Community

May 19, 2022 | Blog

The word community evokes different emotions. For some the thought of ‘community’ brings up warm sentiments, for some their experience has been negative and at times, painful.  With such a broad understanding of community interwoven with a myriad of personal experiences, it can be helpful to step back and look at what community is and then explore why it is important. The Cambridge Dictionary[1] describes it as ‘the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group or nationality’. From research completed in public health[2] a different definition is given:  ‘A common definition of community emerged as a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.’

Both these definitions feel devoid of emotion. Searching further there is a beautiful zulu word ‘Ubuntu’ which translated means ‘I am, because you are’. It is part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means that a person is a person through other people, embedded in the philosophy that community is one of the building blocks essential for humanity. The late Desmond Tutu said this:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. [3]

I find this definition beautiful, powerful and, also, challenging. Perhaps a rallying call for humanity? Where community has generally been seen as geographically local, in our ever-evolving online world the concept of community is enlarging. This is even more so in our post Covid world where community can be seen as transglobal with dynamic groups forming community via zoom and other online platforms. Yet in our western culture there is increasing individualism, a drive for personal success and a seeming disinterest in the world around us. Loneliness is a reality for many [4]. We need to rediscover community.

On a very personal level my desire for deeper community developed when we had our first child. Living in central London at the time, we were fortunate that our block of flats was opposite a small park. The surrounding flats were full of a culturally diverse mix of people which led to a beautiful gathering of mums from around the world in the park with their little ones. I quickly realised that life as a mum could be quite isolating; the daily rhythm and desire for sleep often disconnecting you from others. Where the park bought conversations and smiles on sunny days, on the wet days we could find ourselves each in our own flat missing the social interaction. It didn’t take long for there to be a regular gathering in our flat with shared meals and lots of little people, ‘more the merrier’ seemed to be the unadopted mantra. Our flat became a space of seeming chaos with numerous toddlers bouncing around and creating mess; on reflection what I experienced was the buzz of life done in community. The ups and the downs of being a mum; space to laugh and to cry, to be vulnerable and to encourage, to release each other to have a little space (maybe even grabbing some sleep), and to laugh with the little ones as they played and explored. The kids had fun too!

Leaving London was a necessity when we found out we were having twins – our small third floor flat with no lift was far from ideal. Moving west and landing in a small city with an active three year old and then giving birth to twins was hectic – I craved community, it developed slowly over the first year with our house becoming a place for mums to gather. Yet I longed for more!  This led to us as a family choosing to create an intentional community home. Moving to Bristol we took a risk; renting a large townhouse and inviting people to come share our family home. For seven years we lived with a range of people of different ages from 0 – 65, singles, couples and two families, some for short seasons and a few for the duration. Our extended family developed a rhythm of shared meals, evenings hanging out and adventures together. Challenges were discussed, dreams were encouraged and birthed into reality. Sadly our landlord selling led to us stepping into a regular small, terraced house for just the five of us, but the desire for a community home does not go, and it is a dream we still pursue.

What we learnt in that time was that life is richer with when shared with others; yet not always easier – we had often had to work through some tough issues – choosing connection, being vulnerable, choosing to forgive both others and ourselves, this is where community is built. In real, gritty, and vulnerable living. On our wall was a framed print with the words ‘May we catch each other with grace[5] when we fall short of who we want to be.’ This underpinned the values we embedded in our home.

It was during these years that we stepped out of school and became home educators; this had never been the plan but a decision we have never regretted.  I knew very quickly that finding community was key to us thriving as a home ed family.  This community was slow in developing but it did grow, as did we as a family.  What I recognise for healthy community to flourish is that we have to be willing to be vulnerable, to love, to sacrificially give, to open our homes, to welcome in chaos and mess. Within this, acknowledging we are different, we have different opinions, different educational approaches, different families and within this variety there is opportunity to learn and develop. Always choosing connection.

I wonder if deep down we are all meant for community, a movement from ‘me’ to ‘we’.  Individualism, consumerism, and careerism don’t seem to be working anymore, I feel around me a longing for more. Surely we are more than isolated individuals, more than the careers we pursue, and more than the stuff we own? In our western culture our lives can become fragmented, and yet, I believe we all crave connection. There is a deep desire in us all to be real and belong.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. [6]

Sian, Matt and I would discuss community and how it could healthily grow. Being connected by a mutual friend to Juliet our joint desire for community led to the birth of Streams; a place to belong, with a mission to encourage, equip and connect home educators. Our dreams for Streams are big and we are evolving slowly, listening to members, and growing in new ways that were unexpected. However, as we evolve and grow at the heart is always community. Community forms one of our core values: We’re inclusive, we appreciate difference, we know we are stronger when we journey together. Community is experiential, not taught, therefore as home educators we have the gift of being able to build a healthy community around our children.

Our desire is bigger than just our own children. Our desire is that all children grow in a community where they can flourish; collaborating, championing each other, experiencing loss, failure, and success, growing together. A healthy community surely must be the foundation for all education. With so many conversations happening globally about the need for educational reform, a need to move away from competition and standardisation, it surely is essential that community is at the heart.  To bring change we cannot go alone; our world faces huge challenges which are complex and difficult. They cannot be solved in isolation, we have a need for ‘ubuntu’. Only in community can we discover this; dreaming big dreams, championing each other, navigating failures, and, encouraging each other to believe for the impossible.

So, I hope you can take a moment to look at your own community you find yourself in, often it is there even if we don’t recognise it. If you don’t have it, how can you find it or create it, have courage to reach out to connect with others. Let us each to take a moment to examine our hearts, seeking to be more generous, to look out for those who maybe isolated, to be willing to welcome others in.  May we find ways to celebrate together, collaborate, challenge broken systems and create safe spaces that enable growth and flourishing. To do this we need to be brave, take risks, put ourselves out there, be willing to step up and lead for a bit even if it does not feel natural, and, importantly to catch each other with grace when we fall short of who we want to be. My experience is always that we are richer for it and surely the world will be a better place with ubuntu embedded at its core.

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/community

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446907/

[3] No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu, Image; New Ed edition (October 17, 2000)

[4] https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

[5] Grace, has many meanings, in this context it is defined as ‘kindness freely given’ https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/grace

[6] https://brenebrown.com

 

Image credit: Bethany Sweetland

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