I recently learned about the distinction between "movement building" and "community building": Community building is for the people involved in a community, and movement building is in service of the cause itself.
A story I've heard from a bunch of EA groups is that they start out with community building. They attract a couple people, develop a wonderful vibe, and those people notoriously slack on their reading group preparations. Then, the group organizers get dissatisfied with the lack of visible progress on the EA path, doubt their own impact, and pivot all the way from community building to movement building. No funny pub meetups anymore. Career fellowships and 1-on-1s all the way.
I think this throws the baby out with the bathwater, and that more often than not, community building is indeed tremendously valuable movement building, even if it doesn't look like that at first glance.
The piece of evidence I can cite on this (and indeed cite over and over again) is Google's "Project Aristotle"-study.
In Project Aristotle, Google studied what makes their highest-performing teams highest-performing. And alas: It is not the fanciness of degrees or individual intelligence or agentyness or any other property of the individual team members, but five factors:
"The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. In order of importance:
- Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
- Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite - shirking responsibilities).
- Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.
- Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.
- Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact."
What I find remarkable is that "psychological safety" leads the list. While some factors in EA actively work against the psychological safety of its members. To name just a few:
- EA tends to attract pretty smart people. If you throw a bunch of people together who have been used all their lives to being the smart kid in the room, they suddenly lose the default role they had in just about any context. Because now, surrounded by even smarter kids, they are merely the kid. I think this is where a bunch of EAs' impostor syndrome comes from.
- EAs like to work at EA-aligned organizations. That means that some of us feel like any little chat at a conference (or any little comment on the EA Forum or our social media accounts) also is sort of a job interview. First impressions count. And, having to perform every day all day is a recipe for burnout and losing trust in the community.
- The debate around weirdness points. Some people have an easy time fitting in; I personally am so weird in so many ways that over the last years, thinking about weirdness points has caused me a whole lot of harm, while providing little value. Essentially, it has made me way more unagreeably weird, by moving me much of the way from charismatic weird to socially awkward weird. I think weirdness points are a pretty useful concept. But I think introducing it in a community with a relatively high ratio of neurodivergent people without doing a whole lot for increasing psychological safety alongside is essentially spreading an infohazard.
- Some EAs' push towards EA exclusively being a professional network. While some versions of this make a whole lot of sense (like strongly discouraging flirting at conferences), other versions disincentivize the warm and trusting conversations that are so necessary not only for building psychological safety, but also for building the personal ties that allow us to do hard things, and for having the big-picture conversations that help us clarify our values.
That's why in practice, my movement building currently consists of a whole lot of community building, and why I continually push back against peoples' suggestions to focus more on professional-type outreach.
I have done occasional interest-gauging on career reflection groups over the last months, and I have encouraged other community members to organize their own ones. But the interest was always too little for anything to happen. What Berlin EAs both fresh and old seem to want, so far, is to read on their own, and to attend and organize socials where they can vibe with other EAs about what they read and the meaning of life.
My biggest surprise in this regard was an EA LGBTQ+ meetup I kicked off recently, mostly as a fun project. And alas: The interest was astounding. Not only could I delegate the task of organizing it even before the first edition happened; at least two of the ~14 people at our first LGBTQ+ meetup had never been to another EA Berlin event before.
I'm not yet sure why socials and rationality skill trainings appear to be everything the Berlin crowd wants. There might be a good deal of founder effect at play and I just don't hear enough about other community members' needs. I'm still poking for what else could provide value. (So - if you are a Berliner: Suggestions welcome in this anonymous feedback form.)
But so far, my community building seems to create a wonderful container that enables and encourages people to do their own movement building, however they see fit. Through meetups that are *their* ideas, through meetups I kicked off and they gladly take responsibility for, through self-organized co-working. And, by suddenly texting me at midnight, "What is your take on how much AI safety field building is still needed, and what does the funding landscape look like? Given the urgency of the task, it seems insane that not more is happening. I might want to start organizing retreats. Can you tell me what's needed for that?"
If you get people to feel safe and comfortable and trust their talents around one another, suddenly a whole lot of magic starts to happen. People find themselves to be smarter and wiser and more powerful than they ever thought, and your movement starts building itself.
So don't neglect community building, even if your grant description looks like movement building all the way.
For comparison: That took three iterations for our Animal Advocacy meetup.