aamc.org does not support this web browser.

    Transcript for Ask an Expert About … Virtual Community Building


    PENNY SCHNARRS: Hi, I'm Penny Schnarrs and I am the director of community relations and strategy at the AAMC. And I've been back for two and a half years or so, plus or minus, and I focus on our AAMC Virtual Community Network and helping the 30-plus internal staff with their communities and making sure that all of our members have what they need to connect. 

    AARON DILLARD: Well, welcome to the show, Penny. Thank you so, so very much for joining this episode of “Ask an Expert.” I know we've been wanting to talk to you for some time, so “Ask an Expert” is our version of getting to interview and talk to our AAMC colleagues, where we gather questions around the community for you. So, let's kick it off. Take us on the journey of what brought you back to AAMC and your work in community relations. 

    SCHNARRS: Sure. So, my whole career has really been centered around working in higher ed or health-related nonprofit, and it really focused a lot in communications, alumni relations, fundraising. And what I realized eventually at the center of all of that was really about relationship building and really at the center it was about building community and connection. And that was really important to me at the end of the day. 

    DILLARD: Awesome, awesome. Well, on doing some research on your LinkedIn profile, you refer to yourself as a community builder, connecting to other — or connecting others to create positive and impactful change. Give us some insight to what that means and why it's so important to you. 

    SCHNARRS: Yeah, like, kick that right into that next question. So, for a really long time I was really literal, right? Like, I know that for work to be important to me, I need to see the impact of what's happening. And but it was really, I was really frustrated because I didn't know what my actual purpose or my why was. I kept tying it to, like, a title — or trying to. 

    And if you've ever heard of Simon Sinek, a great guy, really smart, he didn't come up with the concept, but he cashed in on it and he wrote this amazing book called Start With Why. And he really talks about the concept of not what you do, but why you do it, and what gets you out of bed in the morning and connecting that kind of passion with your values and tying it sort of to the values of where you work and how the — that why, and then kind of starting from the inside out. 

    And that really was a profound shift in how I looked at things and realizing that there was that sort of connection in everything I did. That relationship building, that connecting to others. I have that affinity and I would say you and I have that in common, Aaron, right? Bringing people together and I really want to build that sense of community and not for nothing, but really trying to create that positive change and creating that impact and seeing that impact play out. 

    And that was really important to me, and sharing that with others, being able to have others be able to create that impact as well and have them see it play out. 

    DILLARD: Awesome. Well that kind of leads into my next question. Just with respect to your role here at AAMC and with all of those things as a community builder, can you just tell us more about what you do as a director of community relations and strategy? 

    SCHNARRS: Sure. I got really excited when I saw this position open and so as I mentioned, right, like it takes a village. I am just one piece of a much larger puzzle, right? But I feel really honored that I got to come back and be a part of this work. And the Virtual Communities Network, as I mentioned, is, it's — we've been working really hard to grow this space. 

    And when I got here, you know, they were really in pilot mode. And we had about 700 people in the space, and now we've got almost 7,000. And you know, we've got almost 50 subcommunities and we've got almost 40 people here at the organization who manage their own subcommunity, right? And it varies, you know, some of them are closed spaces with cohorts, right, for learning communities or work groups, and some of them are open, topic-based communities, right, like disability inclusion or curriculum, institutional advancement, something near and dear to my heart. And it's really amazing to be a part of something that can be this accessible and inclusive space that we can offer to our members, right? And that there's not a limit and that we can think outside of the box. And you think about, right, like there's so much opportunity there, right? 

    Like, so it's a space for our members. And when you think about, you know, you can come and connect with each other. There's a member directory where they can connect with each other. There are resource bundles right? There are volunteer lists. We are launching a mentor match. They can ask questions, they can crowdsource. We want to have this psychologically safe space where they can brag about the amazing work that they do, where they can talk about the stuff that's really frustrating them and talk to their peers. 

    It's sort of our LinkedIn space without the algorithms, right? We don't sell the information. We work really hard to keep the data safe and we do it for the members, right? There's not — there's no like other like intention. It is theirs, right? We want to empower them to make it their own. And that, as someone who again, really believes in that power of connection and giving our volunteers, our people something back, that just that gets me out of bed in the morning, right? Like that feels really powerful. 

    DILLARD: That's awesome. Well, you kind of answered my next question. So, I do have to ask you, based on what you said when you first started, membership was about 700. It's now about 7,000. That's an amazing increase. Can you just talk about the value of having a diverse audience within the community and the importance of how that helps to just expound messages? 

    SCHNARRS: Listen. We barely just scratched the surface. Like academic medicine is so large, right? Like when you think about the AAMC, right, we — and I don't want to get it wrong, so I'm going to cheat and say the numbers — but our institutions represented 171, right, that's 171 medical schools. And then you think about the 400-plus teaching hospitals and then you think about the 70-plus academic societies. Then you put in the faculty, which is, right, like almost 200,000 people, and then you put in the staff. and you put in the residents, then you put in the med students. And now we're talking about millions of people. Then you think about the people who are in the community, right, like advisors and career counselors. And you think about pathway programs, right? People who aren't even in medical school yet, like the K through 12 people. And then you think about patients.  

    And you think about these people in the broad sense of community, right, who touch on the world of academic medicine and thinking about people all around the world who don't even or wouldn't normally get to talk to each other, interact with one another. And the way that a virtual community allows them to come together and interact in a way that they could never do that. And that to me is like, yes. This allows — when we talk about the idea of DEI and be, right, like you — belonging to me is a word that we underutilized because we can talk all day about inclusion, diversity, and equity. But if we don't make people feel like they belong and have that sense of psychological safety and allow them to feel heard and understood, then what are we doing it all for, right? And I think that's the great thing about this space. You don't just have to be affiliated with a member institution. If your values align with wanting to help lead and serve the trajectory of academic medicine, if you have a connection, if you care about that, then you have a place at the table, right? Your voice matters.  

    And so, you know, we talk a lot about, I talk a lot about and think a lot about wicked problems, right? Wicked problems with like really complex, interconnected — and they don't have one way to solve them, and they're not solved because they are so complex. And when you think about medicine, you think about education, right, and the only way to really solve these complex wicked problems is when you do bring the right voices to the table. And to me, this is an opportunity to really start those courageous conversations and bring the right people together, to have those courageous conversations in a safe space, no matter where you are in the world, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, and to really respect and feel safe to have those conversations and not turn it into where we are in social media, right? 

    And so, I think that that's where these types of communities can really still make a difference and really allow for an opportunity that, to not veer into that kind of dark place that we've gotten to in social media. That's my hope. 

    DILLARD: No, it sounds a lot like the way the internet was when it first kind of was introduced, when folks had a little more I guess you could just say couth and respect with respect to sharing ideas and conversations and things like that. So, it's almost brought it back to its original sense, but within the community and being able, like you said, to feel safe, share your opinions, share your feedback, share thoughts, ask questions, all of those sorts of things. 

    So just that that's just an amazing opportunity, especially with those, you know, within that health care field to just have that safe space, especially with all of the things that, like you said, are going on socially that are seemingly more out in front than were before, and just giving those within the arena an opportunity to just speak to each other and also gain insight as to, you know, challenges faced, how to overcome, things like that. So that's really, really fantastic. I appreciate all of that. 

    On a recent episode of our podcast “Beyond the White Coat” with David, we discussed mental health and our own Dr. David Skorton, along with one of our guests Dr. Justin Bullock, both shared their personal experiences as the concept of community continued to come up, the idea of connecting to others, reaching out to peers, professionals, professors, etc. And those were very, very prominent topics. 

    Talk to me about the ideology of just that growing sense of community and how it can, how we can get back to that. I feel like as a society, we've kind of lost that sense of community, neighborhoods, things like that. But in that ideology, what are your thoughts on that. 

    SCHNARRS: Listen, I mean, COVID I think really showed us that, you know, this, the idea that loneliness is an epidemic, right, and that effect on mental wellness. And I think also we've sort of lost sight that wellness is, you know, there's a holistic piece, like there's more to wellness than just physical wellness. And mental wellness is one. And physical wellness, right? And then there's financial wellness. There's spiritual wellness. Depending on who you're talking to, there's like six or eight pieces. And they all need to be addressed, right, to really feel balanced and truly well.  

    I have always been a big proponent of building a sense of community, right. I think that it's not a secret that we need to feel a part of something like we're — no man is an island. I think that for some reason, Western society in particular has tried to kind of break down that idea. But I think all we've done is continue to prove that that is not the case. And I think that community can look different. I think that you can build community in a virtual sense.  

    I think that a physical hug will always feel, make your actual, right, like it has an impact on like something that is virtual. But I believe that you can absolutely build community in a virtual space. And I think that in the world in which we are existing right now, it is important to make the time. It is a necessity, an absolute necessity. And I think it's very easy to say it's a nice to have, but that's not the case. We have to. In a world where we are hybrid or remote or just in this world of technology — and I don't think that that means doomscrolling or mindless scrolling. It is having these types of moments where I can see your face or we are talking about something that is important to us on a discussion thread and having moments of deep conversation, not just mindless scrolling. 

    It needs to be an actual back and forth, like to have our minds actually engaged and connected, right? And I think that that's the piece that keeps falling off, right. The actual intentional conversing and an actual deeper connection. We keep saying I'm in a group where I like put hate conversations in, you know, like I tell celebrities that they're ugly or whatever. And that's the piece that people are understanding, like we need to put more good connection and intention into that. And I think it's absolutely necessary. 

    DILLARD: No, I agree. And that perfectly kind of leads into my next question. A lot of these, you've, I really appreciate the depth and the breadth with which you're providing your feedback and answers because it's so insightful just with respect to how things have grown, how you see things, what still needs to happen. And within that, what, if any, connection between community, or do you see, between community and success? I think a lot of times, like you said, no man is an island. And we oftentimes forget that we have help sometimes. So just what do you see as the connection between community and success? 

    SCHNARRS: You know, it's really funny because when I hear the word success, I sometimes feel it's a double-edged sword, right? Because we kind of hear success and we kind of equate the opposite of that as failure, like very black and white. And so, I kind of pump the brakes a little when I hear that word. But when, if we can really hear that word as it's an accomplishment of, like the actual definition of an accomplishment of an aim or purpose, which goes right back to my why, right. Like finding your why, your purpose and working towards it. I think that that literally you need community for it. And the idea of connection and what community brings to it, right? And community, you know, communities come together for different reasons, right? You can be a community of geography, you can be a community of practice, of acts of interest, and at the end of the day, all of them, you're stronger and better because of community. 

    And it's really interesting because — I'm going to use my wife as an example. I think a lot, I use her as my sort of litmus test because she's a fellowship director and I think about her journey with the AAMC. I think about her journey as a human, as an introvert, as someone who I think often thinks she can be an island or thinks that she should be an island, because often people think they don't want to be a bother to others. 

    And I think about the amount of people who either suffer in silence or come in and out of things like on, you know, in and out of the journey throughout the AAMC, throughout their lifetime in different places, right? As a as a resident, medical student, and then later in life and thinking about these people who are very specialized and think that, you know, they only come into contact with their people, their specialty, and thinking about the amount of people that they would, they'll never meet, the community they'll never have the opportunity to connect with them because they either think it's not worth the time or they are, would be a burden to ask a question or, you know, all of the those messages they have in their head, they just aren't true, that we need to get over because community is so much more important and that that's we're stronger, right? The sum of our parts is strong.  

    And I just wish that we can get to that, right, that we can all take a moment and realize that asking for help, sharing our ideas and then paying that forward to help someone else like that is the grand cycle of life. And that's what makes things really beautiful and better. 

    DILLARD: Well, thank you for that. And I wish you continued success in building this community. And with that, for those who are interested, for those who might be watching you for the first time hearing about this and say, Hey, I'm a part of this, you know, this large community, how can I get involved within the virtual community space? And so, can you just talk about that process, what a person might need to do? And you know, how if they're interested in, you know, becoming a part of this grand community, how can they do that? 

    SCHNARRS: What took you so long? No. Yes, it's very easy. It's free. It takes a few minutes. They can go to communities.AAMC.org. We do — it will take a day or two to process because again, because we want to protect everyone who is in the community. We do vet each person so that we know no one's spamming, there's no robots coming in. And then once we do that, you are off and running. You can check out any of the open communities, join as many as you like. It's your space so you can reach out to me in the community and say, Hey, I don't see a community on student affairs. Can we stand one up? And I will work with you to do so. You can say, Hey, why isn't there a resource bundle on X, Y, Z? And I will happily work with you to curate that. But it's your space. Please humblebrag, please share all the great things that you're doing. It's not just about AAMC content. It's about the content that you think is helpful for your peers. And it's your space, so make it what you want. But please pay it forward and don't just ask. Answer your peers so that you can help pay that cycle forward. 

    DILLARD:  Wonderful. Wrapping up my last question for you. Just in looking ahead, I know there's a lot of work that you've done, a lot of work that you're currently doing. A lot of work still to be done. It’s kind of that now near far concept that we talk about so much internally. What are your hopes and what are your goals for the future AAMC’s virtual communities? 

    SCHNARRS: So, the now is to keep adding enhancements. Our mentor match we are going to launch in the next few weeks. So that means people can designate if they're willing to be a mentor or mentee and they can search for each other and just keep bringing people in. And we're having a whole string of topic-based meetups like this. 

    The next one is going to run the next over February and March over the topic of poverty and academic medicine. So, we'll continue to have topic-based just discussions so people can meet each other in the communities.  

    The near is to keep those going and figuring out and hearing from our community members to continue to grow our Champions group. We've got about 60 members in that group who are modeling the behavior and helping to be the voices of people in the community to continue to stand up those topic-based communities and grow those spaces and to bring our lurkers — lurkers or people too — people who just look, but to really bring our lurkers into the conversations. Because again, it's our member's space. I can answer, I can help connect people, but I want them to feel empowered to do that, right. Like no one cares that Penny Schnarrs is in there posting. Like I want them to feel empowered to do that. And to continue to just grow the space, make sure it's functioning, and to get the word out and bring more people, right, members of our member institutions, but also the larger community. 

    And then the far? You know, I'm an idealist, but I have hope that we can solve this wicked problem and get the right voices at the table and have these courageous conversations and really have these deep, meaningful talks and really start to move the dial, that's my real hope. And it won't be easy. It won't be solved overnight. But I think that this is a tool that could get us closer. And I hope that we get there. 

    DILLARD: Well, with you driving the ship, I know they are in good hands. So, I thank you so, so very much, Penny, for your time. I know you have an extremely busy schedule, so thank you so much for fitting us in. Penny Schnarrs, director of community relations and strategy here at AAMC and the leader of our virtual community space. Thank you for your time, your story, your expertise. We truly appreciate you.  

    And for those watching, if you are part of our community and have a question for our next expert, please be sure to follow us at AAMCToday on X, formerly known as Twitter, or Instagram. And you can also join our community, as Penny said, at communities.aamc.org. And we will see you next time on the next episode of “Ask an Expert.” 

    [End of Audio]