Written for the Kerrisdale Playbook:
The word community is one we hear frequently in the news and in our personal lives. In Vancouver, we might read a story that mentions the business community or the artist community. A controversial development is sometimes said to be opposed by the local community. We even have a network of buildings across the city called community centres! Clearly community is an important thing. So what exactly does it mean?
It turns out there is no single definition of what a community is. But people who study communities have come up with a few ideas. Many communities we experience are groups of like-minded individuals, or people with a common practice. The running group you meet every Thursday evening or the knitting circle that you attend every Saturday afternoon are communities, based on common interests. There are also communities related to our vocation. We might feel part of a community of medical professionals in a hospital, or a community of small business owners on a particular street. For example, in my work I’m part of a community of scientists. In my neighbourhood I’m part of a community of gardeners. These communities tend to evolve naturally as we find people who do the same things we do.
When people spend time together through hobbies or work, they tend to become familiar with each other. But people who don’t know each other also form communities, sometimes connected by their identities. The community of a specific race or religion may share common needs, challenges, or beliefs that bring them together for advocacy, even if they don’t have specific activities in common. In this sense, a diverse place like Vancouver has many communities of identity, overlapping in countless ways. As a tolerant country, we are fortunate to enjoy a diversity of communities in Canada, bringing a variety of perspectives.
But this still doesn’t really get at the full meaning of community, in my mind. When we say a community centre, we don’t just mean a place where people with a certain hobby or identity happen to hang out. While most of us do use community centres for gatherings of this sort, community also means something larger. Community makes us think not only of the people we spend time with, and the people most like us, but of all our neighbours, whether young or old, similar or different. While there is a long menu of activities on offer at a community centre, the broader aim of these places is not merely to share these activities with other people. When we refer to our local community, we seldom mean the people who are only like ourselves. If we say something poses a threat to our community, for example, we mean something much more profound and sweeping.
This broader notion of community is based on the idea that everyone counts, and that everyone can contribute. I call it big community. Our small communities play a role in strengthening the connections between us, but big community means that everyone can take part. It is this broad view of community I want to focus on, because whether we realize it or not, it is usually the community we benefit the most from, and the community that is hardest to maintain. It’s also the most tricky to describe.
On our leafy Vancouver street we hold an annual block party in June, helped by temporary traffic closures for Car-Free Day. We bring a rabble of lawn chairs and tables out to the pavement, and even a tent in case of rain. Everyone brings food to share, and we chat and get to know each other, sometimes passing hours together in the sunshine. This is the only occasion I have to meet some of my neighbours. While there are familiar faces that my partner and I see throughout the year, there are others I rarely spot on the street. Yet they almost always come to the block party, and I talk with them. We find common ground and laugh, even if only once per year.
I linger on this scene because it is one of few local events that illustrate big community in action. Simply by living on the block, everyone is invited to participate. They don’t have to, but they can. Everyone needs food, and just about everyone can prepare it. This is really what is meant by community, in the broad sense. Some needs and relationships are universal to everyone who lives in a particular place. In fact, big community is not necessarily limited to the neighbours on my (or your) block. It can be the city of Vancouver, the country of Canada, or more. The crucial theme is the everyone has a part, whatever the scale.
Something else should strike you about the block party: it doesn’t happen for any particular reason or activity, except perhaps to enjoy a sunny afternoon and eat. It doesn’t happen spontaneously. It takes effort and planning, from the permit process allowing us to close the road, to the efforts of my organizing neighbour to advertise, to cooking for people who may not know each other. All this effort makes for a simple gathering of food and chairs for a few hours. Big community takes work. But it pays big dividends.
When your grocery bag breaks, when you suffer a fall, or when you lose sight of your child in a crowd, big community steps up. Someone will stop to help. Years ago I was in a dark place, and broke into tears on a park bench. I was astonished when someone stopped to ask me what was wrong, and reassured me that tough times happen to all of us. Big community only happens when we see that everyone around us is at least a little like ourselves, and that we are stronger when we share unspoken ties. Believe it or not, it starts with a block party.
What have you done lately to build community? It is a question I ask myself from time to time. Usually I have few good answers. I’m busy with work and life, like most of us. Big community is hard to do. It takes a lot of effort and persistence to include everyone. How can we be expected to fulfill such lofty obligations in our everyday lives? Let’s circle back to small community, because it has an important role as well. It is easier to do activities we enjoy with people we like, and to support people similar to ourselves. But the relationships and values that we build in small communities tend to ripple outwards imperceptibly, and those values can become big ones. Small community is actually the foundation on which big community rests. Being active in local community groups and organizations drives a virtuous cycles that can make us all feel closer to each other.
So don’t feel intimidated to jump into big community all at once. Do you have a hobby or idea, but no one to share it with? Start finding others who do. Set up a regular event in your neighbourhood. Discuss common goals and take steps to realize them. Use your local community centre to cast your net wider. (That’s what they’re there for.) Or take the plunge into organizing big community events or volunteering in public services in your neighbourhood. It’s hard to go wrong. Just do something you enjoy that involves other people in a structured way. The planning and organization will always take effort. But the heart and desire should happen naturally.
A better question than “what is community” may be “what is my community?” So take a moment to ask yourself the following questions, and write down your answers on a sheet of paper or in the margin of this article. What groups are you involved with, both professionally and recreationally? What do you see as your local community? What are your communities of identity? What is your national community? Reflect on these, and ask which of them you would want to strengthen or change. How? Put yourself in the answers. Because in the big community, everyone has something to contribute, no matter how small.
Chris Kay is a biologist and community volunteer. He lives in Kitsilano.