Perhaps you’ve realized that the demographics of your community are changing and you want to learn more about your new neighbors. Or maybe you have determined that pressing concerns in your community aren’t being met by other groups. Have the tragedies of 9/11 or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq moved you to reach out internationally to make life better for others? Perhaps you have begun a relationship with a woman quite different from yourself and want to build upon it.
We believe a few committed women in your community can do amazing things – WTB has taught us that. If our Chinese sisters are correct in their proverb that “women can hold up half the sky” then only the sky is the limit for what you and a few committed women can do in your community.
These tips are not just for women’s groups. Think carefully about your intention, whom you will invite, and the social and cultural dynamics involved. Be sensitive to gender in cultures other than your own. Our experience is with women because we wanted to hear the voices of women independent of the men in their family or community.
So if you are interested in forming a vibrant, interfaith group such as WTB, here are some tips from our co-founder Betsy Wiggins:
Set a vision for your group
We suggest you spend several hours working on the focus for your group. Will it be social, service-oriented or political? Discuss your concept with people in your family, at your place of worship, during community activities, at work. Listen to their concerns. Be open to responses that might widen or narrow your scope. Make notes, get ideas from the people you talk to. Keep track of the development of your idea, since this will help you develop a vision statement.
Get help in getting organized
Enlist supportive people to help you share your ideas. Inquire who might be interested in your project and ask them if they will help you network. WTB began outside of institutional religious groups but found great support from within them. Remember college students as well as retired people because they will ask you challenging and provocative questions. Ask for their advice, support and further networking opportunities to those they feel would be responsive to your project.
Host a meeting
Bring together a diverse group of interested people to brainstorm. Try to get a good mix of religions, professions, ethnicities and age groups. If they are responsive to your issues, and choose to engage you in conversation, you will begin to understand the basis of their perspectives. It may cause you to re-evaluate your own perspective and refocus your planning.
We found that casual meetings in someone’s home work best at the start. Choose a central location and provide transportation, because it is a barrier for some, including a significant part of your target community that might otherwise not be able to be involved. Invite the people to bring food to share so participants feel they are contributing. Sharing food together at the beginning also helps ease tension and gives people a chance to meet informally before the discussion. But do start that discussion in a timely way, as we find everyone lives busy lives and appreciates timely meetings. Be sure to make introductions as you begin.
Keep the discussion moving
We found a helpful technique to inhibit the loquacious and encourage the reluctant: use a talking stick. Sometimes it’s a feather, other times an artificial flower – anything will do. A woman can only talk when she holds the talking stick. When she’s finished she offers it to another person. We found this kept statements short, focused our attention and eliminated people talking over each other. Hearing the thoughts, opinions, and personal stories of others, without the immediate opportunity to share a response, resulted in increased contemplation, new understandings and new questions.
Be sensitive to the cultural differences in your group. Early on, we found that many non-native Muslims did not jump in to contribute ideas. This was not their style. They are contemplative, often seeking advice of family before offering their ideas. We learned much from their additions and alternatives shared later. Help participants know how they can share their reflections at a later time.
Once you have a group who are committed, and who share your purpose and mission, keep meeting! We tried at first to meet every two weeks but soon found that once a month worked best. We suggest that you gather three to five others to help you in planning.
Who are those people you first enlisted? Did you light up a light bulb in their head even if they couldn’t meet with your group. Did they say, “You should talk to .., read …, get in touch with this service that would be interested? Are your initial contacts still with you? If so, they should be telling you about good resources. If, not, why not? Are they sympathetic to your vision but too committed with family and work to dedicate time for your project?
These are difficult questions, and if you have a group that is dynamic, you will work out these issues to include as many with diverse perspectives as often as you can handle. Don’t let excited, vociferous participants manage your time schedule of meeting time.
We suggest you work hard to have top quality meeting topics, speakers and events that will draw people to attend.
At this formative stage, communication is critical. Keep in touch with those involved and earnestly seek their feedback about what they liked or didn’t like about your meetings and ask for their suggestions.
With busy schedules, many people who want to stay involved can’t attend every meeting. Keep names and phone numbers for those who attend your meetings. Send out impartial meeting notes to all who attended. We found email is much simpler than postal mail.
Actively solicit your attendees about what you are doing and goals you should have for your future. Listen and mark well your detractors as well as your champions.
Grow the group
Ask attendees from your first meetings to invite others to your next meeting. We found word of mouth was excellent recruitment, but you might consider advertising in free local weekend supplement to your local paper to try to elicit interest from people you have no other access to. Set up a schedule for two more meeting dates and locations and publicize them well.
Don’t let the agenda of other people steer you away from the vision and purpose you have decided upon. For example, a small number of early participants wanted WTB to focus on peace issues. We decided that was a part of our interest, but since another group in town was already very active on peace issues, we referred concerned women to our local Peace Council, which keeps WTB updated about its activities.
Revisit your objectives often. Know exactly what you do not want the group to be or do. Don’t think your group has to be everything for everybody.
Formalize your organization slowly
We suggest you devote a lot of energy to strong programs/events and growing your group before you get weighted down with all the logistics of organization. Start with a vision statement and short-term goals. Book interesting programs and develop a vision statement.
It took us two years to elect officers and figure out the best organizational scheme for our group. Let the activities and sentiments of the group evolve until you see what type of structure would best serve those needs.