What We Mean When We Say Community | 500 in 5

Another post in our 5th anniversary series of posts - looking back, taking stock, looking forward. Check out our other posts in this series.

When NSS started back in 2012, I identified Community as one of our five core beliefs/values. Of those five beliefs, Community is the one where my understanding, appreciation, and belief have most evolved and deepened. Based on what I’ve experienced at NSS over the past five years, I now believe that my initial understanding of community was valid but incomplete and, to a degree, superficial.

So what does Community mean? It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot to mean various things. A lot of the time, it seems like a pretty empty word. It sounds good, a kind of painless “talk the talk” thing to say. But what does it mean to “walk the walk” if you really value community?

In a “big picture” sense, when I first identified community as a core NSS value in 2012 I started with some words I had known for most of my life but had been recently reminded of. The original context was different but I think the meaning transcends that particular context. The words are from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

More tactically, when we launched NSS we were thinking of community in two senses.

We Live in Nashville

First, and most obviously, we were thinking about community based on physical location, as in “we live in Nashville.” Our focus, from founding until today, has been on graduating junior developers and helping them launch their careers in Nashville. Initially, we even focused our student recruiting only locally.

Those of us involved in helping to launch NSS are all Nashville-area residents and we sought to create benefits to our local community through helping to create a larger workforce of software developers, a larger pool of people with high-paying jobs and strong long-term career prospects. And to the extent that those who we trained were rooted in Nashville, we would be helping individual Nashvillians and their families upgrade their incomes, their careers and their ability to help make our shared local community stronger.

Nashville’s Tech Community

Secondly, we thought of community in terms of a “shared community of practice,” in other words, the Nashville tech community. This community certainly overlaps with the first definition, but it is separate. And in fact the “Nashville tech community” is really a cluster of smaller, overlapping communities - the PHP community, the enterprise IT community, the open source developer community, and so on.

When we started NSS, I already realized that the Nashville tech community is pretty special and unlike the tech communities I had seen in cities such as Boston or either Northern or Southern California. It’s not perfect in Nashville (obligatory spitting out of Nashville Kool-Aid), but it is pretty damn good. We’re still a bit Southern, still a bit small town. We’re part of a broader Nashville creative community that is intensely collaborative (it’s that music thing) which in turn informs the culture of the rest of our large creative community - even the tech creatives. And we had (and still have) a chip on our collective shoulder when it comes to those “real” tech cities.

All of the above adds up to a tech community that is very welcoming to newcomers, whether experienced or total newbies. Nashville’s tech community is ready to meet newbies more than half-way in terms of answering questions, mentoring, and invitations to collaborate.

Our students have benefitted from this open tech community in so many ways. It made it possible for our students to get out to monthly meetups and user group meetings and build a real professional network before they graduated from NSS, to have real working developers as resources for their questions about job search and interviewing and the rest of that scary process of getting their first real developer job. As a startup school, and as a non-profit with limited financial resources, the community provided far more career development support in our first several years than we could ever have managed and it still is a huge asset for our students and graduates.

Do all of our students and graduates actively participate in all that our local tech community offers? No, of course not. People belong to lots of different communities around location, work, church, school, etc. and not everyone can or wants to participate equally in all of these at all times of their life. But we all benefit from strong communities.

As a community-based non-profit we have tried in turn to support the local tech community through encouraging our students to volunteer at local tech events, hosting meetups and other local groups at our facility, and more recently by starting to use some of our financial resources to invest back into the community with sponsorships and such. As our resources have slowly expanded, we see it as part of our responsibility to feed some of those resources back into the community.

A Deeper Community

In the past couple of years I have started to see that the idea of community extends well beyond just geographic proximity and shared community of practice. For many of our students and graduates, I see another layer or dimension of community. I have struggled to better understand and articulate what I’m seeing and what it means to our students, graduates, and the other community circles that overlap with the NSS community. I think it has to do with making deeper, emotional connections with others, about getting outside of ourselves.

I still don’t know how to best express this additional meaning of community that goes beyond how we first thought of community when we started NSS. But as I’ve wrestled with how to think about this I have found other people who express what I’m seeing better than I can. Here’s Megan Ducharme on NSS & community. Megan is a graduate of NSS (from cohort 15) and now is a member of our team as a junior instructor:

Whenever a prospective student asks me what I love the most about NSS, community is always my answer. I LOVE that each cohort is rich in diversity. Each student comes to NSS with their own unique story, whether they are coming straight from college, or they were a stay-at-home-Mom, a baker, a teacher, or owned their own business, and with their backgrounds come their unique approaches to problems. The diversity (obviously) brings about understanding and respect of people who are different than you, and my favorite part is when a group of people get together who all want to make a life-change and want to take control of their future and all of the sudden the students want this experience for their classmates just as much as they want it for themselves. It creates an amazing atmosphere that has a "rising tide raises all boats" mentality. This group of people who started as a diverse group of strangers ends up graduating as a unit that accomplished something together and it's pretty awesome to watch!

I think the community aspect of NSS is our differentiator. It allows us to teach much more than the hard skill of programming. It also allows us to teach teamwork and interpersonal communication because of the people we welcome into our NSS community. We all get the opportunity to learn from each other, and that always means a diverse cohort.

We are now seeing NSS as a catalyst for the creation of new community circles. It’s been fascinating to watch each individual class at NSS create its own identity that evolves and grows during the students’ time at NSS and often times even well beyond graduation. More recently, we’ve seen graduates of NSS take the initiative to form an NSS alumni organization. We’ve seen those alumni start to organize events, like their recent first hackathon, where alumni came back to NSS to team with students and help students become part of this broader community fabric that’s been growing here in Nashville. Watching this happen has been very rewarding for me personally and I feel a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for our alumni who care enough to come and give back to our newer students and to “pay it forward” to benefit those coming behind them into the community.

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