We Built a Community (on the rocky sea)
Community building can happen at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
I was a breakout speaker at OCLC EMEA‘s regional conference in Cape Town, South Africa on February 24. I was speaking in a session called “We Built a Community” and the day before a group of us had taken a ferry ride to Robben Island, famous as the prison Nelson Mandela had be held at for many years. We were privileged to be able to be boarding the boat and leave Robben Island. So many prisoners had suffered under apartheid on that island with no choice in whether to be there or not. It was a very moving experience and we all left the island reflecting quietly.
And then we hit the first wave.
And they did not stop.
For some reason, though I sunburn easily, I had ridden on top of the ferry with my husband. I spent the next eternity gripping onto my seat with both hands at the perfect angle for the sun to strike my bare neck and hands as we were tossed back and forth (literally people sliding and falling around the deck) wave after wave. My husband had a good attitude as did the family next to me getting soaked. I said that until we hit land I would not be happy and emoted that feeling quite well. Along with many other OCLC attendees I white-knuckled it the whole way back.
So many a mumble was made about the ferry ride and we all felt we had somehow made it back alive. Of course this is ridiculous but it was as least a shared experience. And that is what builds a community- having something in common; something shared!
The next day at the conference I made it a point to go talk to anyone that I recognized from the boat. It was a wonderful ice breaker and we instantly felt like part of the same community, not only of library professionals but of those who had been on the ferry. I talked with those who were above and those who were below decks and we laughed, traded stories and felt like part of something special. Later the trip organizer had mentioned being concerned about the effect the experience had on us all but I thanked her and told her nothing had instilled a better sense of belonging to me than having that shared experience. It truly built a small community.
My take-aways from this Community Building at sea experience:
- Shared experiences of any type can have value – whether they or positive or negative – sharing creates community.
- Take any opportunity at networking events to look for the shared – believe it or not my sunburn was a great ice breaker as everyone seemed to have a home remedy. (note: this is not an endorsement for getting a sunburn but rather for turning a negative shared experience into a positive)
- Break the ice – I took the opportunity at the networking lunch to talk to everyone I could including some high level officials of OCLC who had been on the boat and I am happy to report everyone was genial and open. Often it can be intimidating to approach people at conferences who are high level or well known but, though they may have been just as open even without this shared experience, what it did was give me a way to start the conversation.
I am so grateful for this experience. For the rest of my life I will be part of that community that was built that day in Cape Town and I am richer for the experience.