Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

What is Community? – Part 1 of 2

From Earl Brown
Part One | Part Two

There has been a lot of talk about community lately and there is bound to be more as we move farther into the collapse of Industrial Society. There are discussions on its importance, the need for it and the benefits of it, how it is the answer to our problems and how it is the basis of localization efforts. Everyone seems to have their own definition of what community is and we all seem to recognize its importance but, what is it, really? Can community be defined or, is it an ideal than can be strived for yet never achieved, like perfection and democracy? Do we live in one? How do we know? Is it a lump of land and people, a principle, or is it a self-organizing system?

This topic came up while I was driving a home from San Francisco with a friend the other day, just ahead of the northbound, homeward commute. The insanity of the freeway was taking the form of weaving vehicles, angry drivers, tailgating, speeding, but luckily, no accidents.  “How would you describe a community”, he asked. “Well”, I said, “take our current situation. Our community is comprised of ourselves, these other drivers sharing the freeway with us and the species of plants and animals in the vicinity. Our car is our local environment and the freeway is the larger environment. Our success in getting home safely, actually everybody’s success in getting home, is dependent upon how we drivers work together, share the road and obey the principals of caution while navigating the environment of the freeway.  If any one person, or group of people, chooses to ignore the rules of conduct and act without regard to everyone else’s safety then, collectively, everyone’s chances of getting home would be reduced. So our current community is the drivers and people in the other cars, all the factors and relationships effecting the drivers and how they worked together, or not, moving through the freeway environment, to reach their goal, to get home.” I’m not sure if my friend was impressed with my example but the idea that a community could be described in ways other than people and property lead to fresh ideas and a deepening of the conversation.

According to my example we were in a moving community of which most people, if not all, were oblivious. Getting all the drivers to work cooperatively as a community, for all our safety, was not likely but, it was a community none the less. Looking at community this way suggests it may be a process more than something with a specific definition. It suggests something fluid, flexible, capable of experiencing change and reorganizing itself to meet new challenges (weaving cars, quick braking, angry drivers). The environments wherein we find community are also varied; the office, the home, the city streets, the rural areas, our vehicles, anywhere we find ourselves, including wild nature. If community is “a something” that is dynamic and in flux, which refuses a specific definition, a process in relationship to its environment, rather than a static geographic area and its contents, then perhaps we could benefit by looking at community in a different way.

Wikipedia says; “In biological terms, a community is a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment. In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness. Traditionally a ‘community’ has been defined as a group of interacting people living in a common location.”

And, the Merriam Webster Dictionary says a community is “a unified body of individuals; the people with common interests living in a particular area; an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location; a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.”

I offer this concept of community: “a group of self-aware, like-minded individuals deeply bonded through shared need, risk and vulnerability, capable of working cooperatively together for the long term common good of the human and non-human species within a given environment, geographical region, bio-region, and/or the world at large.” As good a definition as any, I suppose, but it still leaves the “environment” as a rather vague term. Many people think that the word environment refers only to nature, or the natural world, yet this is a limited concept. Stated simply, an environment is wherever one finds one’s self to be and all of the entities and relationships therein. Therefore “environment” can be defined as the ground on which one is standing all the way up to and including the entire Universe and is limited only by the scope of one’s perspective. Given this; do we live in a community?

When I look at the division, aggressiveness, power trips, stonewalling, outright lies and, at times, law breaking by public officials, special interest groups, developers and wealthy individuals in Mendocino County, I do not see community. When I attend “community meetings” I see power struggles and competition; I see is a group of cliques and individuals striving for superiority, domination and control of the meeting, or issue, not community. Even within the environmental movement (where one would think we would have cohesiveness) I find the usual power struggles where one person, or group, wants to be the one in control of the meeting, information, process and outcomes. There is no work done until the pecking order is established and rarely thereafter because maintenance of the power structure takes precedence over any meaningful work. I do not believe we live in community, at least not a healthy one.

For these reasons I have all but dropped out of public governance and working with any group at all. I do not want to be a member of a clique, or engaged in a power struggle, or sit through long meetings where nothing gets accomplished. I want authentic, honest, open, meaningful relationships with people who share a common vision, hold common values, and see a common future. I want people in my life who respect each other, who see the talents and gifts each has to bring forward. I want to live in a community that respects nature, the children of all species, and who believes in the goodness and wonder of life. The question for me is how do I get from where I am to where I want to be? I find I cannot do it by myself (although I’ve tried); we are all mutually dependent upon each other, affecting each other’s lives, “co-arising” and creating together. As the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, we “inter-are”.

I believe that on a foundational level “we the people” do not trust each other; we are competitive, aggressive, emotionally isolated, and essentially fearful of each other in many ways. Most people will not make eye contact with others as they pass on our streets, in our markets, stores, or other public areas. This undermines our social and environmental activities to a point as to render them marginally effective, or sadly, completely ineffective. It undermines our personal relationships, families, and our ability to cope with life’s difficulties by separating us from the support network we need to thrive. Our social structures suffer as well, succumbing to power struggles, personal agendas, corruption, special interest intervention, immutability of the institutions and elitism.

Our children are being born into this separate and fearful condition and they learn very young that life is unfair, unjust, painful, fearful, and without much hope. What is the legacy we are leaving them? Can we rise above the isolation, depression, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, and fear; the feeling of political impotence, loss of civil rights, unequal laws, racial hatred, economic disparity, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and corrupt officials who pose as our leaders (and that’s just scratching the surface) without being overwhelmed? This is not a rhetorical question. All of these elements exist in Mendocino County, in Ukiah; as we look down the barrel of martial law; as we strive to find meaning in our lives; as we search for sanity in our government. What kind of community are our children being brought up in? There is obviously a set of unspoken rules for the ruling class and another for us citizens, read “in the consumer class”. Our young are not stupid and they see through the propaganda to the man behind the curtain and the unholy power he wields. Some strive harder, some give up, some kill themselves quickly and others slowly through drugs and alcohol. Perhaps they see no future; perhaps the future they see it too frightening, too painful and they just can’t cope.

We do not have a community and we need one. If we had one it would not be so hard to do good work, our civic leaders would listen to the citizens and act accordingly, we would follow the same laws, citizens would participate in local governance, and we would have environmental protection. Mendocino County is not a business, it is our home. Would you sell the living room of your house and let someone dig it up to build a garbage dump? Would you sell your well water to wash out a stable and let your children go without? What if your house and property had to produce all of the income to support yourself and your family, as well as the retirement of all of the previous owners and all future owners to come? Could it survive as an intact and healthy home? No! Why do we let our “leaders” lead us into ruin by treating our county as their private business that has to grow, exponentially, indefinitely, in financial revenue, money, profit? With this viewpoint collapse in not a matter of “if”, it is a matter of “when”, “how hard”, “how complete” and “how will we survive”? We do not have a community and we need one, desperately.

In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions on how we could build authentic, honest and active community, building upon the strength, courage and talents of the very people we find arguing at public meetings…….. well most of them!
Photo: Puyo, Ecuador, Sunday outdoor market. Puyo is my home base when I am in Ecuador and I love going to the market, it is part farmers market, part picnic, part theater and all about community.

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