For some, community means a group of people sharing common social characteristics, physical space, ideas, beliefs, or activities. For others, a community cannot exist unless the people coming together care about and feel connected to each other. This nuance reminds us that we can have things in common and be in the same space, but still feel isolated from and even afraid of each other. By considering each other’s lives and experiences, and perspectives, we allow a community to be not only about what we have in common but what makes us different.

“Far too often, people think of themselves as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Community and community building are central to conversations about identity and equity. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, community building is the way we connect and interact with others during our antiracist work and discussions about race. By sharing our own social identities (e.g. race, gender, class, culture, etc.), experiences and insights in these conversations, we’re committing to building a community with others dedicated to achieving racial and social equity.

Stop and Think!

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu reflects on his understanding of faith, science, as well as his own personal experiences. He argues that a human can only be human by being in a relationship with others. How are we connected as humans? Why does this matter?

The Importance of Community Building
Humans have survived by living in communities since the beginning of time. We are born into families, and into the groups that our families choose to be a part of. We also deliberately seek out and create community based on proximity (neighborhood or workplace), shared values and beliefs (religion, activism or politics), and individual interests (book clubs, sports or hobbies). When we intentionally create a community for the purpose of a shared goal, it can deepen relationships, create feelings of belonging, and provide support for the health and wellbeing of all members. Community is a gateway to better understand our own lives and the lives of others and creates an essential foundation for people working toward common goals.

Ubuntu - A person is a person through other persons South African philosophy

Community Building in Equity Work

Ground Rules or Community Agreements
When discussing race or across any lines of difference, an essential first step is creating ground rules or to ensure open, respectful dialogue and encourage maximum participation. Here are some suggested guidelines on creating community agreements.

Examples of norms or community agreements we have used are the four agreements from  “Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools,” by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton.

  • Stay engaged: Staying engaged means “remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue.”
  • Experience discomfort: This norm acknowledges that discomfort is inevitable, especially in dialogue about race, and that participants make a commitment to bring issues into the open.
  • Speak your truth: Use “I” statements when talking. You are the only person who has your unique experiences.
  • Expect and accept nonclosure: This agreement asks participants to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions. Be aware that racial understanding requires ongoing dialogue.

Stop and Think!

Consider, for example, the lifelong relationships developed through created experiences like sports teams, musical bands, or fraternal groups. Where have you found community? How have these communities shaped you?

Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces
A long tradition in equity work, ground rules have been used to create a safe environment for having honest, open conversations about differences and identity. For people who identify as white, safety is often confused with comfort. In our workshops, we encourage our white participants to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Conversations about race may be uncomfortable, yet it is at the edge of discomfort where we can learn the most. Since we cannot remove the risk from conversations about race, we encourage a shift in mindset. By moving from safe spaces to brave spaces, we can rise to the challenge of having honest conversations that lead to a more equitable society.

For people of color, a racially mixed group is rarely a safe space no matter what the intent of the participants. Brave space requires different kinds of bravery for people of color than it does for white people.

The Power of Storytelling
In a data-driven world, we can very often find our world reduced to numbers, statistics, and soundbites. While informative, if we use only those methods of understanding our world, we can miss the nuances and subtle differences in what it means to be human. Storytelling is an essential way to portray the complexity of the human experience.

When community building, the power to share our own stories and hear the stories of others is foundational and uplifts us all. By reflecting and understanding our own lives and those of others, we connect our shared experiences and learn from our differences. This process of sharing stories strengthens our ability to consider different perspectives and builds our empathy towards others. Learn more about the science of how our brains react to storytelling.

Through the act of storytelling, we practice being vulnerable as we share our own stories. When we hear stories of others, we practice the art of deep listening. The dual nature of storytelling, consisting of vulnerability and listening, form two crucial characteristics of community building.

Talking About Race: What Stories Do For Us

Image: © NMAAHC, All Rights Reserved. Data source: "The Psychological Power of Storytelling," by Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.,

Stop and Think!

When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation?

Have you ever had a conversation with a stranger that gave you a glimpse into their lives?

When have you shared a story and truly been heard?  How did it make you feel?

The Courageous Conversation Compass
A powerful tool to use to seek an understanding of others is the Courageous Conversation Compass from “Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools” by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton. The compass, initially designed for educators, can be used to identify how each of us enters the dialogue about race and how we process the content. Recognizing and considering where each of us joins the conversation can lead to a more open, more in-depth understanding.

  • Emotionally: We respond to information through feelings, when a racial issue strikes us at a physical level and causes an internal sensation such as anger, sadness, joy, or embarrassment.
  • Intellectually: Our primary response to a racial issue or information that may result in a personal disconnect with the subject or lead to a search for more information or data. An intellectual response is often verbal and based on rational thinking.
  • Morally: We respond from a deep-seated belief that relates to the racial information or event.  This belief has to do with the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a given racial issue. The justifications for one’s moral views are often that of a “gut” or intuitive reaction and may not be verbally articulated. 
  • Socially: We connect and respond to racial information through our specific behaviors or actions. 

Source: "Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools," by Glenn E. Singleton, 2nd Edition (2015). Corwin: A SAGE Company. Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Stop and Think!

Consider the Courageous Conversation Compass: When you have conversations dealing with race or racism, how do you most often enter the dialogue?  From which area are you least likely to enter?

Throughout American history, from slavery to segregation to modern-day challenges, we appreciate humanity’s strength, resistance, and resilience. We even people find joy and gratitude despite horror and hardship. At the museum, we end our workshops with expressions of gratitude. We acknowledge the journey we have shared and the choice each participant has made to join in conversations about race in our community.

Gratitude is more than saying “thank you” to someone. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is an emotion that serves a biological purpose; it is a more profound appreciation that produces longer lasting positivity. Gratitude can help reduce stress in big and small ways, including the pressure that may arise in conversations about race. We show appreciation to individuals engaged in antiracist work because of its power to improve well-being, increase patience, and boost brain function. Expressing gratitude toward others seals the time we’ve spent together, enhancing the bond we have with each other as people committed to antiracist work. It acknowledges the humanity that is central to the work and says, “I see you.”

Stop and Think!

Who has helped you become the person you are today, and what is the number one thing you would thank them for? Who has made you think in a new way, and how can you thank them?

Recognizing, honoring, and embracing the differences in our identities can help us to be more understanding, empathetic, and cooperative as we work towards equity. By recognizing how we are the same and how we are different, we can know each other more deeply. This understanding allows us to create powerful communities dedicated to equity for all.

Examples of Community Building
Explore the videos below that exemplify the power of building community.

WATCH: Not In Our Town presents a portrait of a community grappling with a suspected hate crime after an African American family’s home was set on fire in Manhattan Beach, California.


  • In the video above, the Clintons describe the community they experienced in Manhattan Beach before their home was firebombed and the community they experienced in Manhattan Beach afterward. What do you notice about their two descriptions? What difference did community make to them?
  • Learn More about the Clinton’s family history of community building in the face of bigotry.

WATCH: Stephen Thompson walks you through his journey from being a ward of the state at age nine to Silicon Valley Executive and how he created a community to pave the way.

REFLECT: Stephen Thompson overcame incredible life obstacles, and he asserts, “My success is a symptom of my community.” Why do you think he feels this way? What have your various communities given you that you value?

WATCH: Angel Alviar-Langley (a.k.a. Moonyeka) runs a movement-based program for black and brown girls, welcoming like-minded women and LGBTQ+ people into the dance scene. Watch her and other dancers pop, strut and waack at the Seattle Center.


LISTEN: For several months, Brian Peterson passed Matt Farris on his way to and from work. Then, one day, Brian decided to introduce himself. The friendship they would go on to develop would have a surprising influence on them both.

REFLECT: Given these strangers have very different lives, what do you think is the benefit of their efforts to connect in a meaningful way?


WATCH: Students Demonstrate Two Community Building Practices

REFLECT: How could adults in various social settings utilize these community-building tools?

Get more community building ideas

Take a moment to reflect

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Let's Think

Watch below as John McKnight, a longtime civics community builder, talks about the importance of valuing people, especially those different from you, as bringers of gifts and not bringers of problems. What do you think of his perspective? What is your view on the best way to do community building?

two overlapping bubble chat icons, above one outlined in yellow, the other solid turquoise.

Let's Talk

  1. Consider the places in your community that people come together to socialize where you feel comfortable.
  2. Now identify the social situations that people gather where you don’t feel comfortable.
  3. Write down your thoughts for at least 3 minutes about why you feel as you do for each. Have a partner from the same place do the same activity.
  4. Share the thoughts you generated. Take turns listening to each other, one at a time, BUT NOT RESPONDING at any point, only listening attentively.
  5. Use the opportunity to hear what elements might make a community welcoming or unwelcoming. Conclude by thanking your partner for sharing.
three overlapping square block icons, top one solid purple, second one solid turquoise, third and smallest one solid yellow.

Let's Act

One of the most potent ways of community building is to involve yourself with other people doing something you value in an organized way.

  • Can you think of an activity you value (a hobby, a skill you want to learn, or a campaign you want to be involved in) to participate in for a defined period of time?
  • Now imagine a way to do this activity with a group made of people who are mostly of a social group radically different from yours in some way (e.g., age, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, etc.)?
  • Once you decide on an activity, consider making a short-term commitment to trying it out (if it sounds daunting, consider picking something with five or fewer participants). 
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