Creating Habits of Community

Posted on January 29, 2014


I was in Lansing last spring waiting for a workshop on structural inequality to begin. Several people were running late and so those of us that were there sat in the circle waiting. I turned to the lady next to me and said ‘hi’ and we began chatting. I had just had a conversation on facebook with another friend that is working in Kenya. That morning she had invited me to come and join her in her work. I was very pleased and excited about that and it had been on my mind for the last couple of hours. As I continued talking with the lady in the circle next to me, I was pleasantly and curiously surprised that she was from Kenya and had been living here for 10 years. I am very intrigued with different cultures and especially about how “community” looks in different countries. So I asked her what she sees as the differences in cultures between America and Kenya. She said, “Oh”… and then sat there shaking her head, trying to find the words to answer that question. Finally, she turned to me and said in her strong and beautiful Kenyan accent something that sounded to me like, “da wawd aye”. I was on the edge of my seat by that time, listening with all my heart. With a puzzled look, I asked her to repeat it. As I listened more intently, I heard it. “The word ‘I’”. THAT is the difference. In America, everything is about “I”, “me”, and “mine”. In Kenya, nothing is about that, it is about “we”, “us”, and “ours”. Suddenly, she went silent again, running out of words to continue to express this way of life. Then she looked at me and said, “You HAVE to visit. That is the only way you will understand… Well, you don’t HAVE to, but if you don’t, you’ll miss it!”

I have long been intrigued by community and frustrated with the lack of community that exists in my life and work. When I worked in the school systems, I used to ask special education students and at risk students this question: If your house was burning down and you were in your front yard with a cell phone, who would you call? So many of them had no answer. The list of allies, people that have their back through the thick and thin was a very short list. Then I started noticing the number of those very same students that were disappearing from the school system. Between the 9th grade and the 12th grade, more than half of them were gone. These were very important people to me… and they were just gone! When I began studying the research on this, I found that the main reason, according to the dropouts themselves, was that they had no one to turn to when they were in a bind or failing their classes.

Later in my career, I began working at Hope Network and noticed that there were hundreds of adults with disabilities that were living in segregated homes and attending segregated day programs. I was struck with the level of loneliness so many experience on a daily basis. We also worked with prisoner re-entry. The research I found on recidivism (returning to prison) stated that one of the top reasons they ended up back in prison was that, when their back was against a wall and temptation was high to break the law; they had no one to turn to.

I have been pondering these things for many years. I have experienced “hitting the ground” and ending up in a Dark Night of the Soul without anyone else even knowing about it. What would a “we” society look like, feel like, be like? I can’t imagine. What would it feel like to know that when I hit the ground again, barely able to stand back up, there would be people already there, helping me up? Not people that I see once or twice a month, but people that are involved with each other daily. I can’t imagine. Then I realized that for us to sustain the good things in our lives, there must be intention, there must be actions, and the actions that are most meaningful must become habits. But in order to cultivate new habits, we need to begin with new thinking and then this needs to ignite our passion. Then authentic action is sustained from within through an open mind, open heart, and open will. But that process requires SEEING and then the courage to let go of the old and the familiar, and embrace what is risky and what might seem strange.

What are the “habits of community” that exist in places that really are connected, like Roseto, the village in the link at the bottom, or Kenya? … or Sandhill? Someday, I plan to see this and write more about it.

There are myriad problems in each and every community, organization, family, etc. Interestingly, wherever people are (and they are everywhere), there are problems that need to be solved. The mistake that is often made is that we don’t come together as a community to solve those problems first. We hand them over the “professionals” (systems, governments, organizations) to take charge and take over; washing our hands of getting involved in what might be messy; washing our hands or our family member, our neighbor, our colleague.

In the book, Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block, there are three questions that must be asked and answered in this same order if we want thriving, connected, and abundant communities:

1. What can ‘we the people’ do (what are our assets within our community)?

2. What can we do with a little help from professionals (and systems)?

3. What do professionals have to do?

If we can learn to solve our problems by working through these questions together, finding and creating the best possible roles as citizens and professionals, we may be surprised at the possibilities!!!

Learn more by linking to these articles from Living with Open Hands by Ron Irvine

Community — a Matter of Life and Death

“There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.” (Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, p. 7)

Communities of Isolation — the biology of loneliness and community

“Loneliness is lethal not only to the human spirit and emotions but also to the human body and brain… Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.”

”’I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.’ I still believe this. I still believe that if we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good.” (Margaret Wheatley)

”Since our earliest ancestors gathered in circles around the warmth of a fire, conversation has been our primary means for discovering what we care about, sharing knowledge, imagining the future, and acting together to both survive and thrive.” (Juanita Brown, The World Cafe)