Finding Community

In high school, finding community was easy. Our skimpy track team uniforms, a la Juno, left it little room to hide. Between boys and girls, friendships stemmed from wearing equally short shorts. (The girls appreciated our obvious comfort with gender equality.) Between the boys, friendships came from locker room sing-alongs to Eye of the Tiger, and that time we put the football team’s couch on the school roof. But our team bonded most when doing things totally unrelated to track: body building competitions at underage dance clubs (where our skinny body’s stood no chance of winning, except for most laughs); sleepover parties punctuated by gallons of ice cream and Back to the Future movie marathons; mornings-after at the local diner, spent reliving the night. It was those moments, more than anything we did together on the track, which made us a team.

It wasn’t until I left high school and track behind that I realized how lucky I had been. Over my first two years of college, I pursued over a dozen activities to fill the hole: college radio, varsity crew, South Asian cultural club, Phi Delta Fraternity, and so on. In each case, I made friends. We spun records together, pulled oars together, watched Bollywood together, and drank ourselves drunk together. But none of the activities I tried (and often dropped) lived up to high school track.

As I came to realize, being a part of a community requires more than a shared interest, or even shared experience. At heart, building community requires intention, commitment, and most importantly, openness. In order to build real community, participants must be willing to fully embrace it.

Setting up the right conditions for building community is crucial. To me, one of the most important conditions for building community is pursuing activities that are ends in themselves. For the student environmental club I began to lead during my junior year, that meant moving beyond campaigns for a campus wind turbine and low-flow showers. Most importantly, it meant food.

When I first joined the environmental club in the windowless and fluorescently lit library basement, food was scarce. Sure, there were vending machines nearby. Like vending machines are to calorie delivery, our meetings were all about efficiency. The four of us plowed through agenda items; we got things done. We occasionally smiled at each other, possibly to increase productivity. But we didn’t break bread together. We didn’t even share skittles. Meetings ended promptly. “See you next week” was how we said goodbye.

Revitalizing the group during my junior year was a two-step process. First, we reserved the right space: the Outdoor Education lounge, with its wood-paneling, thick carpets, and squishy couches, was more conducive to conversation than the austere library basement. Second, we ate. At meetings, food and laughter always came before agendas and action items. We also met up for potlucks, trips to organic restaurants, and melting planet ice cream socials. Through sharing these unregimented experiences, on top of our group’s work, we began to know each other: our common values, feelings and goals. We began to treat each other not simply as colleagues, but also as friends. Not everyone participated. But for those who did, relationships flourished.

***

In the six years since leaving college, I’ve searched for another community like I found in the Outdoor Education lounge.

I’ve found pieces in many places. The same atmosphere simmers in neighborhood coffee shops and small Italian Bistros. The same intimacy arises on backcountry camping trips, summer bus tours, and weekend retreats. The same spirit resides in YMCAs, churches, and community centers.

There are other places I’ve found no community at all. The offices of some environmental organizations I’ve worked at look suspiciously like the basement of my college library. In the post-college world of creating environmental change, caring about the same issues, and even sharing the same workspace, doesn’t guarantee meaningful connection. Often, it feels like there isn’t time. Work, regardless of being for-profit or against it, has to be about results.

That’s fine.

But having a place for people to find and build community over shared values and shared friendships, without considering results, is finer.

I’ve given up on finding such a place in the post-college world.

Instead, I’m working with Camila and Elena to build it.

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