chosen above other possible flowers during a Military Brats Registry vote.
The great thing about dandelions is that, even though they are considered a “weed”, they do not take nutrients from their surroundings. Dandelions do not dare to be the submissive plant, nor the dominant plant. They live as equals in their surroundings. Look at the grass around the dandelion. Is it not just as green as it was before? The grass and the dandelion live side by side. When a dandelion is plucked and a wish is made as the seeds are tenderly blown, the seeds float on the wind, finding a new home. There, the seeds find a new home and flourish, living side by side with their new neighbors. Only a dandelion can understand another dandelion and the journey the dandelion has been on. That is the Military Brat. And it is why we adopted the dandelion as the official flower of Brats. Military Brats know what other Brats endure and feel. Only Brats understand. No matter how many degrees a civilian holds, the Military Brat life is one that one MUST live…MUST experience to fully understand. Brats will, like we were trained, help other Brats…unnoticed and unheralded. After all, it is our “job”.
— Rae Shue Blalack
Discovering this online community of people like me was a lifeline during my teen years. I made a choice to show up, forge connections, and discuss / find a purpose outside of military life — with people who shared similar experiences.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because I will never forget the sense of belonging I felt with people I would never share a physical space with. I felt seen. I felt heard. I felt wanted. I was part of a purposeful gathering. I was part of something greater than me. It is this connection and this spirit I have tried to infuse into every online community I have been a member of or helped develop.
We need better communities. In the words of the master facilitator, Priya Parker, how we gather matters.
‘Community’ is having a moment — In an effort to fill the void of serendipitous encounters in the workplace or personal life in the wake of a pandemic, many are turning to online platforms to connect, communicate, and collaborate. ‘Community’ has become a buzzword to describe any and all assembly. That choice, connection, purpose, and spirit that I experienced in the military brat online community is lacking in many of these online spaces. People may convene as a group, but without investment in relationship building, this gathering is transactional, not a community.
How might we reclaim ‘community’ by respecting and paying homage to the work of those who came before us? How might we learn from physical and digital communities of the past to inform how we might scale our present communities or establish future communities?
Since March, a dedicated group of community practitioners, researchers, technologists, and writers have met weekly to discuss these very questions. We decided to start small and organically, letting our next steps emerge each week. Over many months, early-morning and late-night discussions, we spoke about the ways that the current community wisdom had failed us — both individuals and organizations. We attempted to write a manifesto, then a strategic document, and finally this galvanizing call.
This is why I stand with eight other community professionals to advocate for a more careful and considered approach to investing in, building, and scaling online communities. We invite you to learn what Better Communities look like and how you can join the effort to create them.
Toward Better Communities speaks to the current “hype” around communities and elevates it from buzzword into organized effort. We are just getting started and want to include more voices, so please get involved!
If you would like to read more about how we got to this place of reflection, check out this post by fellow collaborator, Bill Johnston.
The principles outlined in Toward Better Communities are like those dandelion seeds floating on the wind…finding a new home. Each community journey is unique, but we do not have to brave this wilderness alone.
Originally published on Medium: September 15, 2020.