We Need Communities and They Need Us
We know that as humans we are social creatures and being part of a community gives us meaning and purpose. Communities are about connecting and being with others and we strive to ‘belong’ as isolation can be the hardest emotion to deal with. When we are in community with others, we give as well as receive and it seems that we need communities and they need us.
I wonder though if at times we use the term ‘community’ too easily? Do we reflect enough to consider what we mean when we talk of ‘community’? I thought of these questions as I shared in community over the past few days.
I love this time of the year. It is summer in Australia, the weather is (mostly) warm, activities are typically based outside and there is a lot of time for enjoying time with friends and family. For the past few years this has meant a short get away to a coastal town to catch up with some special friends, this year was no exception.
We visited Linda and Troy and spent time with them and their two kids. When we arrived we were welcomed into their house, exchanged some small gifts and were treated to a lunch where we shared stories and caught up what has happened since we last saw each other.
After lunch, just as we were feeling ready for an afternoon snooze that is customary at this time of year, we decided instead to start a game of ‘street cricket’. The plastic bin was put in place for the wickets and we established a couple of ‘house rules’ (the youngest gets to bat first, no out on the first ball, and Dad’s aren’t to run too much – a rule which definitely was not followed!). Soon enough after starting with just a few of us, we had quite a gathering from around the street as people heard us playing and decided to join in.
I felt part of a community that afternoon. We didn’t need detailed introductions and inductions and there was no qualification for joining the community other than a want to take part in the game. It required little effort to create, and being part of it made for a great afternoon of fun for a group of people who ordinarily would not share time together. Importantly, there was a sense of ‘others’ as we weren’t there for glory or ‘self’ and there certainly was no ‘man of the match’ award. The game was not about scores and winning, it was about ‘being’ and connecting with others. It felt good.
As Hugh McKay reminds us in his book, The Art of Belonging;
We rely on communities to support and sustain us, and if those communities are to survive and proposer, we must engage with them and nurture them. That’s the beautiful symmetry of human society; we need communities and they need us.
(McKay, 2014, p.1)
I had the privilege of hearing Hugh talk recently. One of the things he is most concerned about is how easy it can be in today’s world to ‘fall out of community’ and focus on ‘self’. We are building more housing in unit blocks that promote privacy and isolation rather than neighborhoods (street cricket just isn’t the same in a unit block car park!). We are spending less time communicating face to face and more time online and it can be so easy to be tempted into focusing on ‘self’ rather than ‘being’ with others. So what may ‘being in community’ mean in practice?
I enjoyed catching up with Troy this year. He has lived in the reasonably small town now for a few years after moving from the ‘big smoke’ of Sydney. I was particularly interested in hearing Troy’s stories of how ‘community’ works in practice. He shared stories of how there are many informal small groups that help each other out with a range of activities including sport, dance, garden-bees, fixing things up at the school and kid drop offs. Troy says he is a different person up here; he has slowed down a lot. There is more time for family and friends; life revolves around them he said, not just work. In Sydney Troy said, the greatest community he felt a part of was being in a traffic jam!
So what is this story about? Is this about encouraging more people to take a ‘tree’ or ‘sea’ change and move to small towns? Is it about more street cricket and time with neighbours? Is it about helping each other out and getting to better know your neighbours? Well in a way yes it can be all of these things, but at the heart of what I have reflected on in writing this piece is how we in today’s society, and particularly in risk and safety, often talk of ‘community’, but I wonder whether we spend enough time considering what we mean when we talk of community?
Do we create or belong to ‘communities’ just to meet organisational or legislative requirements or is there a deeper purpose and meaning for communities? Do we focus on ‘meeting’ (Graham Long) or is our attention on attendance? Do we agree that we need communities and they need us, or are we just ticking boxes because creating ‘community’ seems like the right thing to do? Are we creating too much process around ‘community’ that may in turn stifle their sense of connection?
‘Community’ perhaps is an overused and misunderstood word in today’s society and in our work. Do we reflect enough to consider what it really means to create and be part of a community?
What value do you see in community? What things do you do to create or promote community? What challenges do you face in nurturing communities? Do the communities you belong to provide meaning and purpose?
We’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
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