envisioning community

we need to dream, dialogue, and design… our peaceful preferred future – together…

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What exactly do we mean by ‘community’, and what does ‘community-building’ involve?

As this is not intended to be an academic discussion, I will focus on simply what most of us would understand by the term ‘community’, and on our everyday encounters and lifestyles that would build or nurture community, rather than further isolating or alienating us from each other.

What I am not talking about here is the field of ‘community-building’ – propounded by the ‘experts’ with mostly good intentions, highly theoretical debates, semantics and jargon… who usually fly in, ‘do’ some community-building and fly out again, leaving mostly bewildered people in their wake with nothing more to show for the brief, usually uninvited encounter, than a bunch of manuals or posters from their workshops… This is not deep, real or lasting community building.

workshop, or even a series of workshops (or any other community-building tool) cannot bring about change even in existing communities, let alone ‘build’ community (or peace/sustainability/social change…) – at best it can be an ignition point, or one step in a very long, ongoing process. Most people or organisations pay lip service to the long-term nature of this process, but do not want to commit their whole lives to a place or its people.

By the preceding comments, I am already implying that ‘community’ has to do with connections, interactions and relationships – and of course this is the most fundamental description of community. A group of people living in the same street or block of flats who seldom see each other, never stop to chat, and don’t even know each other’s names, is not a community.

A few million people who happen to live in the same country is not a community either, no matter how misguidedly patriotic they may be. You simply cannot ‘do’ community on such a large and impersonal scale. It’s the difference between claiming to love people when they are a nebulous group ‘out there’, and genuinely engaging with the specific, flesh-and-blood people crossing your path daily.

Community is about the dynamic, organic and often messy relationships we share with those living around and near us. By this I mean that community, much like family, cannot be chosen, frozen in time or neatly boxed in by our definitions and qualifications. It’s a mixed bag, a take-it-or-leave-it sort of space. Most importantly, community cannot be forced, engineered, manufactured, or tailored to our own specifications and desires.

Having said all of that as a sort of disclaimer, I would like to discuss some of the characteristics of a healthy community, and therefore some of the foundational ingredients required if one were to attempt to ‘build’ such a community.

In another article (which you can read here), I have attempted to explore some tangible, specific building blocks which can quite literally build communities …or at least, build for community. By this I mean physical spaces and infrastructure, and related initiatives – which foster a sense of shared living, and create spaces conducive to connections, interactions and relationships…

But for now, I want to start with the fundamentals of a reasonably healthy community – one would expect its residents to be friendly, polite, and egalitarian (for the most part – of course, there may always be a small proportion of residents who are rude, snobby or bigoted – this is not a perfect world).

In my experience, healthy (and friendly) communities are composed of residents who are involved and engaged; have a sense of ownership of local issues and community resources; and are active in local schools, clubs, social events and municipal meetings.

This sort of ‘true’ community is:

– organic: growing slowly and naturally – unforced and unengineered;

– dynamic: involving constant change and often messy interactions;

– inclusive: open to all, with no exceptions and no exclusions;

– multi-layered: consisting of people of many different races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, age groups and religious/worldviews; and

– connected: like a ‘healthy’ family, through respectful communication and interactions.

The key principles of intentionally building a community like this would be:

1. Conflict transformation: viewing conflict as creative rather than destructive – if resolved constructively, through proactive, loving and humble communication; forgiving; growing in mutual understanding; and forging a better way ahead together.

2. Celebrating differences: creating a ‘safe space’ for people or groups to be accepted – not simply tolerated, and not ‘regardless of differences’, but embraced and celebrated because these very differences make the community more vibrant and resilient.

Furthermore, the foundational principle of any ‘healthy’ community or society, is the importance of balancing personal freedom (being allowed to ‘be’) with mutual respect (allowing others to ‘be’). I find this level of mutual respect and empowerment to be particularly lacking in modern societies.

Modern societies are also particularly divided – mass migration during the twentieth century has resulted in rapid changes to the demographics and culture of most countries. This is one of the key issues to overcome, as there can never be full health of any body or system – in this case the community – when there is fragmentation and disconnection between the parts. ‘Health’ requires wholeness.

We need to encourage and embrace multiple ‘ways of being’ – finding common ground between belief systems and shared human values to foster new ways of relating to each other.

So how does one ‘build’ a community like this?

Aside from how we raise our children and what values we strive for in our personal lives, there are overarching processes and systems that can encourage this sort of community participation and ownership. Starting with accessible public platforms for airing grievances, and robust processes for ensuring an inclusive, egalitarian community dialogue on an ongoing basis. No one must be left out, left behind or rendered voiceless.

All community services and policies – government, non-government and communally run, must be transparent and accountable. Tangible support systems must be in place e.g. welfare, youth services and police… and these must benefit all, regardless of socioeconomic, political or other differences. The homeless should be considered as much a part of the community as the wealthy business owner or the ‘neighbourhood watch’ aunties.

Instead of building community, however, nowadays people and organisations are building their own little strongholds and kingdoms (however laughably small) – in community and nongovernmental organisations, as much as in the government or business sectors.

In addition, our culture today seems to have grotesquely skewed priorities – ‘peace’ (defined as being able to sit in a coffee shop and quietly sip my coffee without being disturbed by noisy demonstrations or having to face the real-life issues experienced by others) is preferred over social justice… and the protection of property and wealth/ the wealthy always seems to become the main priority of police forces the world over.

In fact, if we were all truly involved in our community, we would be aware of the issues and struggles of others living a stone’s throw away (yet it may as well be another planet) – and we would all be protesting the unjust treatment of some sections of our community together.

What can we do to change this unfortunate division and alienation between different parts of our communities? The wealthy and the less well-off seem to stand, arms folded, on opposite sides of an unfathomable chasm (filled with fear, bitterness, arrogance, misunderstandings and the pain of past injustices)… and alternately shout at, or mock, or ignore each other…

The solutions are complex, potentially requiring much debate, long-term strategies and even more funding, e.g. redesigning city suburbs and transport systems to counter the physical separation that is the evidence of ongoing racial and class divisions in our society.

However, change can also be very simple and immediately implementable: start by listening to other people, noticing their perspectives, struggles and needs… Everything else – solutions, strategies, policies, processes, connections and relationships – will flow from there. Even greeting the people who cross your path daily is a great start… Really.

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