‘Creating Community’ Recap: Being open, being flexible, being principled

On a warm September evening that brought rainshowers, 45 people gathered in the open gallery space at Public Functionary in Northeast Minneapolis for ‘Creating Community,’ a conversation and networking event sponsored by Creative Exchange and The Line. Attendees were artists, teachers and entrepreneurs, people working in government, nonprofits, healthcare and the energy industry, all people looking to make new connections. The featured panelists represented a variety of sectors – Public Functionary curator and co-director Tricia Khutoretsky; landscape architect Shane Coen, founder and principal at Coen + Partners; Meghan Murphy, co-executive director of Pollen, a network of networks; and Reed Robinson, co-founder of Beta.MN, supporting Minnesota’s tech startups.

After a period of open networking, the speakers presented on their work, sharing how they build community, how they invite people in, what’s important to them and to their organizations. Khutoretsky noted that Public Functionary seeks to embrace that many people these days carry multiple identities or practices with them – artists who are designers and musicians and directors and community organizers all at once. In embracing these identities and opening up programming so that many were invited to use the space, not just programs lined up thematically with the shows presented, this allowed for a more vibrant, interactive gatherings at Public Functionary, extending it beyond an art gallery and into a community hub.

For his part, Coen underscored knowing and acknowledging the context of things when working with a community – what are the social, environmental, political and physical settings that shape those relationships. In speaking about designing a new housing development for Marine on St. Croix, he described doing extensive research on the existing community – the size of the homes and lots, the distances between homes and from the streets – so that a new offering would reflect that community back to itself and involve the community in creating new spaces. He also noted the importance of sharing your ideas, saying that once you have a really great idea, “everyone wants to contribute to it.”

Storytelling and finding points of reflection was also important to Murphy and her work with Pollen, which shares stories and hosts events to connect networks together. In Pollen’s storytelling, they seek to remain cognizant of who is speaking, who is recording, and who is receiving the story, to make sure that power relationships are uncovered and that untold stories are made visible and more communities are reflected. Funded by a grant that initially didn’t let them spend money on physical gatherings, they realized that the in-person component was important to their work in connecting people, and convinced their funders to allow them to host events, although Murphy did note later in discussion that the digital interaction was critical and allowed for a scale of reach and impact that live events couldn’t have for them.

Reed Robinson continued the thread of being a member of multiple communities, displaying how his work at an industrial design and product development firm supported his work with Beta.MN supporting local start-ups. In finding points where needs and resources match up in different parts of his work, and acting as a hub between all his different communities, Beta has been able to support new creative endeavors. He also noted that in putting the founders and creative individuals first, and by gathering them in a comfortable space, it enables knowledge sharing within the network and strengthens the community as a whole.

From those perspectives and experiences, conversation continued amongst attendees, who shared their own community needs and offerings, as well as identified intersections of interest and potential future partners. Coming out of the event, there were balancing contradictions for what works best in creating community – throwing out the rules and embracing a flexible identity brings people in, but having a strong idea and core set of principles gives you a reference point from which to work. The use of digital media and interaction is powerful and has a large scale impact, but in-person gatherings allow for focused gatherings and resource-sharing, giving you more texture to the community. At the end of the night, one quote from Shane Coen on the importance of openness really resonated across the varied presenters and attendees. “An amazing idea can come from anyone at any time,” he said. “That’s true collaboration.”