I recently wrote a blog post in which I discussed the wonderful neighborhood community in which I live and how holiday celebrations enhance that community. There were several responses to the post, but one in particular struck me. The commenter expressed envy because she does not have a loving community and wishes that she did. Over the next weeks I kept thinking about that comment. I also spent time thinking about how communities are formed, how they thrive, how they can wither, and what can kill them. I combed through my experiences with communities of friends, Science Fiction convention attendees, writers, mothers, neighbors, church members, role playing gamers, Schlock fans, and youth leaders. My experiences with communities have taught me that communities and friendships are the result of nurturing and effort. Occasionally they spring into being effortlessly, but more often they are built and must be maintained. I fed all my observations into my analysis of the formation of community and I think that I have identified some conditions which can be used to nurture a community or even start one from scratch.
Communities are formed on commonalities. The commonality can be a location such as a town or neighborhood. It can be a school or church. It can be centered around a hobby or pursuit or aspiration. Whatever this hub for the community may be, it needs to be something that the community members care about. It needs to be part of their self identity. Getting people to emotionally invest in a community requires that they buy into the commonality and help form a shared identity
Communities thrive on proximity. The proximity can be either physical (as in a neighborhood) or virtual (as online) but the community members need to be able to bump into each other frequently. Lots of small contacts make people feel familiar much more quickly than widely spaced extended contacts. It is in the course of small contacts that people share the small details of their lives and which engage other people to respond, help, and care.
Communities require the cooperation of multiple people. One person can not create a community out of sheer force of will. If all the connections run to the community founder it is a contact chain, not a true community. Communities are like a mesh with connections running every direction. One person can do much to encourage the mesh to develop, but other people must also participate.
Community connections strengthen when members have multiple points of contact. This can be multiple settings or multiple conversational topics. All people are multi-faceted and they feel closer to people with whom they can share more than a single facet of who they are. This is a major reason why parties and celebrations can be so important to communities. The celebration takes the members outside their habitual spaces and encourages them to find atypical topics for conversation.
Communities based on acceptance and understanding have more durability. In theory a community can define itself by those it excludes, but exclusion introduces an element of fear. Community members must worry if they will one day also be excluded. Exclusion makes communities brittle and inclined to fracture. A community based on respect and acceptance allows the members to feel safe. People who feel safe are much more likely to emotionally invest in the community.
Communities have rules. The rules are important for defining how the community is to function. The rules may be very stringent or relaxed. They may be codified and set out clearly for all members to see. If rules are codified, communities flourish best if there is also a codified process for altering the rules as needed. Communities without codified rules have implied rules about how the members will treat one another.
Communities must police themselves. Sometimes a person enters a community and proceeds to behave in a way that creates contention or breaks rules. It may be open confrontation or it may be subversive and hidden. This person is the proverbial rotten apple which has the potential to spoil the whole barrel. In order to keep the community strong, this person must be managed. Ideally the person’s power to hurt the community is removed, while leaving open the option for the person to stay. Sometimes the contentious person must be evicted from the community in order to prevent further damage.
Communities prosper when the members work to build them. People are more emotionally invested where they have spent their effort. The fastest way to bond someone to a community is for them to feel needed in a community building job. Make work will not do it. The fastest way to become a part of a community is to volunteer. Spreading out the work among members also reduces the risk of members being overburdened or burned out.
Communities grow stronger when members are willing to take emotional risks. People can not feel connected when they are concerned with defending themselves from pain. When one community member is brave and opens up emotionally to share their life, other community members will respond in kind. Such opening up is always a risk, but when the risk is taken and responded to kindly, the community bonds strengthen. This risk does not have to be a huge baring of souls. It can be as simple as breaking the ice by introducing a topic of conversation.
Communities thrive when they don’t keep score. There is no problem with the community structure being built around a system that encourages people not to take advantage of others. But if the community spends too much energy make sure that the scales of cost and benefit are exactly even for each member, it introduces division and contention. Communities which encourage members to pay forward rather than back tend to be the longest lasting. Freeloaders should be addressed using the community policing policy.
Communities take time. They take time from each individual member who must spend it on community connections and events. They also take time to develop and grow. Occasionally communities form very quickly, but generally they grow slowly from few connections to many, from weak connections to strong. Trust in the community grows and traditions form. Over time the members begin to depend upon the community and turn to it in times of stress. Communities can also wane and die by the same passage of time. The growth or diminishment of a particular community is dependent upon the actions of its members.
Communities may or may not have a clear leader. Either way can work, but the presence of a community leader changes the internal dynamics of a community. If there is a leader, that person has great power over the community and a responsibility to act in ways that will help the community thrive.
Communities must allow for members to leave peacefully. People have only so much time and energy allotted to them. They must choose where best to spend it. Sometimes this means that people need to depart from communities. Other times conflict between members will precipitate a departure. If the departing member is let go peacefully, they are much more likely to return when the departure conditions have subsided. Additionally a peaceful departure process helps other members feel comfortable that they are not trapped in a place where only a major upheaval can get them out.
The list is not comprehensive and perhaps some of the points are arguable, but as a jumping off point for discussions about community I think this list serves well. It occurs to me that these same conditions can be applied to fostering a friendship with an individual. I’m interested in other people’s thoughts on community as well. What have you noticed that I haven’t listed here?