… building a better place for all.
What is community?
The first, and most important, ingredient of community is people. A community is a group of people who share a common sense of belonging to something. That commonality is most likely a place like a neighborhood or village. Sometimes there are micro-communities that form into a community – smaller groups of people with common interests who cooperate with other groups to achieve broader goals. This is actually the most common definition of a healthy community.
Unfortunately, more often than not this does not happen. It is not that micro-communities don’t exist – these basic building blocks of human existence are everywhere. It’s just that, for a wide variety of reasons, these smaller groups do not share a common bond, vision or trust with each other and fail to develop into a broader community.
Occasionally, where community once existed, it breaks down as neighborhood demographics change over years or decades and connections fail to form between new groups and pre-existing ones. Tensions, friction and antagonism can occur as the smaller groups see themselves in competition with others. Competition for what? Competition for the basic elements of life – for fulfillment of needs and wants—for flourishing.
What is community strengthening?
Community strengthening is a sustained effort to increase involvement and partnership among as many members and smaller groups as possible in order to achieve common objectives. It involves local people, local micro-communities, community organizations, government, business and charities working together to achieve agreed social, economic and environmental benefits. You will notice that people are listed first because, again, people are the necessary ingredient in any community.
How do we approach building a stronger community?
There are two basic approaches to community strengthening—top-down and bottom-up. These are not necessarily exclusive of each other.
Top-down approaches rely on an official or dominant entity (like local government or corporations) to take command and decide how to engage people in the task of community building. This, many times, results in gentrification or ‘cleaning up” a neighborhood.
Bottom-up approaches begin at the initiative of the local people and smaller groups. These involve activities that enable individuals to participate in the life of the community and take part in priority setting and decision making to influence and shape their local community. This is often called grassroots organizing.
When the bottom-up approach is used, it is entirely possible that the community can influence local government and other civic entities to work towards the community’s goals. It takes numbers, effort and some organization, but is entirely possible.
How do we build trust between different micro-communities?
We meet. We engage. We talk. We strive to overcome what seem like natural boundaries in order to find common ground.
What do apartment renters and home owners have in common? What do young and old have in common? What do people of different ethnicities have in common? We all need to thrive. Unfortunately, in the sheer effort to simply survive, we lose sight of the need to thrive. So, what do we all have in common? The need to thrive, to flourish and to provide opportunities and access for well-being.
That’s some mighty powerful common ground. When we compete for the opportunity to have more, we use resources against each other. When we cooperate, we get to use all our resources and assets together to work for the common good. And, again, the most important asset is the imagination, effort and resolve of people—of you.
Several things are needed to provide a place in which we each can listen to our neighbors—especially those who are not accustomed to having a voice—not the least is the willingness to take risk. The first risk is, of course, that no-one will pay any attention or be interested in participating.
Another risk is that we may not be willing to examine the possibilities and dare to dream. It doesn’t take a majority to make something like this happen, just a willing few. Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about the “beloved community” and risked all for it. What about us?
Another risk is that, if people in the community do participate, some may not like what they have to say. Actually, I would suggest this isn’t a risk at all—it is a given. We will not always like what we hear or share with each other. We may need to be willing to write with sensitivity and compassionate, but we should carefully avoid anything like censorship or appeasement.
There are many ways of facilitating communication between members of the community, but they all include access. Whether it is a small local newsletter or paper, a community bulletin board, coffee gatherings or community meals, only those with access can participate. The easiest way to make sure conversation doesn’t happen is to limit participants or ideas. Conditions placed on content are, by their very nature, exclusive. When we start asking, “who or what can be included”, we are really asking who or what should be excluded. Inclusion is open and welcoming while caution, sometimes necessary in small doses, presents something of a hurdle to many of us. This, my friends, is risky business.
So, will you join in the risky business of expressing yourself. Will you share your stories with each other? Meet together. Talk about your visions of community. How about expressing yourself by writing a story for this blog? Let’s join our voices together so that all may thrive!
You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Authored and written by Revs Andy Little & Jenna Zirbel.
A PRAYER FOR CARING COMMUNITY
— adapted from the Ten Commandments
Save your people, God who is our God:
From not loving you as we should;
From the worship of the gods of material wealth and comfort;
From making God in our likeness and idolizing our own opinions;
From using God’s name trivially to justify our bias and aggression;
From neglecting sabbatical quiet times and being obsessed with busyness.
Save your people, God who is our God:
From not loving all your children as we should;
From ignoring and not caring for the older generations in our midst;
From glorifying war and destroying those we claim as enemies;
From our unfaithfulness in our personal relationships of trust;
From the effects of greed and personal gain, no matter how legal;
From TV shows that twist the facts, and cruel gossip and innuendo;
From promoting accumulation as virtuous and envy as motivating;
Save us, God of truth and mercy. AMEN
Authored and written by Rev Andy Little