Living Columns & Blogs

What type of community should we choose for ourselves?

As we head into the July 4th holiday weekend (when July 4 is on Wednesday, I guess you can take your pick as to which of the surrounding weekends it is!), it seems like a good time to explore the things that make for community. While lots of different folks will celebrate this national holiday of America, we seem to have very different visions of what our country should be and look like.

I think those different visions are rooted in two very different understandings of what a community is. We know that human beings are social animals. We are created and designed to live with others.

Author Marianne Williamson writes that, “People crave comfort, people crave connection, people crave community.” Social isolation stunts not only our emotional and psychological growth, but our physical growth as well.

So the issue for us is not do we choose to live in community, but rather what type of community do we choose? Basically, I think there are two approaches to community and community-building, insular or inclusive, and those two approaches, while grounded in the same human need, yield very different types of communities.

An insular approach to community and to community-building begins by looking for similarities and finds comfort in those similarities. In churches, neighborhoods, social and civic clubs, we look for other people who look like us, talk like us, think like us and see the world the way we do. We find comfort and connection, as Williamson says, in those similarities and for many of us, it is those kind of communities that feel like home.

In many ways, it is easy to be a part of a community rooted in similarity. We are rarely challenged to move outside our comfort zones, communication with those around us usually goes smoothly because we don’t have to work to understand others or work at being understood. A community grounded in similarities requires very little of us, though we often feel very protective of it.

The downside of such a community, however, is that growth rarely happens without challenge. We may be comfortable in our community of similarity, but we, both individually and as a community, will eventually stop growing and stop finding out about the world around us.

An inclusive approach to community on the other hand, is more complicated and often more difficult. An inclusive approach challenges us to move out of our comfort zones, to go deeper with others. Like the insular community, those in an inclusive community also look for similarities, but do so by being open to the particularities, the differences in people’s experiences that shape who they are, and by accepting and honoring those first.

An inclusive community is one that is willing to change as others come into the mix. An inclusive approach to community sometimes makes connection more challenging and comfort more difficult to come by. But at the end of the day, the community will be richer and fuller because of the diversity of the community and the shared commitment to building it.

In describing the value of an inclusive approach to community, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

An inclusive approach to community may be more challenging, initially less comfortable, may mean we have to work harder at connection. It will, however, produce a richer, deeper, and healthier community for all of us if we are willing to accept the challenge and benefits of change.

Anne K. Ard is the executive director of the Centre County Women's Resource Center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at annekard@ccwrc.org. The CCWRC is a Centre County United Way Partner Agency.
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