Most young people grow up within five major social systems: family, community, school, media, and peers. Urban streets can seem all-powerful in the life of a young person who may find that scene to be a second (and soon, a first) home. The suburban town and mall has a powerful influence on its young (see Lefkowitz, Our Guys, 1997). And rural communities can be the source of boredom, tension, or support in a kid’s life.
We must deal with the idea of community even if it is difficult to define and vague in most current usage. Here we are primarily concerned with the need for urban, rural, and suburban towns or neighborhoods dealing more effectively with their problems or desire to help others as they become “community.” Many believe the sense of community in past societies has been lost though urbanization. They want to see fragmented urban neighborhoods, or isolated suburbanites, working together effectively as they become “community.”
The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology (Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill, and Bryan Turner, 1994) admits the word’s ambiguity.
The term community is one of the most elusive and vague in sociology and is by now largely without specific meaning. At the minimum it refers to a collection of people in a geographical area.
This dictionary goes on to add three other elements in current usage: 1) collections of people who have a particular social structure as opposed to those who are not communities; 2) community spirit or a sense of belonging; and 3) the activities that take place within the community locale.
Many sociology books do not even put the word “community” in its Index. Still, they use the word, as in “urban community” or as a vague synonym for town or city. Donald Light and Suzanne Keller comprise one such example (Sociology, 1982, pp. 508-9):
…while urban life may be alienating for some, it manages to provide a sense of community for others…Large, heterogeneous populations breed a diversity of subcultures, each with its own rich social life and strong cohesion among members. This means that people in cities can usually find others with similar values, backgrounds, and tastes. As a result, urban residents can sometimes enjoy the intimacy, loyalty, and cooperation of a close-knit community regardless of how large a city they live in (Fischer, 1975).
Community, for our purposes, will be considered minimally a locality and its inhabitants. But it will be assumed that significant change, development, or service calls for a further “coming together” in common vision or purpose.
We tend to see rural and suburban communities in terms of towns; urban communities as neighborhoods. The hope is that rural and suburban towns, and urban neighborhoods, will become healthier communities. This only happens through relationships, and these relationships must cross age-group, ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries.
My search for further information on the Internet led me in two interesting directions: one younger, rather postmodern and personal; the other more scientific, objective and practical. The first was produced by a class (apparently taught by Internet) at Guilford College (www.guildord.edu/Web_class_97/COMMUNITYA.HTLM).
They first cited a Websters New World definition: “Community”
any group living in the same area or having work, etc. in common;
the general public;
a sharing in common.
Two student definitions were : “A group whose common interests unite them,” and “Community is the people with whom you share a common interest. That community interest can be where you live, what you believe or what you do for fun.”
Here are student responses to the question: “Have you ever felt a part of a community in ‘real’ life?” (with spelling corrected):
‘Well…yeah. I was a part of a very close-knit community-my family. But aside from that, even, I was in a dance company that was a community.’
‘Yes, in my late teens. I had my first experience with the community experience. Weekly, I would go to the local recreation center to mingle with others. The rec center was in a different neighborhood than where I lived, but everyone treated me like I was a part of their neighborhood.’
‘Yes, my high school had a strong sense of belonging to a community. I also feel a sense of community with my closest friends.’
‘Mary Hobbes (a dorm on campus) has been a community for me. There is always a connection with fellow “hobbits,” even with those who no longer live there.’
‘Definitely. I’ve felt community at my Quaker meeting, in my neighborhood, at school, in Mary Hobbes, and in QLSP.’
‘Yes. Anytime I have a discussion in class or chill with my friends, or talk on the phone to a family member, etc., there is a connection which gives me a sense of community.’
Then these students were asked: “Have you ever felt part of a community in ‘virtual’ life?”
‘I started to answer no, but after some thought I realized that I did feel a part of one-actually a few. I belong to a couple of list servers-one for art educators, one for museum workers, etc. and in “listening in” on discussions, and occasionally adding to the discussion myself, I feel part of a “community.” I have only once had a “real-time” conversation on the computer with the “phone” thing (on our school’s email system). That was too weird, and it was hard to “converse” by typing. The fax-notes discussion (for our web class) does not convey a sense of community to me, however. I think in strong communities there is equality, involvement, respect, support.’
‘Yep, I have chatted with people on a semi-regular basis on a computer.’
‘I guess so. When I actively communicated via email to my friends in college, I received and passed on humor and helpful tidbits. You were part of something if you got such messages.’
‘Yes. I have a bunch of friends on-line with whom I talk and email regularly.’
‘Yes, there was a time when being on-line was like air for me. I would go to the “Night Owl Cafe” every night and meet my friends. I had a solid group of friends and everyone knew each other and about their lives. I used to refer to one of them as my surrogate father and used to go to him when I needed help. Actually, I received a letter in the mail from one of them today. These friendships went beyond the modem and into voice, even real life.’
At this same site was an interesting entry under “Computers and Community” describing, in story form, how “there is a secret hermit” in each one of us who loves to hide under the anonymity of technological life. The relationship of computer to community became on ongoing debate in this web class.
A Colorado Department of Public Safety site gives a different perspective on getting things done through community (www.state.co.us/gov_dir/cdps/dcj/def-comm.htm):
The concept of community needs to be self-defined. There should be as broad-based representation as possible. The community could vary considerably in both size and purpose. It could be a group as small as a neighborhood or a jurisdiction as large as a county-or even a state. The important point to remember is that whatever the size of the community, everyone needs to have a voice, especially those that will be affected by the process, whether directly or indirectly. They need to be involved from planning, through implementation, and evaluation. The chances of success are greatly increased when community members (or, target population) have been involved in the entire process and ‘take ownership’ of the program.
This source goes on to give helpful analysis and advice about strategic planning, a process in which a community asks three basic questions:
Where/what are we now?
Where/what do we want to be in the future?
How are we going to get there?
Much of what has been said here is of some value to intentional communities, whether they be secular or faith-based. In such “communities” individuals and/or families come together sharing to some degree, their common resources. The long-term success rate of such enterprises is low because (a) many of them do not take time to study “communities” that have existed for centuries (e.g., monasteries), and (b) they are counter-cultural to the way urban societies work and exist against the grain of mainstream culture. In this article we are considering the “larger” neighborhood and town.
For the healthy growth of our children, there must be a healthy community. That requires the development of community spirit; the town or neighborhood must have networks of positive personal and organizational relationships. Current literature suggests that we focus more on the assets than the problems of any community. There is also strong suggestion that communities need a youth charter (or general agreement on expectations for youth) that is agreed upon by representatives of its adults and youth. Misunderstandings and conflicts find positive outcomes in the genuine building of community.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What have been your best experiences in a community?
What do you see as the main hindrances of real community?
What most impressed you in this article? With what did you take exception?
How do you define and describe the characteristics of community?
In what ways does the world need “communities” today?
What contributions do “faith-based communities” have to offer urban development?
When people quote the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” they are assuming community.
Community, weak or strong, fragmented or together, is one of the five major social systems socializing young people today.
Around the world, community is the basis of positive change and development.