Community Building for the Long Term
Harvey Baker, Barbara Lee, and Jeanne Quinn offer suggestions from their years of experience about ways to build lasting community, including thoughts about decision making, conflict resolution, and common meals.
Living or working with people does not guarantee community; it takes intentionality and developed skills to build and maintain ongoing community. Even if the group is well established, the sense of community has a periodic ebb and flow, characteristic of the best of long-term personal relationships.
Years of experience with residential situations indicate that certain structural and subtle, nonstructural elements help to maintain the community over time. Processes and agreements for membership help create group identity and commitment. They introduce the skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to maintain the group and provide guidelines for exclusion if necessary to protect the group. Clear expectations and agreements are absolutely necessary for long-term harmony and clarity of purpose.
For best results, these guidelines are created by consensus. Consensus decision making, though not the only possible method for community meetings, inherently encourages community. Consensus requires integration, listening, flexibility, and patience. Although reaching consensus can be slow, a well-built consensus usually reflects a more thorough consideration of the issues. It avoids the tyranny of the majority and the disenfranchisement of the minority, both of which are destructive of community spirit. Because everyone owns the final decision, it is more likely to succeed, with less griping and sabotage.
Clear meeting process and good facilitation are extremely valuable. Both help bring out the widest perspectives, enabling each person to feel heard. There is a tendency for the facilitator to be seen as a leader or chair of the group; however, the facilitator is ideally the servant of the group and the meeting process, creating an atmosphere in which everyone can think and communicate well. The role of facilitator is best shared among several people, both to reduce the leader image and to provide alternates when one facilitator is personally involved in a controversial issue. As the group gains meeting experience, members understand more deeply their responsibility to think clearly, stay focused, and make relevant contributions to the discussions. As individuals repeatedly contribute to group solutions, they feel increasingly empowered as members of the community and more able to take on additional responsibility.
Agreement to try to resolve conflict as it arises is another important element for long-term community health. Conflict is inevitable in any group and can be viewed as a major opportunity for personal and community growth. Unresolved conflict is destructive of community, whereas successfully resolved conflict builds community. As with consensus decision making, an agreement to work toward a mutual solution, rather than an imposed judgment or political victory, requires effort to see both sides, understand more fully the basis of the problem, and (sometimes reluctantly and painfully) to work together to find a mutually agreeable solution. Successes with small conflicts build confidence in the process and prepare people both emotionally and experientially for dealing with larger issues. The community is strengthened as members improve their skills in conflict resolution, mediation, facilitation, and other community-building activities.
In other areas of shared responsibilities (i.e., energy, money, attention, expertise), the methods used to provide and distribute community resources will build community if chosen wisely. Neither legislating numerical equality nor allowing the burden to fall on a small fraction of the group will build responsiveness to the community’s needs, or a willingness in each member to freely contribute his or her share.
There are also more subtle factors to consider, almost universal in human culture because of their powerful combination of practical and symbolic values. One is “place” — a locale, preferably identified with the group rather than any one individual. Place can be very important in community identity and spirit.
Another is working together. Work demands cooperation, decision making, and trust. Working together reveals different facets of people’s characters, personalities, and abilities that talking alone cannot. By giving the group a common goal, work gives meaning and expression to membership in the group. As goals are met, the group identifies with the success.
One of the most binding of human activities seems to be eating together. From the Last Supper to the PTA potluck, preparing and sharing the essentials for life provide opportunities for both a profound giving of ourselves and a pleasant social occasion. As we share space, time, energy, and food, community becomes associated with the fulfilling of our most basic human needs.
Finally, any community benefits from periodic boosts. Examples include assessment and reevaluation of purpose, common agreements to read and discuss informational or inspirational materials, workshops to build community skills, and planned activities specifically designed to bring members closer to each other and to the ideals they are trying to live out together.
About the Authors
Barbara Lee is a nature educator, gardener, and peace and ecology activist. She has lived in Dunmire Hollow for ten years, and is a member of a community-building church in Nashville.
Jeanne Quinn is a ceramic artist, and lives in a group house in Seattle. She is a past president of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, and has been active in NASCO. She lived with Harvey and Barbara in Dunmire Hollow for five months while building a reproduction of a Greek temple.
This article was first published in the Spring 1990 issue of Communique, the newsletter of the Foundation for Community Encouragement.