Building Community Takes Work!

By Christine Sloan, Administrator

     As a child, I loved to play “store.” One of my favorite toys was a cardboard grocery store. It had little shelves, tiny boxes of cereal, soap and other “necessities.” There was a cardboard cash register (that didn’t hold up well in my busy market place) and a little grocery cart. My sister and I spent hours arranging shelves, talking to imaginary customers, and receiving deliveries. It was a busy, happy place where all the neighborhood children could come and go, “pretending” to shop for dinner, “buy” their favorite treats, and hear all the latest news.

     As a grown up, I “played store” for over 25 years. Our community-owned food co-op started in a garage on Saturday mornings, (just one step beyond cardboard shelves.) People volunteered in that cold, dingy space, packing bags of flour and raisins, cutting chunks of cheese, and pricing canned goods to stack on the sagging shelves. Sometimes this went on late into the night. It was fun! We laughed a lot, shared stories and hard work and walked away after each week’s delivery feeling as if we had done something good for our families and for our community.

     When it came time to move the store to a proper store front and run the co-op like a “real business,” open to the public, with shelves that didn’t sag, regular store hours and of course overhead, the members of the co-op community were worried. They were afraid that they would lose the “warmth” of the garage store. For those of us who spent many winter days unloading trucks into an unheated garage, the fear of losing “warmth” was hard to understand. Nevertheless, we took these concerns very seriously, and worked with our staff and board to identify all of the things that made people feel so safe, so “warm” and so welcome in that dingy, cold garage.

     We talk about community a great deal. We ask, “Where is the community?” or say, “I don’t feel a part of the community” or “I feel overwhelmed by the expectations in this community,” even “I don’t get this community!” We also recognize the power of community in difficult times, the beauty of community in joyful times and the wisdom of community in reflective times. When thinking about our families, we recognize that living in community provides a sense of place, connectedness and builds relationships that could last a life time for our children and ourselves.

     So, how do you build community?
      Whether you are building a co-op, a school, a land trust or a cultural center, there seem to be some basic truths characteristic of vibrant societal groups that attract others. In trying to identify these principles, I realized that it had much less to do with the particulars of the task at hand, the amount of time spent, the level of expertise or whom you know! Trying to find community is not like trying to find a job.

* It often starts with a great idea that may seem unrealistic to some (Vision), followed by a desire to bring about change. (Commitment)
* It requires courage and a personal responsibility to make that idea happen. (Hard work)
* It engenders a wish to be a part of something bigger than oneself. This often starts with taking an interest in others, recognizing that change may start with one but happens with the efforts of many. (Fellowship)

     Every year, Merriconeag hosts an Auction to raise money for the school. It is a great deal of work! Planning the theme, creating the promotional materials, gathering donations, spreading the buzz, getting commitments from the community to attend, planning refreshments, decorating, serving and entertaining the guests, and did we forget…making lots of money for the school’s scholarship endowment fund. It’s exhausting!

     Last year, the event changed direction a bit, with a reverse auction that focused on giving to the scholarship fund, not “bidding” on a prize. The “prize” became helping more children, without means, attend the school. Suddenly, everyone could participate. If you could give thousands, there was a place for you in the bidding…if you could give $25, there was also a place for you in the bidding.

     We had alumni supporting this event with their personal stories. The auction reflected layers and layers of relationships that night…many that were forged for the first time, many that were deepened from years of participation in this event. We all agreed that the work that went into last year’s auction, created another layer of community for Merriconeag.

     When a need arises, when that need is recognized by a group of people, when the work involved is inclusive and creative and builds relationships, when the project at hand reaches completion, and everyone recognizes that it couldn’t have happened without the vision of a few, the efforts of many and the joy and hard work of even more people…we find community!

     You work really hard on that need, project or dream. You may or may not complain or feel overwhelmed during the process. The work comes to an end, hopefully with some modicum of success, and you look around and discover you have built deeper connections to the people, the place, the ideals that were all wrapped up in your “project.” It wasn’t the focus of your efforts it was that invisible web that you were weaving with every ideal that became a deed, every dream that became a reality. Those bonds don’t happen by chance, without work, without commitment. They are unique and universal they are personal and shared by the group. They are the foundation of community.

     Rudolf Steiner’s Threefold Community Verse, sums up this experience:
The healthy social life is found when in the mirror of each human soul, the whole community finds its reflection. And, when in the community, the virtue of each one is living.

     Have a Happy New Year!
Christine Sloan, January, 2011