Creating Positive Community Identity

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The ability to create positive community identity, in a society that strongly values individualism, has become as important as self-identity.
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“Deepening Community” by Paul Born beautifully illustrates how unity carries us through darkness and into light.

Paul Born believes we have a choice between shallow or deep community connections. Deepening Community(Berrett-Koehler, 2014) shows how we can foster the joy of deep connections with community. Born shares personal experiences of growing up among people displaced by war, insights from his career and results of interviews with over 500 people giving examples of the deep intimacy that can be found. Taken from chapter one, “Our Need Today for Deeper Community,” the following excerpt discusses the importance of community identity.

The Possibilities of Community Identity for Our Children

My wife, Marlene, and I often wonder about the possibilities of community for our sons and what their memories of community will be when they are older. How will they know who they are and where they belong?

We spoke about this shortly after the birth of our first son, Lucas. For us, community was a defining understanding of how we wanted to raise our children; it was even reflected in the wording of our marriage vows. We committed ourselves to providing our children (Michael would follow, five years later) with as many “deep” experiences of community as we could. We went to church because it was a community. We attended reunions of our extended families, organized neighborhood barbecues, and helped out at a variety of schools and with a myriad of sports teams, because each of these represented community in our sons’ lives.

We also spoke to them about community and its importance. For example, we shared a particular bedtime story with them many a night. I saw it as a nighttime prayer. As told to our son Michael, it went like this:

Once upon a time there was a little boy, and his name was Michael, and everybody loved him: his mom, and his dad, and his brother [Michael interrupted me one night, piping up with, “That’s not true, Dad; Lucas just likes me—he told me so”], his oma and opa [German for “grandma” and “grandpa”] and his lola [Filipino for “grandmother,” which we called Marlene’s mother after her sisters’ families returned from four years of volunteer mission work in the Philippines], and all his cousins [a satisfied grin always covered Michael’s face at this point; he really loved his cousins], and all the children at school, and everyone at his church [Michael always interjected “Not everybody,” to which I would say, “Just about everybody,” and he would say, “Yaaaa”], and all his neighbors [at which point Michael would beam and say, “Especially Dave and Marilyn; they have a pool”].

And I would smile and give him a big hug and say, “Love ya,” and Michael would say back, “Love ya, too. Goodnight.”

Positive Community Identity

Marlene and I want our children to have not only a positive self-identity but also a positive community identity. However, the complexity of our times makes living in community perhaps the biggest challenge we face.

I believe that Charles Dickens would not find it difficult to extend his description of the eighteenth century, in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, to our century, for we, too, live in the best of times and the worst of times.

For an example of the best of our times, consider how so many countries have come to understand the importance of the rights of every individual. We have embraced feminism and dismantled racism—or at least have built a broad social consensus against racist language and attitudes. We have welcomed gays and lesbians into greater participation in social institutions. We have spoken out against torture in war and violence toward children. There is a growing understanding today, from our youth on up, that we must care for those in need and fight the downward pull of hatred based on ethnicity and ideology. There is a growing consensus that we must work for a just society and the protection of the rights of the individual.

Is it possible, though, that the pendulum has swung too far? In making it a priority to enhance individual rights and opportunities, have we made it easier for people to ignore community responsibilities? Tracking along with the positive gains we have made with regard to individualism are examples of the worst of our times: when families struggle to find appropriate day care or schools, as if children were an individual responsibility, or when we walk past or even over the homeless, believing that they must have done something to deserve their plight. If someone were to win a million dollars, the world might say, “Good for you. Go ahead and spend it; you deserve it—it’s yours.” But our culture’s individualistic approach does not bring deep satisfaction. Compare this with cultures in which people share windfalls with one another through potlatches or at large community weddings. Do we live in a time when an excessive focus on self is dismantling our need or sense of responsibility for one another?

We are tempted, when so much that comes at us is a mixture of the good and the bad, to throw up our hands in bewilderment and do nothing. But many individuals and groups are fighting against the worst-of-times aspects of life today. I see people of every socioeconomic bracket and faith and employment level struggling to make sense of the changes they’re facing, desperately seeking a future for their children that is better than the one they see coming. They—we—are seeking new answers and, in turn, are finding deeper connections. For example, in an age of globalization, many of us are “going local.” We’re rediscovering local foods and gardening, the simple pleasures of walking and cycling, and our neighbors. Each connection we make in these contexts deepens our resolve. We’re using the Internet to offer people who want to visit our cities a free or inexpensive week’s stay in our homes. We’re sharing services. Consider the “casual carpools” in the San Francisco Bay Area, whereby pedestrians line up in certain locations and, on the basis of trust, take the next car in line, driven by a stranger—no, by a fellow citizen.

Community has the power to change everything. We all know this. Whether in places where we work together; neighborhoods where we share emotional, physical, and cultural resources; or countries where we strive to live at peace, we must mobilize people to work together toward a common vision if we are going to deepen community for all.

The challenge, however, is not so much to find ways as groups to reach out to others as it is to bridge the gap from the self to the group in the first place. The challenge is to understand, and get past, our own sense of isolation. We embrace our culture’s veneration of rugged individualism, acting in ways that Eastern cultures would see as selfish. How do we begin to turn this around? How do we make the connection from the self to others? How do we build a bridge between ourselves and others? How do we cross it?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Timesby Paul Born and published by Berrett-Koehler, 2014.

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