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The Role of Community Building and Social Networks in Promoting Positive Change

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Many people feel increasingly isolated in today’s world. Community building is a way to fill the void. It can improve people’s happiness, give them a sense of purpose, and even contribute to positive change in society.

What is Community Building?

Community building is a set of activities aimed at bringing people together. It’s usually related to people who live in the same area (neighborhood or city) or who have common interests.

It’s an important answer to increasing isolation in today’s world. Rates of loneliness have been on the rise since the 1970s. This could be due in part to technology like video games and constantly available entertainment. Many people also live far away from family members. Membership in institutions like churches, that have historically served as community hubs, is on the decline.

Building community can create positive social change in a number of ways. First, it prevents loneliness and its attendant problems like premature death, heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety. According to author and sociologist Tracy Brower in an article for Forbes, health and happiness are rooted in community.

Building community doesn’t have to be complicated. Harlem Grown, a successful non-profit, began when its current CEO, Tony Hillery, decided to take the simple step of cleaning up an abandoned community garden. Today, Harlem Grown operates 12 community gardens and has donated over 6,000 pounds of free produce.

What are Social Networks?

Although the term social network has traditionally meant the web of relationships people have in their personal and working lives, it is now more commonly associated with online relationships. Social networks have been built on sites like Tumblr, forums in Reddit, in Facebook groups, and more.

Ultimately, social networking is a form of community building. Many people have found a real sense of kinship online. For example, youth in the LGBTQ+ community have often found support virtually they may not otherwise have been able to access.

When building positive virtual communities, people need to take personal responsibility to keep dialogue respectful. The sense of connection and community people enjoy online can be threatened quickly if the tone of discourse becomes more negative.

This played out in a very real way in 2011. A Facebook page created by Wael Ghonim is largely credited for the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out to a Facebook event created by Ghonim and stayed to protest former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. A mere 18 days later, Mubarak resigned.

However, after Mubarak’s resignation, the positive tone of a united community turned nasty. Some supported an Islamic state while others opposed this idea. People began name-calling and spreading false information online. Ghonim explained that Facebook’s algorithm ultimately rewarded more divisive content, which lead to increased polarization. Real-world violence erupted.

Social Networks and Slacktivism

Online activism has other pitfalls. People may feel they are taking action by posting a political message to their Facebook status, when this action is ultimately relatively meaningless. This has been termed “slacktivism.”

For example, in 2020, many people posted black squares on their social media feeds in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But these people often weren’t attending protests, donating to the cause or doing anything truly meaningful. Furthermore, overuse of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter frustrated activists who were using it to stay up-to-date on the status of various protests.

Overall, social networks work best to support positive change when people take personal responsibility for their actions, or inactions, as the case may be.

Video Thumbnail image of Censoring & Social Media with Raymond Kaminski

The Role of Community Building and Social Networks in Promoting Positive Change

Community building online and in the real world can help promote positive change.

First, they help people understand they aren’t alone in their beliefs or desire for change. It’s a cliché, but there is strength in numbers.

And when people feel connected to community, they are mentally and physically healthier.

Also, when people form community with others who have similar goals, they may be more likely to take action to achieve them.

Brower pointed out in her article that the strongest communities share a common purpose. It could be to raise children well in a family, to enhance a neighborhood, or correct a social injustice. Ultimately, when people work towards goals like these, society benefits.

There are challenges associated with all types of community building. People don’t always agree on everything. Group leaders or administrators must carefully navigate personality clashes and differences in opinion. As seen in the Arab Spring story, the algorithms governing social media feeds can also contribute to division and polarization within groups.

Intersectionality in Community Building and Social Networks

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School, in 1989. She used it to discuss the law’s inability to recognize Black women as a discrete group. The law recognizes discrimination against women and against African Americans, but stumbles when attempting to combine the categories.

Since then, the idea of intersectionality caught on in the social sciences. Now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

Understanding intersectionality can ensure that people building groups do so in such a way that everyone is given equal opportunity to participate. It involves recognizing the types of discrimination and disadvantages some people face, and planning to alleviate them.

For example, groups might use a discussion process that allows everyone in the room to speak for an allotted time. This can limit unconscious biases and ensure everyone has a say, rather than a few individuals doing most of the talking. Or a group might ensure a meeting location can be easily accessed by public transit for those who don’t own a car, and that it is wheelchair accessible.

In many ways, social networks can level the playing field and reduce power imbalances related to intersectionality. They can limit the types of discrimination that may come from speaking with others face-to-face. People with physical disabilities also may have fewer barriers to participation in online forums.

Using intersectionality has benefitted community building efforts in unique ways. A Narrative Initiative article described how an organization of primarily Latino farm workers in Oregon called Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) gained new traction when it built bridges with LGBTQ+ activists. Both groups defeated an anti-LGBTQ+ bill on the ballot one year, then worked together to defeat an anti-immigrant ballot measure the following year.

Recognizing there could be farm workers who are also in the LGBTQ+ community and LGBTQ+ members who are also Latino (intersectionality) ultimately helped the group gain more power.

Overcoming Barriers to Community Building and Social Networks

When building community, whether in person or online, there are always difficulties. Life is unpredictable and people are complicated.

First, there are differences of opinion and in personality within groups. No matter the common interests or goals, people fundamentally approach things in their own unique ways. This inevitably creates conflict.

Then, discrimination can come in many forms and may impact community building. Aside from big categories like race, people often decide whom to trust based on class, beliefs, or even clothing. This can lead to complicated dynamics within a group, and can exclude certain individuals.

Access can be another barrier for many. Participation even in online groups takes time and resources. Some people have more of both than others.

These barriers can be overcome with careful thought and effort.

Group organizers (or admins online) can set parameters for respectful debate. Diversity of thought is actually good for groups; too much homogeneity leads to groupthink.

Leaders can also combat discrimination within groups by ensuring all members have equal time to share opinions and objections.

When recruiting community members, leaders could also make an effort to include people from diverse backgrounds. When the PCUN leader in Oregon first had a discussion with the LGBTQ+ activists, they wondered why the activists had never approached farm workers before. The activists had likely made an assumption that farm workers wouldn’t be interested in what they had to say. They were wrong.

Finally, it is also important for leaders to consider accessibility in their planning processes. If a school’s parent association takes single parents into consideration, it may offer an option to meet online instead of at the school, for example.

The Takeaway

Community building is an important way for people to come together in an increasingly lonely modern world. It can increase well-being and confidence for individuals, and make positive contributions to society.

Social networks also play an important role in helping people connect with one another. They can help to minimize discrimination within a group and facilitate connections across geographical distances. Online communities can also be used to create positive social change.

Whether communities gather face-to-face or online, they may thrive when considering intersectionality. Strong communities may be built when leaders ensure everyone has a say and make groups easy to access. Leaders and group participants must also take an active role in encouraging respectful diversity of thought.

It may take time and effort, but building community can pay many rewards to individuals and society.

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