How to Build a Thriving Community

What does it take to build a thriving community? It can begin with simply sharing stories and inviting people to listen, connect across differences, uncover commonalities, and learn from each other.

Over the past 10 months, I participated in three story-filled events sponsored by the Thriving Communities Initiative out of Whidbey Island. As a group of participants from diverse races, backgrounds, and ages, we explored what it takes to build healthy, sustainable communities.

Story Bridge, a team that facilitates social transformation through story, led the first day of each event. After leading warmup exercises, Story Bridge facilitators gave us our assignment: to share our individual stories and create “a play in a day.” We were each to tell a personal story, and then, in groups, select eight to develop and perform before a live audience at 7 that evening.

Working against the clock, we bonded as a group. Differences in experience and background were no barrier to connection. Strangers quickly became friends. I listened as former gang members, tribal leaders, grandmothers, and activists etched their stories into my heart. I discovered that once I’ve deeply witnessed someone’s story, I’ll always carry it in me.

Thriving Communities includes movement, story, and song at its events to encourage safety and openness among participants. As we danced, shared stories, and sang, we readied ourselves to tackle tough topics such as the disastrous impact of gentrification on Seattle’s historically black neighborhoods. As difficult as that subject was, I felt hope as we all joined in a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black National Anthem.

Thriving Communities was created in 2011 on Whidbey Island to explore what can happen with “common people doing uncommon work for the common good.” Jerry Millhon, 77, a member of the founding team, wanted the world to know about the innovative practices he observed on Whidbey Island, where people regularly stepped up to address challenges that concerned them, such as poverty and food inequity. Thriving Communities began creating videos to spotlight common people doing innovative projects, then convened gatherings, like the ones I attended, to explore what helps a community to thrive.

Thriving communities provide safety and connection. We know that if something happens to us, we won’t be alone. We find opportunities for social engagement, a key element in preventing memory loss. We discover ways to give to others, which then contributes to our own sense of worth.

Millhon believes you build a thriving community by starting where you are. In times past, when people stayed in one place most of their lives or lived close to kin, it wasn’t hard to find a community of place. Today we may need to take initiative to find a community.

If you want a more thriving community in your life, try these ideas:

Connect where you are. Instead of lamenting that there’s nothing happening in your community, learn more about it. Take a class. Join a discussion. Explore the needs, strengths, and opportunities where you live. You’ll meet interested others.

Walk around. In some parts of the world, people see each other regularly while strolling the piazza or town plaza. In our car-dependent towns, many people no longer stroll. Walking is still a great way to meet new people, learn what’s happening, and develop a stronger sense of place.

Share stories. In the groups you belong to, encourage people to share stories. It will help you learn about group members, find commonalities, and build empathy.

Sing! Move! Dance! New relationships are born and strangers quickly become friends after sharing in an artistic activity.

Contribute. Whatever your interests (or limitations), there’s a way you can enrich your life by contributing.  Millhon suggests asking three questions as you consider how to give: Where am I called? What do I love? What do I have to offer?

If you love creating scrapbooks, start a group to do that; if you’re concerned with income inequality, join with others to take action. When what you do is done in love, even small actions can contribute to the greater good.

When asked why community is so important, Millhon has a hint of tears in his voice as he says, “Miracles happen as people come together” and describes women who changed Whidbey Island by sharing their concern about homeless youth and taking action.

Being part of a community, Millhon believes, helps us feel safe and connected to where we live. It also feeds our spirit.  “Community,” he says, “is the essential ingredient for living lives with a sense of hope.”

Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals develop and craft compelling stories. She writes about following your creative calling after midlife. Find her blog at and listen to her podcasts at


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