Community, what it means and when it helps us to thrive, is a source of fascination for me. So, during the past two sessions, I asked the in-person and then online gathering the same question, “What does community mean to you and when have you felt a sense of it in your lives?”
Here are some voice clips I recorded during a meeting, followed by some written pieces we came up with on the topic. We would love to read your thoughts too in the comments below.
I grew up in a little village called Elworth in Cheshire. At the time it had a small population, who occupied the streets of houses that spanned out from the main road. This was a traditional high street with a post office, butchers, bakers, hairdressers and newsagents where my family did most of our shopping. We lived adjacent to this road, 4 doors down from my grandparents in a row of terraced houses. Many of the village occupants worked in nearby factories and organisations like the wire factory my mum worked in at the end of the road and the truck manufacturers my granddad cleaned on a nearby industrial estate. Everybody knew everyone else, or at least it seemed that way when I accompanied my nan on her errands and we would stop for the 4th or 5th time for a hello or chat with someone before even reaching the end of the road. My sense of interconnection was also informed by the fact my mum and stepdad knew lots of people through the work and the local pub and my grandad had lived there his whole life. Plus he started selling tomato plants very cheaply so became a popular ‘pop in’ point for loyal customers!
Due to many new housing developments, the village has now spread out much closer to nearby towns. Back then though, it was surrounded by farmland and other green spaces and I spent a lot of time in my childhood with my friends out in the fields until dark, riding our bikes, having picnics and playing games of tig or hide and seek. My community wasn’t just the people and buildings they occupied, it was the open spaces, trees, fields, streams and even empty car parks I gained a sense of freedom and ownership from.
Growing up there gave me a balance of independence and belonging that I took for granted and so when I reached my late teens, I ached to travel to other bigger, brighter, more glamorous and diverse places. I wanted to visit and live in places that were new to me and situations where I would be anonymous. Only when I experienced these things, did I realise that though it’s a bit of a pain when ‘everyone’ knows who you are, familiarity is also pretty wonderful. Looking back I recognise that the way my family were connected to so many people through their work or social lives gave me my first important lesson in how essential it is to be known, not as someone special, but simply as a local person, another friendly face to greet during the day to day business of living.
Such an interesting group at Chorlton Library discussing what the word ‘community’ meant to us all. It was lovely to hear everyone’s thoughts on happy supportive communities they had experienced and felt part of during different times in their lives.
In the best sense, community can provide a positive supportive safety net for people within that community. A dictionary definition of community defines a community as ‘a group of people living together in one place or having the same religion or race’. Similarly it is described as ‘the people of an area or country considered as a group’.
On the other hand however, if we are not careful we can exclude people who may be new to or different from what can be that established group, and who may not know and understand the unspoken ‘rules’ of that group.
From my own experience of having moved to five different towns in the first eight years of marriage, I can appreciate how difficult it can be to try to find a foothold in a group, big or small, of people who had grown up together, or who had common interests. It doesn’t work if you try too hard to join the group, but at the same time that group may not understand how hard it is for an ‘outsider’ to feel part of it.
I did not have the added difference of language, race or religion (except perhaps when we lived in North Wales) so imagine then the problems someone has who does not have the same language, race or religion of the group they are joining. No wonder then that those people seek out others from the same backgrounds rather than try to join in the wider community. Sadly they are often criticised for doing this, but we need to think about our part in making them feel welcome, and perhaps sometimes the responsibility is ours not to feel too complacent about how welcoming our community is.
We had another interesting discussion in our Zoom group of what Community means and has meant to us all. In the small group discussion with Margaret and Tony, we remembered when communities were often based around established local industries such as mining, mills or other factories. People worked and lived in close proximity to their work, everyone knew and understood the lives that everyone in their locality lived. The community was the neighbourhood and often whole lives were lived in that community. People grew up, married and lived in the same streets as their mothers, aunts, sisters and brothers and even grandparents. Certainly it could feel restrictive but everyone knew the ‘social rules’ and what was expected of them, and many found comfort and support in that.
Work changed dramatically with the closure of mines and factories, and in came social mobility. Young people no longer had the promise of work in the neighbourhood and had to move away to find a different sort of work. Alongside that, more and more people had access to televisions and could see in their own homes that some people lived very different lives, so in came social aspirations and expectations
That led us onto a discussion of housing conditions and the demolition of whole areas of houses deemed no longer fit for people to live in. Without doubt some of the housing conditions, especially in cities with multi occupied housing, was poor and needed to be improved but unfortunately planners did not always give the same consideration to people’s emotional needs and support networks as they did to practical and physical needs, and whole communities were uprooted and dispersed across wide areas of the city. Thus Community Workers who did not necessarily belong to any established agency such as the church, were tasked with building up a sense of belonging and community that had previously existed naturally, and a growing realisation that the people living in a community needed to be included in any decision making for that community and people who might have been regarded as ‘different’ being welcomed in. Communities now are mixed, no longer do people automatically understand the unspoken social rules but rules of different groups within a community need also to be accommodated and respected.
To my mind, that helps make any community all the richer!
Common unity. Maybe the word Community comes come from those two words merged together? I’m grateful for all the times in my life when I’ve felt a sense of unity with people with whom I have things in common, or shared a common sense of purpose. Times change, people move on, but I consider myself lucky to have been able to feel I belonged in different groups for as long as they lasted, or seemed right for me.
In the early 1980s, I was employed as a Community Librarian working in Hulme and Moss Side. Outreach was part of my role, getting involved with others in organising events both inside and outside the libraries. We did lots of activities with children, including fun days, film shows and even a regular under 13s kids’ disco in Hulme Library on Friday evenings. The discos ran for several years, started by a dedicated group of local dinner ladies who were concerned that there was little for the children to do in the evening. A local DJ brought his disco equipment and gave his time for free. Hulme Community Arts were based in a former bank near the library, and library staff joined with them, and a group called Hulme Youth and Allied Workers, to organise events aiming to bring people together. We posted the “What’s on in Hulme” newsletter through letter boxes on the unpopular Crescent flats, and took part in the annual Carnival and Christmas shows.
People came to the events, we had fun, but of course there was only so much we could do to help people in an area with many housing and social problems at that time. I put in more time than I was paid for, but funding cuts later in the 80s brought a greater focus on service delivery with measurable outcomes. I’m not sure how much we achieved, but I’m grateful for what I learned from those days and for the friends I made.
A community could be defined as any group of people which occupies a given location. Another definition could be those belonging to a particular social group. Alternatively, a community may exist to pursue specific aims. Consequently, an individual might find themselves to be part of several different communities. However, they will not be of equal strength, some will exert stronger bonds than others.
Early sociologists (1) described two distinct types of community; put simply there are some which are held together by emotional ties while others have a more rational basis.
Communities of either type can be either “open” or “closed”. Open ones easily assimilate new members and interact readily with others in the “wider community”. Closed ones are exclusive and antagonistic to non-members.
Many traditional communities have been weakened or destroyed all together by progress. On one level modern technological innovations, especially The World Wide Web, has led to the whole of humanity belonging to one community, all be it with extremely loose ties. Wherever people interact however it is in our nature to bond and over time these develop into a community, much as our little group of “Stories of Our Lives” has done.
1 “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft” Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) Concept explored and developed by Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and others.