A community of technology community managers, leaders, and builders.

Vulnerable and marginal communities


Community Leadership Summit session in Portland, Oregon on Saturday, July 18 at 1:00 in Session 2

14 attendees

Empathy: if you don’t understand someone’s point of view and have trouble empathizing, ask why you are stuck. You won’t “fix” them, but can give them an opening for them to share. Make them feel comfortable communicating in whatever way they can.

A book, web site, etc. can give you background without forcing the marginal people to explain themselves and be the educators all the time. All too often, privileged people ask the underprivileged to justify and explain themselves instead of taking responsibility for self-education.

Be willing to bring differences to the surface–show that it’s OK and safe to talk about differences. Be willing to accept anger–but also see the positive message that it can carry. People rarely express anger to you unless they came with a message you need to hear. Privileged people will also make mistakes in what they say and do, and should be approached in a way that educates them; don’t blame them as “a bad person”.

Create expectations about the kind of communication conducted on your forum. If someone says something that comes across as demeaning or aggressive, ask “What was your intention in saying that?” And listen to the answer. Another response: “What did you mean by saying ‘sensitive’”? When a dialog ensues, leave it all in the archive to educate people who come later. A disparaging comment has to be accompanied by responses that correct it, or outsiders and people looking back later will assume the community agreed with the comment. If you’re too gentle and try to “play the therapist” with someone who makes an offensive comment, outsiders may assume you don’t mind it.

If someone makes an offensive joke, you can simply ask “What do you mean” and thus force them to put their racism, etc. out in public. “What do you mean by ‘someone like me’”? This can also be an educational moment: “Maybe you didn’t mean that as racist, but this is how it came across to me” and offer some detail. Or in a community that values “straight talk” you can ask “Did you mean…?” But is it effective to openly shame someone? It helps if you have expressed your own vulnerability first, others may be willing to be open and accept complaint. Another approach: ask “How does that pertain to the subject at hand?” or “What did you intend the forum to get from that?” Besides countering the offensive comment, this reinforces norm that people in a forum should stay on topic.

Some environments are hierarchical, such as classrooms. Modeling is important in such environments if you are the person seen as the authority.

Three simple rules for a community: This is a safe place, we take care of each other, and be honest. Important for leader to take the lead in owning mistakes. Also focus on your culture. Willing to delete a message that is wildly inappropriate.

How do you get people to pay attention to forum expectations? Leaders have to set a tone.

A group of people who look like a community from the outside may feel very differently about each other and actually be many separate communities. But remember that people are people first.

A list follows of some burdens on vulnerable people.


People are afraid

Fear keeps them in the shadows and limits their movements

People are driven out, are intimidated into dropping out, or leave out of exhaustion and frustration

People refrain from speaking up or making controversy


Others devalue them

Being forced out of home and work reduces their income and capabilities

People assume that side-effects are symptoms of their core identity


Their vulnerability makes them vulnerable to other illnesses

Depression, drug addiction, anxiety, suicide often accompany them

Their particular physical and emotional ailments are often misdiagnosed, ignored, or mistreated


They have to spend time, money, and energy affirming and exploring their identity

It may take a long time to recognize, understand, and accept their own identity

They cannot afford to do what they want or look the way they want, which comes free for people who conform to the norm


The strain of living in two cultures takes a toll

Outsiders don’t understand their terminology and outlook

Other people criticize them as strident, obsessed, or unreasonable

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