The community that we are aiming to create among the members in Collaborating Minds is one of mutual support and aid. We want it to be a place where people bring their own challenges, because they know that they are among a group of people who are committed to the success of each of their colleagues here.
One of the inspirations for Collaborating Minds was an insight in The Wisdom of Teams, by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith. Katzenbach and Smith say that the (rare) high-performing teams they’ve observed or been on are distinguished by the interpersonal commitment of team members to each other in addition to the commitment to achieving the team’s goals. As one team member said, “we gave a damn about the rest of the people on the team.”
We believe that people have the ability to create this kind of team simply by deciding to do so. The act of declaring an interest in other people is an act of will or commitment, not of chemistry. Which is not to say that it is easy in the culture that we live in. Because our culture is one that emphasizes seizing opportunities more than sharing with others, even if turns out that sharing with others is a remarkably enjoyable and productive approach.
This kind of spirit we are trying to stimulate and sustain was described very well in the book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit. In it, Solnit looks at what happens in a very unusual setting, where disasters have just occurred and the normal rules that govern society and people have been shattered. Examples assessed include the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 9/11 in NYC, an explosion of an ammunition freighter during World War I in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Hurricane Katrina and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985.
In disasters (and I would argue in other settings too) people have a strong desire to help others. In San Francisco in 1906, with the city government and systems not functioning at all in the aftermath, people hauled cooking equipment out into the street to cook food for their neighbors, and indeed for anyone passing by who was in need. Communities of “mutual aid” sprung up where people helped other people, and there was, in the remembrance of participants, a surprisingly high and palpable level of joy amidst the difficulties. In the situations Solnit described, the key institutions aren’t functioning, and people feel free to improvise. They also feel a huge desire to give; for example after 9/11 bloodbanks all over the country were overflowing with people who wanted to do what they thought they could do to help.
(Not) mesmerized by what we have to do
Solnit notes that in New York City in the days just post-9/11, when lower Manhattan was closed and transportation was limited, but the rest of the city was physically largely unaffected, people were on the streets but didn’t have any goal or task to do. As a result, people could come out and talk, come out and share. The removal of the daily tasks of life made people see the mutual, human world that was available under the surface of the never-ending treadmill of a world they usually feel they inhabit. People could just be with each other, without having some particular end in mind, and that felt very special and very good.
The lasting impact — the example of Dorothy Day
Solnit relates how just the taste of such a spirit can affect lives (and ripple out beyond those who have the immediate experience). She describes how Dorothy Day, who went on to a life of radical activism, spiritual leadership and extreme caregiving for others, lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Day was 8 years old and lived in Oakland during the earthquake. The generosity of the people of Oakland to the survivors who came to sleep in Oakland’s parks was an inspiration for Day throughout her life; Day wrote in her autobiography
“What I remember most plainly about the  earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.”
Mutually assisting communities that bring so much joy should not depend on an earthquake or a hurricane or an explosion to happen. People are good at improvising and they like to help each other. By making it easy for people to know each other and for people to help each other (as they work together on other efforts) we’re providing a catalytic environment for this to happen at Collaborating Minds. Join the discussion and join us if that appeals to you.