From In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World.
Claude Whitmyer, Editor and Contributor
AWAKENING TO THE COMPANY OF OTHERS
I awoke to the voice of my mother telling us it was time to go. In the cold autumn air of those last few hours before dawn, my four sisters, two brothers and I arose reluctantly from the warmth of sleep.
We dressed quickly and loaded the cars. Then the nine of us and two or three boys from the nearby air-force base, who had spent the night on our living-room floor, piled into three cars. We were headed for the Murdocks’, another church family, to celebrate the breaking of the annual nineteen-day fast.
The Murdocks’ house was across town, and the car heater was just beginning to thaw out my frozen, ten-year-old toes when we pulled into their driveway. A few church members were already there, and others were arriving. Hearty greetings were exchanged in the glow of the Murdocks’ porch light, which was already beginning to pale as the eastern horizon turned from cherry-red to orange.
Everyone carried something inside: groceries, cooking utensils, and thermoses of hot chocolate to push away the morning chill. We had no church building, no hall, only one another and our homes. In the Murdocks’ kitchen, Effie was cracking eggs into a bowl, fresh from her farm on the edge of town. George had a kitchen whip in hand ready to fluff them up. Sharon was laying out thick slices of bacon on the broiler tray and Willa added milk to the pancake ingredients while a square griddle preheated on the stove. All over the house, kids were horsing around with their friends, while grown-ups talked about the weather, work, births, deaths, and the price of new cars. We were in the company of others, and it felt good.
BELONGING TO A COMMUNITY
In my teen years, driven by a curiosity to discover how life worked and encouraged by the teachings of the founder of my family church regarding “independent investigation of the truth,” I visited the churches of many denominations. To my surprise, many of the people I met only saw each other at Sunday services. They didn’t have the strong bonds that our community had built from countless shared experiences at homes like the Murdocks’.
Our church believed in “equality of the races” and “equality of the sexes,” so women and people of color were among our leaders. Compassion and community involvement were implicit in our daily lives. Members of the church came to visit our group every year from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.
Growing up in this way, I felt as if I were part of a community of global proportions, populated by many different kinds of very interesting, warm, compassionate people. Thus, in the most critical years of my early development, I experienced the strongest sense of community I have ever known. These early experiences were, I’m certain, greatly responsible for my ongoing efforts to rediscover a sense of community long after I had gone away to college and then to the big city to work.
Although college and graduate school provided a semblance of community, from the time I entered college in 1965 until I moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, I was without the feeling of belonging that had given such richness to my childhood and adolescent years. And, I think I was quietly afraid I might never know that feeling again.
Then, in 1974, I became involved with what, at the time, was called the Briarpatch Society, a group of people who had been social activists in the 60s and who had become entrepreneurs. What drew us together was a shared belief that business did not have to be synonymous with greed, corruption, and profit at all costs. We were among the early pioneers in a movement that has come to be known by the watchwords “environmental preservation” and “social responsibility.”
To this day, Briar businesses are either directly involved in the environment or are operated in a way that greatly reduces their impact on the planet. Briars believe in providing the highest quality product or service and in giving something back to our local community. We share resources—from information and financial statements to shovels and pickup trucks. From the beginning, we have shared a belief that it was important to do all we can to ensure the long-term survival of our businesses and our community. To this end, we donate money to hire a coordinator who arranges technical advice and emotional support for members, as it is needed.
In 1983, I was invited to join the team of volunteers that provides technical advice to Briarpatch businesses, and, in 1984, I was asked to serve as the coordinator. My experience with Briarpatch has given me back that sense of community I had as a child. By sharing resources and interests in the course of the day-to-day operations of our businesses, members of Briarpatch have access to a rich community experience that has no geographical boundaries. While most Briars live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have corresponded with and talked by phone with at least 200 other members scattered around the U.S. and in other countries. Over the years I have worked with Briars from Canada, the U.K., Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden, entertaining them when they visited San Francisco and traveling to work with them in their own communities. Through parties, workshops, networking, and other social activities, we interact and provide mutual support as if we were all in the same village, much like Marshall McCluhan’s “global village.”
Briars have basic values very much like the ones I grew up with, including diversity in the membership, and a tolerance (bordering on encouragement) of a wide range of behavior. Through my involvement with Briarpatch, I have developed an active curiosity about how communities come about, why they succeed or fail, and whether anything can be done to increase their likelihood of success. And I have come to know once again the comfort and joy of belonging to a community.
WHAT IS COMMUNITY?
We hear a lot these days about a “sense of community.” More and more of us, we’re told, are seeking it. We talk about the African American, Hispanic, and Asian communities; the gay and lesbian community; the New Age community; the political community; the university community; a community of peers; a community of interest; the local community.
But what is this thing called community? Why do we seek it? How do we know when we find it?
There is something about being human that makes us yearn for the company of others, to be with and be touched by our family, friends, and clan. Moving about in the world, stuck inside our own skin, we often feel alone and isolated from the rest of creation. Fear and anger at the outrages perpetrated by the irresponsible drive us further into isolation. Introspective solitude can help us learn to live with this deep loneliness, but the only way to truly diminish the feeling is by making deep connections with others. This is what we mean by community.
Many people discount community as a utopian ideal, something unrealistic or destined to fail. Anticipating disappointment, they shy away from trying to find or build one. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, though. Many utopian communities have been quite successful, as the examples in this book will illustrate. But even these are not necessarily perfect. In every group that comes together in community, whether it is utopian or simply a small town, there arises a unique set of problems, challenges, and opportunities.
We don’t have to give up our dreams about community just because there are difficulties. Nor do we have to sell everything, pack up, and move to a communal farm to experience community. We can begin by inviting friends into our home, or by using the increasingly ubiquitous personal computer to join an electronic community. We can organize a ritual men’s group, a women’s group, or a business support group. More and more people are finding a real sense of community at the workplace or within a collaborative housing project. Churches are seeing a renewal of interest in activities that bring people together for mutual support and the betterment of the church community.
A sense of community can also be found within small groups created to meet special needs. There are support groups for battered women, cancer survivors, people living with AIDS, and spouses of soldiers sent overseas. There are groups organized to accomplish a community goal, such as planting neighborhood trees, building a community garden, or starting a day-care center. Hiking clubs, intellectual salons, and softball teams are sprouting up everywhere, just for fun. And, there is no shortage of groups—such as Debtors Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, or Adult Children of Alcoholics, to name a few—that are part of the “recovery community” created around the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is only a partial list, but it is proof that alternative ways of connecting with others are as numerous as the number of groups attempting to connect. The key to turning your contact with people into a sense of connectedness is the effort you are willing to take to make it happen. The rewards can be just as great as the feeling of warmth and love I felt that morning in the Murdocks’ kitchen so long ago.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT
There is a swelling new wave of interest in the concept of “community.” By the time this book reaches your local bookseller this wave will have produced numerous magazine articles and talk show interviews with the authors of the books you find standing on the shelf next to this one. But this book is not just a rehash of the usual words of wisdom on the subject. I have attempted to include a balanced sampling of the best writing on community of the past 50 years, and I have organized it in a way that I hope you will find easily accessible and highly informative. This is a basic collection that addresses the full range of the human need to belong.
This book offers practical suggestions and examples to help you understand what community is and how to go about creating it for yourself. The underlying themes throughout the collection are these:
- We need not be isolated one from another
- With focus and perseverance, we can build a sense of community for ourselves even in the pervasive urban settings of today’s world.
A lot of us today, and I mean people of all ages and all cultures, are anxious to escape today’s lifestyle of consumption, greed, and isolation. Television sets, CD players, and microwave ovens disappoint us as comrades. We yearn for a chance to belong, to find comfort in the company of others, to feel a sense of connectedness and mutual support. We hunger for some clear guidance on how to rediscover this sense of community. The concept of “community building” is fundamental, and it will become even more important in the coming decades, especially if our cities, states, and nations increasingly fail to meet our basic needs for health, work, and physical security.
There is a conspicuous absence of media reports on successful alternatives to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” This leads many to believe that there are few models for a new and better way of life. We fear that the greed and corruption that fed on the failing Savings and Loan industry in the late 1980s and the blind rage and sense of hopelessness that fueled the urban riots of 1992, predict a future in which nobody cares about anybody but themselves. It is the premise of this book, however, that there is no real shortage of positive role models for community building. To illustrate this, I have included, in every section, samples of what real people are doing to shape a meaningful sense of community in their lives.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
These essays are organized into six major sections based on the common steps that all of us take in our exploration of community.
In Part 1, “Seeking Community: The Need,” we focus on why we need community at all.
- What is it about us as human beings that makes community such an integral part of our behavior?
- What do we mean by “a sense of community,” “common ground,” or “the common good?”
- What do we long for and what do we fear?
- What do we know about the dynamic tension between our longing to be together and our need for privacy; the push and the pull between our quest for community and the ideal of “rugged individualism?”
Part 1 concludes, as does every section, with descriptions of actual communities.
In Part 2, “Making Community: The Task,” we switch our focus to the actual tools we will need and the steps we will take to create our own sense of community. We explore that special sense of belonging and the psychological processes and patterns of group interaction required to make it happen. We also examine the pragmatic aspects of community economics and local self-reliance. In the sample community described in this section, we hear a personal story about the blending of group process and community economics necessary for a community to survive.
In Part 3, “Finding Community: The Satisfaction,” we look at the special circumstances that bring a feeling of satisfaction to our community experience. We explore kinship and friendship, mutual service, the use of ritual, and mindfulness of the daily tasks and intimate relationships which act as the keystones to community building. Descriptions of two communities that exemplify the integration of these keystones are included in this section.
In Part 4, “Living Community: A Wide Range of Choices,” we explore some of the many options available in today’s world. We begin with a look at so-called “intentional communities” made up of people who live and work together with a common focus. We also examine the special community of love that is experienced by couples and which can serve as a foundation for the building of a successful larger community. Beyond the “couple as microcosm,” we explore the experience of community in such varied settings as the ritual men’s group, the corporate workplace, collaborative housing projects, living room salons, and computer bulletin boards. And we conclude this section with a fascinating account of the homosexual community as it learns to cope with the AIDS epidemic.
In Part 5, “The Dark Side of Community: Facing and Overcoming the Pitfalls,” we turn our attention to the forces that stand in the way of successful community. There is an all-too-common human tendency to create a destructive tension between the “I, me, mine” of our personal ego (which can be extended to include our family, clan, race, or nation) and the “them, they, theirs” of the Other so easily identified by how “they” are different from us and me. Because this tendency is a strong destructive force working against the establishment of community, we explore it in some depth. Our dual desires for a meaningful work-life and a meaningful community are investigated as the two primary driving forces behind the experience of being drawn into the destructive influence of a cult. A checklist for telling if you’re involved with a cult (no doubt our biggest fear in joining a community) is also included. Finally, we have two chilling examples, one a short story by a Pulitzer prize-winning author that depicts the potential horror of human herd behavior, and the other a true story of the worst cult nightmare in modern times, the Jonestown massacre. My intention here is not to frighten or thrill, but to provide an opportunity to look the monster squarely in the face and thereby diminish his power.
Part 6, “Tomorrow’s Communities,” opens with an essay describing what it will take to create the kind of democratic, self-sustaining communities that could be our legacy to future generations. Any description of future communities is by definition fiction. It comes as no surprise then that this section moves from conjecture about a future society built on the religious principles of Buddhism to a community example drawn from a work of speculative fiction describing an ecological utopia. This section also includes an argument for why we need to reintroduce the Anglo-European concept of “the commons” into our future communities and it closes with a clear statement of what communities in the future stand to lose if we continue to ignore the global environmental crisis.
I have come to think of community as a kind of vitamin. The experience of connectedness with others is as necessary to a fully healthy life as the minimum daily amount of each of the essential vitamins is to a balanced diet. This book will have served its purpose if it helps give you:
- knowledge of what works and what can go wrong
- insight into the many different ways you can experience a sense of community
- exposure to the practical skills necessary to build and maintain a community
- examples of communities that work
- and ideas about helping to make community a part of our future and the future of our children.
It is likely that what you know about community will be informed and expanded by this book, making you less susceptible to the traps of cults and political movements that use “community” as a justification for imposing destructive beliefs on hungry followers.
One of the fathers of the community movement in America, Arthur E. Morgan, who has done much to articulate what community means, puts it this way: “The problem of community, as of all society, is to save and to enlarge the priceless values of freedom, while yet developing the qualities of mutual regard, mutual help, mutual responsibility, and common effort for common ends . . . For the preservation and transmission of the fundamentals of civilization, vigorous, wholesome community life is imperative. Unless many people live and work in the intimate relationships of community life, there can never emerge a truly unified nation or a community of mankind. If I do not love my neighbor whom I know, how can I love the human race . . . If I have not learned to work with a few people, how can I be effective with many?”