Community is messy! And so is playing in the dirt, eating candy apples and making pots with clay. Once we dare to step into the mess, there is a certain joy and delight in letting go and seeing what will come next. And yet many people we know do not get to experience that sense of finding out about the unknown, experiencing the kindness of strangers and making connections with places and spaces new to them. Sometimes we hear about people attending programs which provide opportunities to be “out in community”. What does that mean? There is a big difference between being “in community” and being “of community”. When we are “in community”, we are more of a visitor, a passerby, someone who comes for a short time and then leaves again without really making a mark or a connection with that place or the people, even though our time there was probably enjoyable. When we become a part “of community”, we have made an impression in that place, people remember our name, they are interested in our well-being and what we have been doing, we are interested and eager to see them again as they are to see us, there is a reciprocity which occurs. That is what being a part of our community means. And there is joy, satisfaction, opportunity for growth and a sense of security in that.
My friend, Sally, yearned to find out more about her indigenous heritage. Sally and her facilitator talked about opportunities for Sally to connect with others who shared this interest in her neighborhood. She decided to explore a local community Centre. While initially experiencing a sense of discomfort in the new space, Sally continued to go to the weekly lunch. Sally started to love the feeling of spirit there, and gradually grew to engage with the other members. They invited her to join their women’s circle. She was extremely interested to learn her history and culture and began to ask questions. She wanted to make a shaker, collect natural medicines, and develop her own identity within the group. As Sally’s strengths, interests and gifts began to shine, the facilitator had an opportunity to step back. Sally was building her own community as they welcomed her and they found common ground together. Three years on she continues to be a valued member of this community.
Community can be scary! Whoa yes, there are so many things out there! And that is why discovering our gifts, strengths, interests and talents is a great way to build our path into community. When we know what we like, what we are good at, what we have to share and what others may appreciate about us, we are outfitted to seek out places, spaces and people who have those common interests which they enjoy too, or people who are looking for the kind of things that we can offer. Common interests draw people together; people welcome gifts and talents when they know they are missing from a place. Approaching community with this in mind helps guide us through the whole big scariness to the people and places where we will find true welcome and belonging
Community is about belonging. A lot of research has taken place about what it means to belong – words such as a “part of”, “comfortable”, “giving and receiving”, “cared for”, “valued”, “welcomed”, and many more, have all emerged. We know that humans are essentially social beings and we need the company of others. As well, feelings of belonging contribute to our general health and well-being. Certainly, Sally’s feelings of awkwardness at the beginning of her visits to the indigenous Centre changed into feelings of belonging once she became a part of her indigenous women’s community. When we belong we are “in” community. There is a saying: “we do not fear the faces of people we know”, which leads naturally to the conclusion that the more faces we know, the more faces that know us, the less scary community is, and the more secure we are. When people miss us when we don’t show up somewhere, when someone notices that they have not seen us, or heard from us, as per our regular routine, that is how belonging and being “in” community serves to protect us. We watch out for our friends and those who we care about.
Community can be challenging. As all things change and grow there is struggle. As communities truly become inclusive, in both word and action, there will be conflict on this journey. Marsha Forrest’s “all means all” is easy to say, but is evidently still a work in progress. The more every citizen exercises their right to access and participate as valued contributors, the nearer we get to ensuring everyone is included. When the way something has been done for years is challenged, there will always be push-back, not necessarily because people don’t see the justice of the change itself, but because it confronts other areas of their historical thinking and assumptions such as, “these changes will cost a fortune”, “why change something that works for the majority of people?”, “disabled people have their own places to go don’t they?”. And as self-advocates, allies and family members we continue to fervently help community grapple with those changes and challenges, barriers socially created, born of outdated beliefs and misinformation, because we know everyone is a citizen in the broadest sense of the word, with full rights to be contributing and valued members in community. It is a life-long journey, and while progress has been made, the path still stretches out ahead of us.
So what about that joy and delight that I mentioned in the beginning? I guarantee it is there. Community is a rich and diverse resource for everyone. There are so many opportunities, possibilities and options to explore and find common, fertile and welcoming ground where we can flourish. We are all necessary to the vibrancy of community. I believe the messiness, scariness and challenges are but foothills to scale to reach the splendor of the connections, enrichment and belonging that community gives us in spades.
From her long-term involvement in developmental services and independent living, Niki Stevenson maintains a strong commitment to people’s self-determination and the right of everyone to live a life of full citizenship in their community.
She has worked extensively in assisting people to create alternative living options, as well as employment, volunteering and community engagement opportunities. Niki is a program director at a developmental service agency in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as director of the Facilitation Leadership Group which provides training and consultation for independent facilitators, families and groups. She is also a learning partner of the Citizen Centred Leadership Development team, through Cornell University. Previously, she was involved as a member of the steering committee and then the board of a developing independent facilitation group in Kitchener, as well as the New Story Group which continues to examine and promote the growth of the New Story in community and the lives of people who have been marginalized.