I’m sitting at the computer in my home office. The room has a window facing the back of my house, which backs onto a little park. It’s Sunday morning and I have the window open. I hear the sound of a steel drum band playing (right now, they’re actually playing the theme song from Mario Brothers…so cool!!!), kids playing, the water from a splash pad fountain spraying, dogs barking and people mulling about. It’s the weekly community farmer’s market. Every week the community comes together for fresh, local food, music, activities, socializing and simply, connecting. I feel a sense of comfort, giddiness, and happiness, knowing that people are coming together in my neighbourhood in such a positive space; there’s an air of camaraderie amongst strangers and a level of trust within the community, on this fine day. I feel proud seeing all that my community has to offer. It’s the same feeling I’ve gotten on other occasions when I’m in a venue filled with people coming together for a common purpose: my grad school convocation, the Bon Jovi concert, the Beaches Jazz festival in Toronto, the Canadian Breast Cancer Run for the Cure, the Victoria Day fireworks celebration at Ashbridge’s Bay in Toronto, my school’s Remembrance Day assembly held in the gymnasium, my salsa dancing performances, the beautiful women of rural Uganda dancing together to their heart’s content at sun down, and my son’s first birthday party, are just some examples that come to mind.
Bringing people together under one roof (literal or figurative) to form a sense of community is important to creating well-being in every sense of the word. Every year, on the very first day of school, I take out a piece of chart paper and with colourful markers, I draw a picture of the earth with smiling people holding hands around the perimeter. Above this picture in big letters, I write the sentence “Our Respectful Community”. I point to the picture and I ask the students (grades 4-6 generally) what they feel the word ‘community’ means and what this picture represents to them. I get a range of answers (“a class”, “students”, “a group”, “people in the same area”, “respect”, etc…) and we end with describing a community as ‘a group of people who work together with respect’. (The term ‘work’ encompasses many different ways of being together with a common purpose). We then brainstorm specific ways that our classroom community will demonstrate this each and every day, and I write their answers on the same piece of chart paper. At the end of our session, we have an impressive range of ideas that represent the meaning of the word ‘community’ and most importantly, a common frame of mind on which to begin the school year. To finish off, the students all sign their name on the paper as a pledge to be a respectful community all year round and beyond. We post this up as our class contract for the year. In essence, teaching about community becomes one of the most important exercises I do with my students all year, as it sets them up for respectful teamwork from the very first day.
Humans are social beings. We thrive through our interactions, connections and group functions. Although there are many introverts and people who prefer their alone time and personal space, we still operate, fundamentally, on a social level. In order to maximize our individual well-being, we need the support of a productive, positive, safe community. Whether that be the community of our street, neighbourhood, school, city, extra-curricular club, or social group, we are optimal as individuals, within the framework of a community. Bringing people together lays a foundation needed for people to flourish. We may not realize the value of coming together, especially when we’re sitting through staff meetings, group classes, crowded outdoor events, or even meeting our neighbours on the yard (we may feel that we would rather be there on our own), but being together in a shared environment reinforces the commonality amongst all of us. We live together as one. Taken to a macro level, we are a global community, and although there are 7 billion of us on this planet, when it boils down to the essential elements of our being, we are all very similar. Creating a sense of community strengthens our interconnectedness and provides a space where people can form bonds (whether explicit or implicit) and build trust and harmony. It’s also a space where people feel that they are understood and this is such a basic, important human need.
Trust in the benefits of community building. You can help support positive community spaces in many, many ways. You can vote for leaders who believe in social programs and invest in community building initiatives for your locale, you can bring people together at work, at the park, in your home or even through positive online spaces. You can also donate your time, money or skills to help coordinate events that help other groups or communities enjoy time together. You can even just take part in your own community by being a positive, active member. Community is valuable.
Now, I’m off to the market to enjoy fun music and the company of my neighbours!