Special Communities Are Custom Built

Community Organizing
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Missoula         At the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attack in New York City, the impact of how we see ourselves in the world is once again a question embedded in the middle of remembrance and mourning.  Invariably, the issue of how we see ourselves as a community becomes part of the discussion, not only in New York, but locally and globally.  Are we separate tribes or one people?  Are we fated to become increasingly divided, or is there a process where we find unity and understanding?

In a strange way, this came to me very powerfully as I sat talking to a young woman about her father while visiting Missoula, Montana for his memorial.  Her father was a comrade and friend, and I had known him forever, as well as her sister and her since they were children, though less well.  Her father had been ill and in decline for a decade.  She marveled at the strength of his community in Missoula that had sustained him in these recent years.  She had been raised in Helena.  She was adamant that such a phenomenon would have been unlikely there.  I had been raised a bit of everywhere and lived in New Orleans, and agreed there was nothing natural about my city that would have provided the same experience.  In the way of such conversations, where we seek, in a moment of humanity, to find common ground more than anything else, our comments were a tribute to the space and place of this small western town.

Thinking more about the conversation now, there were doors we were both hitting without being willing to enter.  We didn’t know each other that well.  The real truth of such special communities is not the build environment, regional folkways, the mountains, or anything of the sort.  Her father was embedded in a community that he built through the ways that he lived and worked in this community.  In his life, in ways likely unknown to both of us, he had given hugely, as a friend and colleague to many, so he had, perhaps inadvertently, created a community of caring where he could, when needed, also receive without asking, or perhaps even recognizing, how invaluable it might be later.  These relationships are uncategorical and limitless.

We all have the capacity to build such communities, but they are matters of choice and conscious decision, not happenstance.  She is young enough to recognize the value, and perhaps doing so, will follow her father’s example, even if unconsciously, and build such a community herself.  I watch closely as I see the special communities that mi companera and my children have built for themselves which are different, but similar.  We rib my daughter about the fact that her friends often seem more important to her than her own family.  We don’t mean it of course, not really, but the other side of that joke is our recognition that what she is building is essential, just as it was for my friend.

Looking at our larger community, even our global community, this same ability to give, to reach out, to seek understanding, to share, laugh and sacrifice, and to trust without expectation, judgement or reward might also be part of the clue in what could someday built a larger unity.  My work community, now global, is like that, even if my constant work has not constructed a similar local community.  It’s probably too late for me, just as it is timely for others, but those were my choices, I own them, and I’m comfortable with them as my special community.  Others need to build the same.  With my natural cynicism, it’s unlike me to sound like such a whoop-dee-do hippie about all of this, but if enough of us everywhere recognized the importance of building community, it could in fact make a big difference.