Community-Centered Leadership: Values, Boundaries and Rituals

  • By Jaser Alsharhan, September 13, 2021

At GEO, we believe that building organizational cultures where equity-based grantmaking practices can thrive is an important facet of our work. When all grantmaking practitioners – from boards to executive directors to staff – feel empowered to transform day-to-day grantmaking processes, we are closer to creating lasting change. As I think about organizational culture, community-centered leadership is one approach that stands out. Community-centered leadership requires that leaders commit to creating conditions necessary for their communities to thrive. The question that surfaces is, “What types of conditions create a safe, trusting and thriving community?”

For the past three years, I had the opportunity to answer this question about community-centered leadership through my experience in an intentional living community. The Orbis Institute – a live, learn and work-space in Denver, is a community dedicated to creating a home for social entrepreneurs and those dedicated to social impact careers.

While much of the three-year fellowship for seven adults under one roof was dedicated to professional development and a specific goal – mine was to define how to create a more inclusive space for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) leaders in philanthropy – it was also a space to experiment with different conditions that could create a just, equitable environment where individuals shared a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.

Values, Boundaries and Rituals

Slightly inspired by “The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging” (Vogl, 2016), my cohort created different value-based mini-structures to give the community shape – not just for personal identification purposes, but to ensure accountability. These mini-structures included creating communal living policies, affinity space meeting plans, weekly meetings, and formal feedback sessions.

One of the structures that we put in place was a clear progression for the fellowship: the first year was dedicated to exploring identity and passions, the second year focused on developing a clear commitment to action and the third year was about executing the commitment plan.

To be considered a fellow at Orbis, you needed to experience the intentional living environment. While unintended, we created a boundary around who was a part of the community and who was not. Visitors at our house were certainly welcome to explore our community without committing themselves. Creating boundaries around who is a part of a community (and who is not) helps people understand what the community is trying to achieve and who it is for. Without these bounds, a community becomes everything to everyone with little or no sanctity or purpose.

We also developed rituals and a cadence for gatherings throughout the year: an orientation to the fellowship, an intentional goodbye to the previous fellows, Fall/Spring retreats, weekly family meetings and discussions regarding our goals and struggles. These rituals helped us remain on the same page and create consistency during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so much was in flux, inconsistent and unknown. These reliable rituals were the foundation for a communal sense of safety in the pool of daily chaos.

In our commitment to advancing equity, my cohort also developed inner rings. This was evidenced by unique affinity spaces based on race, politics, religion, and LGBT+ affiliation which met at least once per month (if not more). The structure for the first, second, and third years additionally created an organic progression and “fellowship years” where the first years met with other first years, etc.

Navigating Conflict

As we work together to build internal cultures that pave the way for just, connected and inclusive societies, conflict may naturally arise. But through these rituals and commitments, our community developed communication patterns, capacity and skills to work through conflict. Sometimes, because of our value alignment, navigating conflict took our relationships to even higher levels. Other times, they made us question true alignment regarding our individual values. But both of these outcomes were opportunities discuss, interrupt and challenge each other to grow. Difficult accountability-centered conversations became normal as we built trust. As we progressed through the pandemic, they became even more relevant and necessary.

Bringing It Together

This experience prompted me to reflect on implications regarding our work in philanthropy and to consider the necessary ingredients that create a community of practice or a community dedicated to change. While living in community is not the same as an online community spanning the country and world, there are lessons which we can glean from a community living space:

  • Values – Defining values allows community members to feel part of a cohesive journey headed towards a clear direction. Without values, people can feel lost and untethered to the broader group. These values, of course, can evolve over time.
  • Boundaries – Asking your group what defines a “community member” versus a “visitor” is important. What is your community trying to achieve? And who are the actors that are most appropriate to achieve that goal? Sometimes the lines can be blurred, and some folks may enter and leave the group as their affiliation or interests change.
  • Rituals – These can be fun and reveal the collective wisdom or similar challenges within your community. What practices are you no longer experimenting with but would like to make norms in your community? What are things that – through all the unknowns the world offers – you can count on as constants? What reasonable expectations would you like people to have about your community?

My experience living in an intentional community has helped me grow so much in the past three years. In community, I started to reprioritize, grant myself grace, hold myself accountable and develop a firmer sense of my own values. It is rare to have an experience where almost every step of the way is imbued with meaning and growth opportunities.

But it also reaffirmed the importance of connection with the people we surround ourselves with, inside and outside our organizations. I loved the people I lived with – we had so many hard moments, we cried, we came together, we also let each other go and we tried to tread with compassion in such messy waters. Ultimately, I’m left appreciating the gravity and levity that the community represented. The conditions of community-centered leadership, which are outlined here, allowed us to simultaneously experience deep love and joy, too. The depth of the experience really points to a thriving culture. I wish the same for our grantmaker community.

Jaser Alsharhan

Director of Programs

Contact Jaser with questions about program development and design for GEO’s leadership cohorts and peer-to-peer programming, including peer communities, role-based convenings and member calls.

Jaser Alsharhan is the Director of Programs overseeing cohort development and peer-to-peer programming at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

Jaser comes to GEO after working at Philanthropy Colorado, a regional association dedicated to serving, convening, and managing funder peer cohorts. Before working for Philanthropy Colorado, Jaser completed a one-year Fulbright Program Fellowship in Rubavu, Rwanda, where he coordinated with the U.S. Embassy to conduct weekly programs and research at the American Corner, a resource center that aims to increase understanding between Rwanda and the United states. Prior to working in Rwanda, he participated in the Duke University India Summer School for Future International Development Leaders. This field research position in Udaipur, India allowed him to analyze and propose creative, locally sourced approaches to rural development. He also was a Curatorial Assistant for the Biennial of the Americas and interned for Children’s Future International, writing and researching grant opportunities for the organization’s expansion of education and basic needs services for disadvantaged youth in Cambodia.

Jaser received a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and graduated from the University of Denver, where he was a Boettcher Scholar majoring in International Studies and Political Science. He enjoys hiking, running, watercolor painting, and giving back to diverse communities throughout his home state of Colorado.