Building a Community

“So who will be there?”

This is an important question.  Why? Because the people are New Leaf.  Yes, we are creating a new physical space, but what we are really building is a community – a collective of individuals who are seeking to do work better, together.

Through their work, they are seeking positive change in their worlds.  Their worlds consist of their professions, their passions, their livelihoods.  Interests vary from art and culture, energy and the environment, innovation and entrepreneurship, business and economic development, government and civic engagement, law and accounting, food and agriculture, education and learning, community planning and engagement to much more in between.

I use the word community very often, typically in multiple frames of reference.  So I started to analyze more deeply what community really means.

The folks at Merriam-Webster define community as:

  • a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)
  • a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.
  • a group of nations

These definitions felt a bit incomplete, so I asked my friends to define community.  The answers were mixed:

  • a web of relationships

  • depending on people for your needs to be met

  • intentionality on a deeper level, an intentional bond with others

  • all organisms interacting and inter relying on the world

  • encompasses everything that you need to subsist as a person; not only human relationships, but relationships with the land, government, food, etc.

  • all parts adding up to a collective whole; yet community is not interchangeable because if you substitute one, you get an entirely different whole

Quite a contrast. My friends appear to imply there is more to community than proximity and common interests.  Apparently, with community comes many different perceptions of the term.  Yet my question is, when community is being used as an agent of change, should everyone agree on its definition?

Charles Eisenstein has emphasized the disappearance of community in our modern society.  In “To Build Community, Economy of Gifts,” Eisenstein explains we no longer have a sense of community because it is not integral to our existence.  Our well being isn’t determined by the level of the relationships we have with the farmer who grows our food, the blacksmith who welds our tools, or the doctor that heals our sicknesses.  In the past, alienation from members of a community directly affected an individual’s quality of life.  “Community was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight exaggeration, we could say we don’t need anyone.”  Our social relationships have been commodified into professional services.  Instead of relying on specific individuals, it is often the case that we depend on someone, anyone for the services we need.  Mostly everyone can easily be replaced, so why spend time getting to know the people we need?

When social relationships are not being monetized, they are often compensated by online communication and social media.  You’ve heard the argument a million times.  The ever increasing online social platforms are decreasing our face to face interactions and ability to effectively communicate.  Before we know it, our kids are going to turn into robots, forget how to speak, and only communicate via text messages, right?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, the list goes on.  Recently, I stumbled upon a website called Mighybell. Their “communities” section explains, “Mightybell is where communities learn and share together in groups. Mightybell Communities are designed to grow an organization of local chapters, or a network of learning or discussion groups around particular projects or interests.”  There is my favorite word again – community.  Here we see it used in a completely different context, and yet, we get it.  These types of online community platforms have been popping up everywhere.

I came across another website, The Community Manager, which offers “Tips, Trends and Information for Community Builders.”  My first reaction – cool, they probably have some good resources I can use.  Wrong.  The site is for online community management, but I didn’t realize that until I started digging through material and found nothing of relevance to me.  So now, in our age of technology, the term community also refers to groups of people who have never met in person.

I’m sure these sites are great tools, and I use many of them myself, but they worry me.  I’m concerned that these platforms and others like them are becoming replacements for shared experiences, rather than the tools that can help build those experiences.  These resources are not inherently bad, yet they become bad when they are utilized the wrong way.  When online interactions start replacing all forms of face to face communication, we have a problem.  The more we e-mail, Facebook, Tweet, and use sites like Mightybell and the Community Manager, the more we must increase the amount of our personal interactions.

If we don’t maintain at least a balance, we’re in trouble.  Online social networks are definitely valuable for effectively managing our social life, but at what cost?  What are the downsides of this convenience? The video below provides some insight.

So, to sum it up, we are sacrificing conversations for mere clickable connections.  We are expecting more from technology and less from each other.  We are innovating loneliness.  How do we change this cycle?

We create the spaces where face to face conversations can happen more often. We create the places where people feel at home, where they belong. We create the environments where individuals don’t feel lonely because they are surrounded by a community of doers, innovators, and creators who all want to a part of something bigger than themselves.

Our mission with New Leaf is to create these environments.  Our mission is to build a community within our four walls, fostering relationships that will spill out into every crevice of our larger community.   These types of spaces are popping up all around the world.  It is time for the Centre region to have one.

In an article titled “What is community?”, Mark Smith explains his research, “As Lee and Newby (1983: 57) point out, the fact that people live close to one another does not necessarily mean that they have much to do with each other. There may be little interaction between neighbours. It is the nature of the relationships between people and the social networks of which they are a part that is often seen as one of the more significant aspects of ‘community’.”

Why did I feel like the dictionary definition of community was incomplete? Because of this exact point. Proximity does not create community.  As one of my friends put it, “A group of people can live in the same area and not be in a community. Community comes from acknowledging your dependency on the people around you.” With community comes intentionality.  By creating an intentional bond with the people around us, we are saying I need you and you need me.  Without each other, we are nothing.  In an individualistic society, that vulnerability is scary.  But allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is necessary for real change to occur. Smith remarks, “However, in a world where market ideologies have become dominant and infused all areas of life, we have increasingly lost a sense of working together to make change.”  We need to be able to ask for help and know that we can rely on our community to support us.

Our goal with New Leaf is to create an environment where asking for help is not intimidating, because reaching out is the norm.  You have a need, you come to New Leaf.  You have something to offer, you come to New Leaf. We will do our best to connect you to the resources you need or the people who can use your help.  We see our roles as “community animators.” Our job is to identify the needs and offers of every person that steps foot in the door so we can actively make connections and intentionally build relationships.

This has been our mission from the start, but it’s funny how easy it has been to lose sight of why we are here.  Our brains have been fixated on design, business plans, and spreadsheets. Keeping our heads down in the books has prevented us from a clear view of the big picture.  Our board helped us see again.  At one of our recent meetings, we had been going over our financials.  We were over the budget and trying to discuss ways to come up with more funds.  “Cut down your costs.  You don’t need all this fancy furniture, go to salvage.  You’re a startup.” Oh yea, we seemed to have forgotten that part.  It was a good reminder. We had been so focused on making the space look cool, that we forgot what was really important.  The furniture and the tech is not what is going to make the space great, it is the people.  The community.

So back to those questions.  Who are the people? Who comprises our community? Who is New Leaf for? These categories are not mutually exclusive, but exist to help conceptualize the types of people who walk through the door.

1) Changemakers – Mission driven individuals and organizations

2) Resource Providers – Professionals whose role is to assist with specific tasks

3) Supporters and Explorers – Work to empower and/or seeks to join the innovation ecosystem

The community is a collective of individuals seeking positive change in the world, in their worlds.  New Leaf exists to provide them a home and support system for their first step.

Some of you may be thinking, “Okay yea community is great.  Now we can all hold hands in a circle and sing kumbaya and everyone is happy.” Yes connections, collaboration, and community are all well and good, but so what?  What is the point?  Perhaps the value lies in the social capital being created.  The World Bank defines social capital:

“Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.”

So can an increase in social capital lead to economic growth?  Potentially. After taking an in depth look at our broken economy, David Brancaccio concludes, “A better economy may start with the relationships that are forged within communities. It is these kinds of links that can lead to wider policy changes that are also necessary to create a new kind of economy that lifts up the well being of more people.”  Sounds like it’s worth a try.

In a world of transition where “wealth” is being increasingly defined by social capital rather than dollars on our bank accounts, Eisenstein believes, “The only thing that you could invest in that can survive such a transition would be to invest in your community, to create a reservoir of gratitude out there — to be someone who is valuable to other people, who has valuable resources, valuable skills which you share.”

The reason why abstract concepts like love, hope, and fear are so difficult to explain is because they cannot be fully understood until they are experienced.  My understanding of community has followed suit.  Until I was able to call on the gifts and support of my community, I did not fully grasp its importance.  If fully embraced, community is something for everyone.  My hope is that every individual who steps into New Leaf will leave feeling like they are an integral part of a whole, like a functioning cog in some great machinery.



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