The Power of Community

(NOTE: This is a cross post of an essay that Will wrote for the Association for the Advancement of International Schools (AAIE) member newsletter. He has been working with AAIE international school heads for the last six months facilitating weekly conversations and has also led a working group to create a new vision for AAIE schools. Both he and Homa will be helping to facilitate Phase 2 of the project this fall.)


For the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by online communities. Not so much in the sense of spaces where people “debate and discuss,” but communities where people actually “do.” Spaces where people from all over connect around a passion or a problem that matters to them and turn that shared interest into action. It’s a powerful place to be a part of when you can find it. But the reality is that those spaces are harder to find than you might think. Sustained consideration, empathy, patience, and inquiry in the service of creation and positive action are more and more rare in an increasingly angry online world.


Yet, since March, it’s been my great privilege to be a part of just such a community with you in AAIE. Since the pandemic cast us all into this maelstrom of both adaptive and technical changes around education and schooling, hundreds of you have been engaged on an ongoing basis in the type of community that I’ve always thought has been one of the greatest potentials of the Web. The care that you’ve held for one another, the sharing you’ve been willing to do, and your individual ability to be vulnerable and say “I don’t know how to do this” has created space for an amazing depth of learning.


I know I’ve mentioned this a few times on our regular Thursday calls, now entering their 29th week. For many, these past seven months have provided what may be the most profound learning moment in our lives. Each day presents a new set of problems. Each day requires stores of creativity and ingenuity. Every decision begs for reflection. I know for many of you, it’s been exhausting.


But what if you had had to do all of that in isolation? For those of you who have been on these calls, can you even imagine that?


It’s not that AAIE is unique in this. I know that other organizations have also connected and shared and discussed problems and solutions during this time But I don’t know of any other that developed a deeper sense of community than what you’ve all built. And even more, I know of no other educational organization that not only found the consistency of support and knowledge building in this moment, but who then also decided to look beyond and outward and summon up the courage to ask “What do we aspire to?” That is a BIG question in no uncertain terms.


That is unique as far as I can tell. And awesome.


To me, the AAIE “New School Project” is one of the most powerful examples I’ve seen of an online community of practice creating opportunity out of chaos and uncertainty. It’s fueled by such a rich mix of elders, those with shared expertise, and newbies all coming together around a big question and a commitment to change. Those of you that participated in it know that it was difficult, heady, painstaking work. The seven principles that have emerged are a forceful statement of not only the challenges of the current educational narrative but are an invitation to do “different,” not necessarily just do “better.” That may not seem like much of a distinction, but it is in fact what I think makes those principles so compelling.


But here’s the deal: Those principles, and these ongoing conversations are really just the start. They may have been launched by our need to make sense of the implications of a global pandemic, but they will be no less important or relevant when this crisis ends. In case you haven’t noticed, we face many crises right now, and more than ever we’re going to need one another and a coherent vision for how our work in schools must live in the larger world to guide us.


In that respect, the community “roots” you’ve put down are more important than you may realize. As a collective, the AAIE community has the potential to influence the arc of education far beyond individual member schools, and our Thursday or Friday Zoom meetings. The ways in which you expand the meaning and articulation of each principle, imagine and create examples of those principles in practice, and then share all of that with the larger world could become an exemplary model for what’s possible when we build community around important ideas.


Earlier this summer, Foreign Affairs published an issued dedicated to “The World After the Pandemic.” In the preface, the editors wrote:


“In truth, what is killing us is not connection; it is connection without cooperation. And the cure is not isolation but deeper connection, the kind that can support collective action.”


If that truly is the “cure,” then the AAIE community is much more ready for whatever the future may hold than most. I’m excited by the next phase of this work that we’ll start in early October, together.

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