What is community?

It was a question I got asked a lot when I worked for a community arts organization. My first reaction was to scare up definitions in the literature and offer them to the questioner. In the-ball-is-in your-court fashion, I’d invite them to choose whatever definition(s) suited their purposes. Later, I began to answer that question by noting that there were many concepts of “community” and we, as an organization, didn’t impose definitions. That still seems a sufficient answer but I’ve now come to consider the concept of community through a Relationship framework.

As noted in my writings, as well as in teachings from a variety of cultures, we two-leggeds are inter-connected with each other and with other life on the planet — indeed, even to the planet itself and beyond. What we think, say, and do impacts, directly and indirectly, everything and everyone else, which also affect us. We are further impacted by ancestors and will impact generations to come. Some of us even believe the reverse; that we can impact our ancestors and that our descendants impact us. In any case, we are clearly “in relationship” whether we acknowledge, fully understand and respect the concept or not.

The Relationship question is relevant to considering whether communities, however they self identify, are healthy and sustainable. By virtue of being human we are members of a community of living, non-living (in the scientific definition), once-living and soon-to-be-living entities. Our nature as human beings leaves us dependant on others. We need others to survive. And not just in terms of sustenance to ensure our physical survival. We need love and the physical manifestations of it to be healthy human beings. We also need a healthy concept of self which implies limits, roles and responsibilities.

Increasingly, we are understanding, even from a quantum physics, environmental, and social science perspectives that we can’t harm another without harming ourselves, and vice versa. Likewise when we help another we help ourselves. Of course when we don’t all respect that, both our community and our own individual well-being are compromised (as evidenced by the current state of the world) and we all pay the consequences.

So the awareness of being in Relationship and the conscious decision to nurture our relationships for the sake of our own individual health, the health of our families and the survival of the human species seems a crucial component to the functioning of healthy community. It further seems necessary to fully enjoy our life experiences.

So what does make a healthy sustainable community? And how is the answer to that question relevant for activists? What I imagine comprises a healthy community is when all members share the following characteristics (among others):

1. Conscious awareness of our inter-connectedness with and inter-dependence on each other and the other species of the planet.

2. Understanding the world through a Relationship Framework, where we don’t see ourselves, our communities, or our species as inherently superior to any other, but rather see our roles and responsibilities to each other as inherent to enjoying our life experiences.

3. A conscious commitment to our own individual physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health because of our awareness that the community’s health depends on the well-being of its members.

4. Respect for every individual’s need to nurture their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves. This necessitates giving individuals the necessary time, space and support to do this work.

5. A conscious commitment to nurture and support the community’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth by sharing whatever talents, skills, resources and guidance we can access.

6. A conscious commitment to nurture and respect non-human lives because we recognize our inter-dependence.

7. Understanding that all community members don’t have to agree on processes and strategies nor share the same goals and priorities so long as we commit to negotiating these with each other with the intention of ensuring everyone’s needs are met.

8. Understanding that all roles and responsibilities essential to the survival of the community should not be differently valued.

9. Understanding that “health” and “wellness” are not static, unmoving states of ideal being but are processes with constantly shifting points of balance. In this sense, a physical or mental illness can be seen as an opportunity to develop relationships with self and others rather than an inconvenience, something that needs to be “cured” or punishment for something we did or didn’t do.

10. Understanding that sharing is a process of giving and receiving and that there needs to be a balance. At minimum, receiving provides someone else with the opportunity to experience the joy and empowerment of giving. In the ideal, we recognize that giving is receiving.

In terms of activism, it might make us healthier and more effective activists if we not only incorporated these ways of thinking and doing into to our lives, families, groups and communities but also aspired to share the conversation about Relationship with as many people as are willing to listen. If people were to better understand the vision they might be more inclined to take part in co-creating it.

Furthermore, if we envision creating healthy communities as described above then, as activists, what are the implications for our goals, strategies and tactics? Does it make sense to balance our time protesting with nurturing community and developing alternative institutions? What is that balance? Does it make sense to assume that encouraging the masses to take to the streets is sufficient to bring about the changes we need? Will provoking confrontation with authorities get us where we want to be? Does defending and protecting the land make sense? The answers to these questions might have different answers in different contexts but always need to be considered in light of the ultimate vision.

Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Zainab has contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, Ed. 2008) by co-authoring “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?”

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Zainab Amadahy

Zainab Amadahy

Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native...

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...