Author: Paul Born
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #159
As a reader of Communities I am pretty sure you would have no problem agreeing with the statement, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.” For those of us who are intentional about community, it is hard to imagine how there might ever be another solution than to involve those we care about to share our concerns and needs.
When I was first married, my wife Marlene and I lived for five years on the ninth floor of a relatively new apartment building in Waterloo, Ontario. I am having trouble remembering even one significant conversation with a neighbor in that building. I do not recall ever having a meal with one of our neighbors.
We came and we went. There was little or no connection between us and the others who lived there. There was no green space near us, no common room within which to gather, no building association—and, even though many children lived in the building, no playground for them to enjoy. If there had been a fire at night and we were huddled outside in the dark and someone asked me, “Are the people on your floor here?” I am not sure I could have identified them.
This is a terribly sad story. I had no sense of ownership or belonging in this community. No one there cared for me, and I did not take care of them. My story has of course changed and now my neighbors and extended community fill my life. But as I travel the country speaking about community and hearing others’ stories, my experience living for those five years in an apartment building is far too common a story.
We are living in chaotic times, and I believe things are going to get worse. This from a guy whose wife introduces him as seeing the glass not as half empty or half full but as overflowing (though she quickly adds this gets annoying some days). Why does this eternal optimist have a growing sense that things are going to get a lot worse? Because the systems we have come to rely on are broken. They no longer serve us well. The environment is a mess, the economy is unstable to the point of being wonky, and people are angry and scared. They’re rising up all over the place, both against injustice and in fearful reaction.
Some may think my outlook is unwarranted. We live in a time of rapid and massive change, fueled by the hope of technology. We forge ahead, boldly believing that innovations are near that will help us address any challenge we might face. Science, we are told, is en route to curing every major disease, and solving every possible disaster. When this belief is challenged, the reply is confident: All we need is more time and more money and we will overcome this. We are asked to believe that we are a people of possibility, a people without limits.
Community, as experienced by generations before us, has broken down. Years of embracing individualism and consumerism and relying on government intervention to meet our needs have left us with few resources for building community. We live more densely than ever, but many of us do not know our neighbors, and most families are spread far and wide. Traditional observances and religious practice are on the decline. Television and other individual pursuits have stripped us of the skills to play together and share our stories. The frenetic pace at which we conduct our daily lives carries—no, hurls—us forward.
I believe that people want to talk about the future of community in their lives and the growing need for community in these chaotic times. More people want to be able to rely on their neighbours and families and feel the assurance that when times are tough they can reach out to others.
I do believe that this need for a good heart-to-heart between us is about more than just fear. There is an awakening arising within humanity. There is a growing belief that relationships can trump most problems. If we are going to build a better world, enjoying each other, learning to care for each other, and working together to build our future, community is the solution.
To facilitate these conversations the Tamarack Institute (www.tamarackcommunity.ca) has launched a campaign to help people to talk and learn together about the possibilities of community. The campaign is called Seeking Community.
The Seeking Community is organizing around three themes: enjoy each other, care for one another, and work together for a better world.
To enjoy each other is build the social capital and resilience between us. The work of Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard, has influenced our thinking here. The premise of social capital is that resilient relationships are the glue that binds us. If we know each other well enough and enjoy each other’s company, we will be more likely to look out for one another and care about their well-being.
When mutual acts of caring happen, you will most often find a deep sense of belonging. There seems to be a connection between giving and receiving, caring and feeling cared for. Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization has inspired us greatly. As humans, our ability to share in another’s plight connects us. Empathy is innate and natural.
To combat our fear, we can simply gather with others to first make sense of the worry and secondly, to work together to improve the condition. However, we do not want to organize against others and to allow our fear to drive our response. Instead, we want to unite our altruistic intentions, a process we call collective altruism to better the conditions around us. The joy of working together for a better world in this way opens us not only to others but to each other. My experience in building a Habitat for Humanity home is that those who build the house together receive as much or more from working with others as the eventual homeowner does in getting a new home. Altruism, when shared, builds community like nothing else.
In order to create spaces for and to inspire conversation, Tamarack is launching the programs described at www.seekingcommunity.ca.
Seeking community.ca is a learning community where you can share your stories and engage with other community seekers. On this site you can build your profile, blog, engage in groups, and attend online events and small group conversations. There is an amazing library of resources and papers to fuel your curiosity and build your knowledge about community. Once you join this learning community you receive a free e-magazine called the Seekers Journal that connects members to each other on a monthly basis. This learning community is open to anyone and is led by a group of 10 thought leaders and a community animator.
I have recently completed a book, Deepening Community—Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (to be published by Berrett Koehler in March 2014). With this book we have produced a free Learning Guide that can be downloaded at seekingcommunity.ca and used by people to both become inspired and learn together about community and how to deepen their experience. A central theme in the book is that we all have many communities in our lives and that we have a choice about how deep or shallow our experiences of community are. Living in a neighbourhood means you live in a community. Waving to your neighbour as you drive into your garage may be all the community you want—this is a shallow experience. On the other hand, inviting your neighbours to join together with you and each other in friendship is a deeper experience. Community, I say, is not an option, but the experience you choose is.
There is a growing interest in neighbours. Communities are hosting neighbour days all around the world: encouraging people to get out and meet each other. We want to help fuel this movement and so we have started in our own community. We are sponsoring the Uptown West Neighbourhood Association, a dynamic community in Waterloo, Ontario. We are also supporting a group of young people (see Eli Winterfeld’s story in this magazine) who call themselves the Stone Soup Collective. They are in the midst of engaging in their neighbourhood more deliberately and documenting these experiences on our learning community. As all of this unfolds, we are starting a larger conversation to discuss how policy can be written and adopted at a city level to support neighbourhood solutions to local issues.
Our short-term goal is to inspire 1000 conversations about community and have these recorded at seekingcommunity.ca. To this end, we have hired a conversation animator who is working with communities to host conversations and record them. We plan to group themes that arise from these conversations and produce learning guides and policy statements to strengthen community and investment in community. Ultimately we want to prove the statement, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.” To support this campaign, please host a conversation and then simply join the learning community at seekingcommunity.ca to post it.
In working with Communities to sponsor this issue, it is our hope that you, who are already intentional about community, will help us grow our reach to help many thousands more to also become more intentional about the community in their lives.