Monday, May 4, 2009

What I've Learned About Communities

Last Thursday night my almost-four grandson stood on the stage of the Celebrity Ballroom in John Ascuaga’s Nugget casino with 100 of his peers and stared in bafflement at whatever a little boy could see of the darkened house beyond the bright stage lights. Then he proceeded to join the performance, singularly out of step in every particular. He was alternately funny, bad, and emotive, but never in group-sync, and to a degree, these nonconformities have been the story of his pre-school experience thus far.

Fitting in is not always easy. It takes a tremendous toll on teens in particular. However, three and four year olds are not much concerned about social status and very much concerned about their own needs and desires. They are the center of their universe, and they act accordingly and arbitrarily, sometimes cooperative, sometimes disruptive as mood and circumstance dictate. Everything is on the surface, though; there’s no concealment or artifice. So I wonder, can there be a community of pre-schoolers? I think not.

A true community is a voluntary association of like minded individuals. They may be drawn together by neighborhood (physical or virtual), and for the most part they share values, beliefs, and interests. I pulled out my 10-pound Random House Unabridged Dictionary for a weighty check of this definition and found Random House stressed also a “common governance”…and being old, the 1993 edition, mentioned virtual not at all.

Communities overlap, and we all belong to several. Envisioning them is like picturing rain drops falling on a pond and creating rings of ripples that expand, meet, and dissolve into the watery whole. Some communities are stable over long periods of time; others are as temporary as most of the alliances struck up in high school or among a travel group. Some associations are rock solid, like 20 years residence in the same neighborhood, and others are names and pictures and words on a dot matrix screen or people with no acquaintance at all, who are affiliated merely because they accept the same beliefs and attitudes.

For the most part, communities are considered good things. They can accomplish tasks that elude the individual. They offer trust and a sense of belonging, give meaning, motivate, and provide security. On the other hand, a certain amount of conformity is necessarily a part of any community. The very commonality that defines community excludes as well as includes.

I’ve been on a list of people taking The Polling Point poll frequently. I’m always asked for my political affiliation, gender, age, and household income even though these are things that don’t change every week. Then I’m asked to rate various companies in various ways. Lately, I am always asked whether I consider myself primarily a member of my local community, my country, or the world. I answer my country. I am attached to Reno, NV, because I have lived in this area for the past 13 years, and I love two of my kids and my grandchildren are here. Nevertheless, it does not claim my primary allegiance. Perhaps this is because I’ve lived in a number of different communities in different states and liked them as well. The world, on the other hand, is too large to claim my allegiance and also in many places alien, even hostile.

The sense of belonging to the American community is important to me, and I hope for all Americans. To me this sense of belonging comes from sharing the values and history of our country and believing that America is exceptional and should remain so, remain strong, remain a world leader. I believe the American community is and should continue to be stronger than its parts: the millions of individuals and the myriads of smaller communities that make up the nation.

This belief sets me apart from many people…including most everyone I was recently associated with in the academic community…who believe in multi-culturism and diversity. For the most part, for most people the difference here is only one of emphasis: the primacy of our national identification verses competing identifications with race, country of origin, linguistic group, religion, even gender and sexual orientation. However, for an activist few, multi-culturalism and its offshoot “diversity” are the whole potato, and they claim special privileges for groups deemed "minority." The latter practice undermines the organizing principle of our republic, which is equality before the law for all, not special treatment for some, and ultimately destroys the trust within the larger community.

It also goes against all we know about human nature. Despite all the communities we participate in, we are individual members of the human race, driven to make our own way in life with (or without) the support of friendly associations. Community is essential to human development, but individuals making free choices are essential to true community. As soon as narrowly defined affiliations call for privileges others do not enjoy, competition and conflict are inevitable. What is needed is allegiance to the overarching umbrella community that is inclusive.

My grandson (he's the blur in the picture above) hasn’t really developed a sense of community yet; he’s struggling with it while still developing the closer tie of family. He’ll have to give up some of his individuality as he becomes more acceptable within a group, but I hope not too much... because what I’ve learned about communities is that they need good, strong, principled individuals to check needless and imposed conformity, to lead and guide and work within them, and to check the privileging of some communities over others by dictate or decree.

Note that this posting is in response Robert Hruzek's group writing project at that continues through May 10.


  1. It's a real talent to be able to maintain individuality within communities. Too often, folks join up with 'em to conform, rather than express themselves.

    Great thoughts for such an early hour! Tip o' the hat to ya, Terro!

  2. Hi Terri -- wow. As usual you put grist into the mental mill. I love your last paragraph and have to ditto it and high-five you for it. On a day that seems to be claiming many of our freedoms, I don't want to conform out of necessity. Nor bow to mindless decree.

    I'm not confrontational, but I am feisty somewhat. And so I loved your first paragraph as well... your little one was many things on that stage, but a puppet he was not. (I taught third graders a hundred years ago and loved the ornery kids. Have always loved spunk. And kids are just honest.)

    Somewhere in the middle you wrote communities exclude as well as include. That's what I keep thinking as I read all over the Internet about community. In my actual small communities, based on either my faith or my love of painting or some other affinity or my neighborhood geography, I can come or go. I don't fill my needs by belonging to any one group. Never have. Not my whole life. I'm in and out. I exclude myself.

    Don't know if that makes sense or not. But it extends to my virtual communities as well.

    I do agree that I'm an American -- right after being a Christian, a wife and mom and grandmom, I'm a patriot. I'm not in and out of my country. I'm blessed to live here and to raise my family here, and I don't ever take that for granted.

    I pray we'll continue to stand for the National Anthem and the Pledge, Under God, and that our Constitution holds.

    God Bless you, Terri.