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Creating Community

by Mark Peres

September 7,2008

We have often posed the question of why people from around the nation are drawn to Charlotte – and there are many answers that are obvious: our jobs, our wealth, our weather, our size, our ethics, our orientation toward the future. The list is familiar, and each attribute has been plumbed by nearly everyone who considers – or markets – our civic life. But there is another attribute, one that supersedes them all, that many newcomers respond to on an intuitive level: community. Charlotte has far more of it than most cities, but far less than it needs to become all that it can be.

We live in a time when isolation and separation is pandemic. Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo notes in his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, that over 60 million Americans report persistent loneliness. In urban and suburban built environments, people are physically very close – and connected through technology – but emotionally very distant from each other. The causes are many, from the desire for privacy, constant mobility, work demands, fragmentation of family, and media messaging that promotes fear. The result is a populace that is distracted, disengaged, less able to persevere, less capable, and more anxious and hostile.

The antidote is community. In Community: The Structure of Belonging, author Peter Block defines community as:

"[t]he experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong. The word belong has two meanings. First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase…to belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I among friends. The second meaning of the word belong has to do with being an owner: Something belongs to me. To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture."

In a fundamental way, community creation is the work of the 21st century. It is systems-based work, requiring a broad array of skills and resources, not the least of which are convening, listening, group work, conversation, and suggestion. It is work that explores our mental models, the stories we tell about ourselves, our relationship to our past and present, and our sense of possibility. Locally, it is work underway in such initiatives as “Intentional Charlotte,” a series of conversations led by Mike Whitehead in which dozens of citizens are exploring a shared vision of the city. It is evident in work being done by Crossroads Charlotte in presenting plausible scenarios about the city’s future and inviting citizens to steer our community forward.

Community creation is not about inviting otherwise disengaged people into a room to debate issues. Too often these encounters are counter-productive, with participants falling into a tired pattern of passive-aggressive blame, walking away even more defensive and entrenched. Rather, community creation is shifting context – the set of beliefs that dictate how we think, how we frame the world, what we pay attention to, and consequently how we behave.

Here is the context that Peter Block advocates:

• We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems.
• Community exists for the sake of belonging and takes its identity from the gifts, generosity and accountability of its citizens. (It is not defined by its fears, its isolation, or its penchant for retribution.).
• We currently have all the capacity, expertise and resources required to create alternative futures.

Strategies for shifting context include supporting associational life (volunteers aligning around common purpose), leaders who convene citizens around better futures, small groups as units of transformation, and the telling of new stories that are forgiving and restorative. It is curiosity and inviting people to respond with their talents. It is authoring language that defines a citizen as someone who is willing to be held accountable for the well-being of the whole – as someone who is a producer of a better world.

In this light, Charlotte has much to do. Even where good work is underway, the conversation is still too often limited to the usual suspects. But the power is in possibility.

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