Peter’s Perspective: Citizenship in a Community

Citizen is a deeply honorable title. Yes, it is most commonly a designation bestowed by an accident of birth or location. But it can be so much more. In a truer form, citizenship is a merit that we earn by extending ourselves to others and contributing to the world around us. Citizens are involved and engaged. They are participants. They are doers. They are not spectators. In essence, we earn the right to call ourselves citizens because we are willing to actively participate in efforts that better a community and improve life for all. In so doing, it is we who, by the virtue and the value of our contribution, transform ourselves from just one among a crowd into an active member of a particular community.

And herein lies the first challenge. What is community? What do we really mean by community? These are questions that I have struggled with, and still do. So, I’ll start by sharing some thoughts with you that have helped me to get clearer on the notion of community.

Community. It’s one of those words we use as an easy and convenient way to label or group people. Sometimes we say community to identify the inhabitants of a geographic area (say, the community of Santa Cruz, California, where I live) or political entities (the community of nations). At other times we say community to identify individuals by a host of widely different criteria and affiliations: professional (business, high-tech, medical, military), religious (Christian, Jewish, Muslim), racial and ethnic (black, white, Hispanic, Asian), sporting interests (golf, NASCAR) … and the list goes on. Just as often, we use community in referring to ourselves as a way to self-identify — to think of ourselves as a part of others rather than apart from them (as in “I am part of the gay community” or “the surf community”). At a fundamental level, community conveys a sense of belonging.

Almost every morning for the past two years, I have driven or biked to People’s Coffee, about two miles from my home in Santa Cruz, for a triple americano. Everyone behind the counter knows my name, greets me, asks me how I am doing and chats. We’ve gotten to know a little bit about one another over time. The crew: Curtis (Cordon Bleu master chef turned barista/owner — we trade tales of weekend adventures, in the kitchen or dining out), Austin (avid gardener — we regularly update one another on what is growing, ripening or flowering in our gardens), Andrea (graduate student, multilingual — she and I speak French together), Dan (aspiring musician/singer who just cut his first CD — very Native American beat — gave me a copy and asked me for my candid feedback) and Cody (café mascot, Australian sheep dog, wanders in and out flashing his watery eyes hoping for a handout).

I am part of the wave of regulars who show up at the café day after day. We recognize one another. We sometimes nod or offer a brief hello. Some of us hang out, sip, read, write or do whatever it is we do on our laptops, phones or iPads. People’s is a place of familiarity in the morning. We are the morning crowd. But it leads me to ask, is that all we are — the morning crowd? — or is our band of regulars a community? Do a group of people who share a common space, frequent the same coffee bar or live in the same dormitory or co-op or even zip code constitute “community”? What does it take to transform crowd into community?

I graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, some 30 years ago. To this day, I regularly get mailings of its alumni magazine, newsletters from the president, annual requests for donations and a yearly calendar with pictures of the campus. By virtue of my being an alum, I am and will always be connected with Bowdoin, and the college will try to stay connected with me. In fact, we band of alumni are oftentimes referred to as part of the “Bowdoin community.” I have deep affections for my college. I do my part by occasionally reading their online daily newspaper and their monthly email bulletins. But is this virtual connection enough for me to honestly say that I feel part of the Bowdoin community?

Is sharing an interest enough to constitute “community”? Interests in common often lead to a self-selected identity that we willingly, even eagerly, assume. Look to the citizens of Red Sox Nation. Is this band of passionate fans a community?

Or can sharing an activity build a community? Hundreds of surfers live in Santa Cruz, many of whom know one another and have been surfing together for years, even decades. Most share the waves. Some, though, band together and can act fiercely possessive of what they consider “their break,” a localism that can create friction with outsiders. Mind you, an outsider can just be a surfer from the other side of town. An outsider can also be someone who surfs on a different-length surfboard. So, when I hear or read about the “surf community,” I wonder what it means.

The overarching question remains the same: What makes community?

For an answer, I look first to a dictionary. Webster’s informs me that community derives from the Latin prefix con, meaning “together.” It also comes to us from the Latin munis, which means “performing services.” Ahh! I begin to see deeper, and perhaps appreciate the overlooked essence of the word: community is individuals who together serve and support one another.

Now we’re getting somewhere. More than identity (Bowdoin graduate, Red Sox fan, surfer), community means involvement: involvement with others with an aim to serve and support one another. Community is active. It is engagement. It is participation. Community is not a spectator sport.

That meaning has gusto. Community connotes a group of people in whom I can place my faith and trust to help me out when and if I’m in need, and to whom, by the same token, I’d be willing to lend a hand if one of them were in need. We’re all in this together, and our strength is in our unity. Sign me up.

Now, how about you?

Who are your communities — the various bands or crowds with whom you come together (be they real or virtual) to support and serve one another? Look all around you: at work, at home, in school, at play, in support groups, in faith-based groups, in neighborhood groups, on teams, in troops, in virtual groups and in the many ways and places that you and others come together to serve and support one another. Each of us probably belongs to several communities. Put an identity to these groups of individuals with whom you connect through your active and supportive participation, not begrudgingly but willingly, not because you have to but because you want to.

Try this:

1. One at a time, focus on the communities of which you are a member. In your mind’s eye, picture several of the individuals in that community. Picture the individuals with whom you actively engage to support or serve one another. Allow yourself to own and rightfully call yourself an active citizen of that community. Hear yourself say out loud: ” I am an active citizen of ___________________________________ community!”

2. Repeat for another commmunity or for all of the communities in which you are an active citizen.

Excerpted from The Citizen Leader