Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Do You Define "Community?"

Close your eyes and imagine your organization's "community." Is it a mist of good feeling? A fellowship of uncertainty? Does it have a human face?

Communities are made of people, not rhetoric. You can define a community by the shared attributes of the people in it, and/or by the strength of the connections among them. When an organization is identifying communities of interest, the shared attribute is the most useful definition of a community. The second is a quality of the community (strong vs. weak) as defined.

I've been exploring three different lens for defining community: geography, identity, and affinity.

A community by GEOGRAPHY is defined by place. It is made up of the people attached to a given location: a city, a district, a neighborhood, a country. The simplest version of this community is the place where you live. But you might also feel part of a geographic community related to the place you grew up, or a place you used to live, or a place you often visit.

A community by IDENTITY is defined by attributes. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I am _____" in the same way. Jewish. Chicano. Fifth generation. Artist. Some identities are self-ascribed (like "vegetarian") whereas others are assigned externally (like "black").

A community by AFFINITY is defined by what we like. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I like _____" or "I do ______" in the same way. Knitters. Surfers. Punks. People who go to midnight movies. Some affinities are lifelong passions. Others are passing fancies.

These types aren't perfectly distinct. A community of people who go to trivia night at a given bar could identify by geography (the bar), identity (nerds), or affinity (trivia).

How much does the strength of connections among members matter to the definition of community? It matters in degree but not in kind. A strong community engenders fellowship among members, advances specific social norms, and has identifiable leaders. Weak communities are more diffuse, with members who may not even be aware of each other. These differences are useful when considering how and who to reach out to when trying to get involved with a new community. But the community exists whether it is strong or weak.

Maybe you want to work with Hmong immigrants to Minnesota. Or art-lovers of Brooklyn. Or Santa Cruz County teens who want to make social change. Communities may be huge and diffuse, or niche and tightly connected. The key is to be specific in who you seek. My biggest fear about "community engagement" is that it is too vague. It's easy to say "yep, we do that" if you aren't clearly defining the work and the people involved. Defining the community turns an amoebic concept into a human reality.

How do you define "community" in your work?

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p.s. I'll be speaking on these topics at the AAM conference next week. Scroll down in this post to learn more.

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