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Community Building Workshop

by Eloise de Leon
San Diego, California

Judy Szamos lives near the beach in Encincitas, California, within a community of cherished friends. With her children now grown, she and her husband are able to fully realize new goals and interests in life. For Szamos, this is a time in her life when she can fulfill a long-held desire to promote peace through a group process called the “community building workshop”. Szamos first learned about it while living in Houston in the late 1980’s. "I have always been drawn towards learning how to live in community,” she states, “I have lived in five countries. I've been through wars--I came out of the 1956 Revolution from Hungary. I have this yearning to bridge differences among people because I have lived so many differences and so many barriers.” The workshop was transformative for Szamos and she went on to train as a workshop facilitator. Because her hands were then full with parenting and full-time work, her time was limited. So, she promised herself that when she had time, she would contribute more of her attention to community building. Now was her time.

The Community Building Workshop was first developed by M. Scott Peck M.D., author of the bestselling book, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), which was on the New York Times Best Seller List longer than any other paperback book. A decade later he detailed the community building workshop process in his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987). It is professed to be a process, “by which we join together, overcome our prejudices, transcend our differences, and learn to accept and love ourselves and each other.”

The Process

Pressed to describe the workshop, longtime workshop facilitator, Russell (Rusty) Myers states, "It's hard to talk about because it is a process. It's not didactic learning, it’s experiential learning." Workshops last two or more days depending on their goals. The process involves group interactions through which a group goes from being strangers to one another to sharing a deeply felt sense of community. “That doesn't mean that because you know people at that level that you necessarily like them,” admits Myers. “What happens is that you find something in everybody's story to make you respectful of them and their experience."

At the beginning of a workshop, the group is given the task to "form a community". Szamos smiles as she explains how given the task, people do what comes naturally to them, "Doers, do, speakers, speak, notetakers take notes."

Myers states that the facilitator’s role is to keep the group safe and to identify the phases of community building for the group, but beyond that, they stay out of the group’s interactions. "People will often say to the facilitator, ‘Well, if you would just do something, we could do this better.’ Facilitators appear to not be doing anything but actually they are doing a great deal. We can suggest to the group where we believe they are in the process and perhaps a word or two about what might be helpful. There are little things like using "I" statements and taking silence if you need it, and not avoiding the task."

Phases in the Process

The first phase of the process is called, "pseudo community”, described by Szamos as, the space in which most people live their lives. Myers explains that pseudo community occurs when "we talk about things that are easy to talk about, and address one another in ways that are polite. We tend to shy away from anything that might be of a conflictive nature."

Myers explains that the longer a group stays together and has a commitment to each other, individual differences naturally emerge, "The tendency is to convince the other that ‘my way is the way’. So when we start recognizing our differences, we start to heal and fix the other." Attempts to change one another leads to the next phase of "chaos", characterized by the emergence of differences. Such differences often lead to disagreements and the attitude, “If you'd just be like me, everything would be fine.”

Szamos states,

Chaos in the community context, is about people that are going in circles, getting frustrated, not knowing how to go forward in building a community. It's really more like a tornado. Like when I'm trying to accomplish a project and I just find myself going in circles. You go in circles and get anxious. If you don't like to deal with conflict then you get pretty frustrated and angry in this stage. But in all the times I've been in a community building process, we get past that stage. It's an awesome process to get past, and to discover that through your own process, your own humanity, you can connect with people in another way.

In the community building workshop a facilitator’s role is to recognize when the group has stepped into chaos and to encourage them to enter the next phase of emptiness, when participants ask themselves, what keeps them from being fully present in the group. Myers asserts, "The greatest forms of barriers to community are exclusion. That’s me excluding others or excluding myself from the process.” Prejudices or personality differences may factor into this phase but Myers suggests that, “It may be just as simple as I can’t bring my mind in the room, I’m thinking of my home or my work."

When the first person “empties” in a genuine manner, it usually passes by unnoticed. Myers explains,

One person has taken a risk, become somewhat vulnerable, and the group is not recognizing or acknowledging that. So, we as facilitators need to recognize and acknowledge that. That’s a critical moment in facilitation and for the group. As others begin to empty, a critical mass begins to form. At some point in the process something happens that none of us can make happen as a single individual but [only] as a group … [it’s] something like a palpable spirit or nature that shifts the nature in the room. That’s what we call community.

For Myers, facilitation too, must come from a position of emptiness, rather than from one’s education or background. “As a facilitator, once I spend some time emptying myself, it’s easy to show respect and compassion to any person I meet. I don’t find that difficult no matter what they’ve done historically.”

Myers' community building has taken him around the world, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Scotland, Taiwan and China and extensively in the United States. His community building work includes consulting for an innovative U.S. business corporation whose aim for change is based on the belief that, as Myers explains,

If humanity is going to survive and business is going to be part of that, then business has to learn to do business in new and innovative ways." Myers reports, "It’s learning how to be a community and behave like a community. It’s a difficult process because business is extremely hierarchical. At certain levels of the corporation, community is pretty much the practice but in certain other areas of the company, the closer they get to experiencing it the more they resist it. Because it confronts rugged individualism, it confronts power, it confronts narcissism, all of those things that you find at the high-end of most corporate structures.

Bonnie Poindexter has been facilitating community building workshops for the past sixteen years, oftentimes with Myers. Poindexter served as Executive Director of an eleven-county chapter of the March of Dimes Foundation for twenty-three years before retiring from her post. She attributes much of her success to the skills she learned from the community building workshop stating, "I was a very successful executive director of the March of Dimes. My chapter was always in the top ten in the nation in every way that was measured from communication to fundraising to programming. I believe that my own personal growth through this community building process was directly responsible for much of my success.”

The March of Dimes relies on volunteers for much of its most essential work including gaining financial pledges, administrative work, producing events, serving on committees and on the Board of Directors. Poindexter’s challenge throughout her tenure was to motivate the many volunteers to stay involved. “When you are charged with working with volunteers--volunteer boards, volunteer fundraising folks, volunteers of every kind -- to be able to listen and to understand what it takes for groups to come together and to be able to bring them together -- I could not have known how to do [so] without this process.”

Since her retirement, Poindexter now serves as interim director for two other non-profit Boards. “People…think it's a style or they don't really know what it is, but they know that I know how to listen and how to make decisions and move forward based on consensus building kind of a style, so it serves me very well."

Community building workshop processes have also been integrated into research studies and social change programs. Myers recounts one such research project at the Louisiana State Prison developed by the Department of Sociology at Louisiana State University to find out how community building impacted a prison system. Inmates participated in community building processes over a nine-month period. The Department of Labor was also interested to know if community building affected literacy rates. Myers explained that over a six-week period, four hours a week, inmates who could read tutored inmates who could not read. When they were post-tested, their literacy rates were raised two and a half grade levels. Myers attributes some of the increase in literacy rates to the motivation behind the post-testing, that had been absent during pre-testing. Beyond that, he attributes the rise in literacy rates to the compassion and ability to listen amongst the men who could read, combined with the trust amongst the men who could not read.

Although recidivism rates were not part of the research design, five years after the initial program, researchers were surprised to find that the recidivism rate among participants that were released from prison was 13% compared to 73% in the general prison population. But according to Myers, prison officials considered the community bonding to be a threat to the prison’s security system. Apparently, one of the main factors of control is to maintain an atmosphere where the men have a certain amount of fear of one another. So, prison officials took steps to separate the men into different dormitories. Eventually a new program was begun called, Project Return, to assist men newly released from prison to gain a fresh start in life.

On the other side of the globe, a Russian professor who had attended a community building workshop while in the United States sought a way to develop conflict resolution strategies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Through the University of Moscow, he invited three community building workshop facilitators to lead a one-week workshop that included two representatives from each of the countries that made up the former Soviet Union. Myers remembers it as a profound experience. "It was part of creating the first peace treaty between those countries. They were dealing with generations of malcontent or prejudices that their great grandfathers had taught them." It was a profound experience for Myers who describes the closing hours of the workshop, "It went on into a celebration. There was no vodka, which was highly unusual. They celebrated one another. People were hugging one another and making arrangements to visit one another." The workshop served as the initial phase of a more in-depth training in conflict resolution.

The Practice

Szamos states that the ability to appreciate differences is what leads to an inner sense of peace. Reflecting on her personal growth from the process, Szamos states,

I learned to have a voice. I learned that I will be heard and I will be heard for who I really am. When you don't feel you're worthy, that you don't feel you can be successful, that people won't like you for who you are ... those are handicaps that we all carry to some degree. This was a springboard for me to work on some of those things within myself and tools to change my life and relationship to others.

In addition to the immediate changes for Szamos, new insights continued to unfold with practice. “It took a lot of courage at the beginning. I had to practice. I caught myself interrupting others. I caught myself not allowing others to talk and fully express themselves. It's practice, but at least I had tools! I had an experience that I could relate back to.”

The Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE), which was co-founded in 1984 by M. Scott Peck M.D. to provide community building workshops and train workshop facilitators, ended as a formal institution after seventeen years. But it continues in an informal capacity, providing information on its website and referrals for facilitators. Photo: CBW Facilitators, Bonnie Poindexter and Rusty Myers.

Not much has been written about community building workshops for the sake of publicity. Organizers fill workshops primarily through word of mouth or through the organizing efforts of the hosting agency. As Szamos proceeds to coordinate efforts for a workshop in her home community she sets the tuition low to cover costs but not to generate profit. Making the workshop accessible is of utmost importance in her mind.

Cyber-conversations on a Community Building Workshop listserve abound on how to provide workshop scholarships. People offer ideas and money. Because the conversation takes place during presidential elections, a political sentiment appears creating some listserve chaos. Email responses strive to “make space” for disagreement, honoring the diversity of voices and choices. A heartfelt but peaceful exchange ensues in a flurry of emails full of chaos, emptiness and a sense of community, a community at practice.

For more information about Community Building Workshops see and

Published in In Motion Magazine January 26, 2005