Monday, January 3, 2011

The Importance of Community

"Ubunto" is the essence of being human. A person is a person through other persons. You can't be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships."  -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Most people have a great need to belong, even the ones that don't "fit in" to the overculture. I am no exception. I have craved community since I was small and as a result have spent most of my adult life living in communal houses and even took a (failed) stab at co-housing. I have worked at collectives and worker-owned cooperatives (or even non-profits where there was a strong communal culture). I have been drawn to community since I was small (be they religious traditions or girl scout camp- anything and everything that I was offered, really). I have considered moving to a commune many times (but thought that the vegan hippies would drive me crazy). I have participated in internet community experiments as well.

Sharing without squabbles.
One of the problems with being in community is all the damn people you have to deal with (she says, only half joking)! People are messy, aren't they? And their individual messes tend not to stay that way- people tend to leak onto others- causing conflict, miscommunication, hurt, distrust, and strife. There are so many issues that arise when working or living in community: How does one stay in community when often there are one or more individuals who seem to not value the group- and are only looking out for themselves? How do we share the work equally when not all people are equally skilled or able? How do we deal with issues of leadership or power? And how do we share power?

These are the questions that take a lifetime for each person to answer for themselves, while existing in relation to others. Community only works when everyone involved actually values it. Nothing is more frustrating when people that you are in community with deny the connection itself and disrespect people in the community in the process. Holding people accountable to the community is a hard task. After trying to reconcile issues and having some frank discussions, if there is still someone causing more woe than woohoo, I personally have no problems saying, "buh-bye". Communities only have responsibility to those that understand their responsibility toward the community in turn.

Together, people can do amazing things.
These big questions about to exist in community, even in times of strife, are ones that can only be answered by the groups themselves- there are no universal answers that will work for every group. And what that means is there needs to be lots of talking ABOUT process before actually trying to use the process itself. While I am one of those anarchist-leaning people that wishes to have an egalitarian decision making structure- that model only works when all are informed and involved in the process. It's a lot more work than assigning someone to lead and just simply doing what they say. If you don't work for it, you don't deserve it.

No one that I have ever met has only one community. The world is not that simple anymore for most people. Some of the communities that I belong to, for example, are: my family, my school, my religious tradition, and the radical faeries. Each community functions differently and I am called to do different things and be in relation with others differently in each one. In my family, I am one of the heads of the household. I am a mama and a partner in the every day, and a daughter and a sibling when communicating with my family of origin. In the radical faeries, I am one of many- we are all co-creating community together in each moment. There is value placed on presence, showing up, reconciliation, speaking your feelings, and being heard. In my religious community, I am a student with an intimate relationship to my teacher and a handful of others. It should not surprise anyone who has spent time in a religious community that I do not like everyone in the community nor do I wish to spend a lot of time with some of them. Such is the nature of community. We have to be grown ups and be civil to those that are disagreeable.

So what does community mean to me, and what do I offer? These are questions that everyone needs to ask themselves before entering a new community. For example, I am considering becoming a member of my local Oakland UU church- a commitment that the church takes quite seriously- you need to attend three meetings after church that last a couple hours each before considering it. They talk about the church and volunteer opportunities, UU history and where the church fits into that history, and plugging you into what they have built.

Last month, I went to a great training in Restorative Circles (related to but not identical to the idea of Restorative Justice), a process that helps any size and type group communicate well with the aim at reconciliation. It is a powerful model that has assisted in families, religious congregations, workplaces, neighborhoods, and more. It is adaptable and flexible- yet strong enough to get the job done. I look forward to honing my skills as a facilitator in this model, so that I can be of service to the communities I belong to.

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