Also see: Sustainable Community Deveopment



Chris Maser

Although community means different things to different people and hardly ever the same thing to any two of them, community is where we humans collectively practice the art of relationship outside of our nuclear families. Community, as English historian Arnold Toynbee said of civilization, "is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor." But community is a deliberately different word than civilization or even society. It is not an over-strained statement to point out that while community may refer to neighborhoods or workplaces, to be meaningful it must imply membership in a human-scale collective, where people encounter one another face to face.

Community is thus a group of people with similar interests living under and exerting some influence over the same government in a shared locality. Because they have a common attachment to their place of residence, where they have some degree of local autonomy, they form the resident community.

People in such a community share social interactions with one another and organizations beyond government and through such participation are able to satisfy the full range of their daily requirements within the local area. A community also interacts with the larger society, both in creating change and in responding to it. Finally, the community, as a whole, interacts with the local environment, molding the landscape within which it rests and is in turn molded by it. In this sense, community is about the oneness of the whole and the wholeness of the one.

Community is rooted in a sense of place through which the people are in a reciprocal relationship with their landscape. As such, a community is not simply a static place within a static landscape, but rather is a lively, ever-changing, interactive, interdependent system of relationships. Because a community is a self-organizing system, it does not simply incorporate information, but changes its environment as well. Thus, as the community in its living alters the landscape, so the landscape in reaction alters the community.

Reciprocity is the self-reinforcing feedback loop that either extends sustainability to or withholds it from a community and its landscape. We humans therefore create trouble for ourselves in a community when we confuse "order" with "control." Although freedom and order are partners in generating a viable, well-ordered, autonomous community, a community is nevertheless an open system that uses continual change to avoid deterioration.

A community also has a history, which must be passed from one generation to the next if the community is to know itself throughout the passage of time. History is a reflection of how we see ourselves and thus goes to the very root by which we give value to things. Our vision of the past is shaped by, and in turn shapes, our understanding of the present—those complex and comprehensive images we carry in our heads and by which we decide what is true or false. This statement simply means that history is composed of realities that become lies and myths that become truth.

When the continuity of a community's history is disrupted, however that history is interpreted, the community suffers an extinction of identity and begins to view its landscape—not as an inseparable extension of itself, but rather as a separate commodity to be exploited for immediate financial gain, lest someone else gets it. When this happens, community is destroyed from within because trust is withdrawn in the face of growing economic competition.

It seems clear, therefore, that true community literally can extend itself beyond local place and history only if it does so metaphorically. This said, the idea of community beyond the history and sense of a local place is meaningless.

For a true community to be founded in the first place and to be healthy and sustainable, it must rest on the bedrock of mutual trust among its members. To the extent that people keep their word, trust is built. To the extent trust is built, true community is built. To the extent true community is built, social-environmental sustainability becomes possible.

…a community does not come together by covenant, by a conscientious granting of trust. It exists by proximity, by neighborhood; it knows face to face, and it trusts as it knows. It learns, in the course of time and experience, what and who can be trusted. It knows that some of its members are untrustworthy, and it can be tolerant, because to know in this matter is to be safe. A community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included. But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership. If it cannot trust, it cannot exist.

Trust is the firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing. It is confident belief. But trust can only be "felt," not defined, because it is based on faith that a particular person is "trustworthy" or faithful to his or her word. Trust can only be earned by living truly and openly one's motives, thoughts, attitude, and behavior. Community, therefore, is the melding of how people in different stages of psychological maturity relate to both themselves as individuals within a community and with others as a community.

In sum, community is relationship, and meaningful relationship is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable community. This said, it is imperative to understand that while defining "community" is difficult, achieving community is daunting—and possible.

Building community involves the creation of networks of relationships that build trust in that they are life giving, life affirming, and life sustaining. Although a sense of community normally grows spontaneously, it must have certain qualities to become and remain viable:  (1) intimacy in that members must know one another by face and name; (2) personal open-mindedness in that members can accept—not necessarily agree with—one another's beliefs and values; (3) people must be willing to invest time and energy in one another; (4) conflict, which is inevitable, is acknowledged, and a qualified transformative mediator is engaged to help people raise their level of consciousness through personal growth while providing a safe haven so the conflicts can be resolved; (5) "compassion" is recognized as a way of living together, not as character trait embodied in individuals; and (6) members celebrate one another's successes within the community and have compassion with one another's failures.

Achieving real and just community, however, requires more than merely accomplishing a series of tasks on a checklist of necessary qualities. It requires careful and right action; it requires compassion; it requires patience in the timing of how and when things happen; it requires understanding the power of an old Arab proverb:  "While the word is yet unspoken, you are master of it; when once it is spoken, it is the master of you." And above all, it requires a clearly stated, non-negotiable, shared vision, clearly stated goals, and thoughtfulness in one's personal actions toward and interactions with others. Further, it must be self-evident in thought, attitude, and deed that people are committed to the personal growth, development, and well-being of all community members. In this sense, Paul Alexander, the head of the most powerful Russian dynasty outside of the royal family, did well to counsel his son:  "Above all, let your aim be what is true, what is great, and what is beautiful."

Achieving a genuine sense of community requires a shared commitment to care for one another socially, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, physically, and spiritually, as well as the shared commitment to act as responsible trustees in the physical care of the place and environment in which the community rests. Authentic community also ensures that the creativity and dignity of each person is protected and nurtured.

Although building a true sense of community has its struggles, which are most often associated with the human limitations and frailties we each carry into our personal relationships, it also has its moments of fulfillment and joy when people engage meaningfully with one another, be it in everyday conversation; an open, civil discussion of real issues; the resolution of a destructive conflict; or the achievement of a common goal. The linchpin of community is that it has a human face. Put differently, community must maintain the intimacy of a human scale based on mutual recognition and trust if it is to survive and prosper.

To have and maintain a human face, conflicts within a community need to be resolved in a transformative manner, which means that each participant in the resolution of a conflict must be so engaged as to shift his or her thinking to a higher level of consciousness than the one that caused the conflict in the first place. Resolving a conflict in a transformative manner means we must, through the choices we make, reach beyond where we are, beyond where we feel safe. We must dare to move ahead, even if we do not fully understand where we are going or the price of getting there because we will never have perfect knowledge. And we must become students of processes and let go our advocacy of positions and embattlements over winning agreement with narrow points of view. This is important because our ever-increasing knowledge rapidly outstrips the ability of our current paradigm, based on old knowledge, to explain the new in terms of the old.

Destructive conflicts are created by the choices people make and therefore can be resolved by electing different choices with resolution so firmly in mind that it naturally leads to a shared vision of the future toward which to build. Because people are often consciously blind to the motives of their choices, however, some kind of facilitative process is needed to help resolve destructive conflicts by overcoming blind spots, the first step toward a shared vision. Facilitate, in the sense that I am using it, means to conduct a process of communication whereby people are assisted in freeing themselves from difficulties and obstacles in making decisions that either avoid or eliminate destructive conflict by forging commonly held values into a shared vision toward which to collectively build.

Therefore, to create and maintain a sense of community at its best, we must act with a thoughtful and compassionate heart while simultaneously facing, accepting, and acting on tough issues by having the courage and political will to make hard choices. Having courage and political will means openly and straightforwardly encountering, acknowledging, and resolving the inevitable conflicts, which entails committing to a mutual risk for the common good. Community leaders, in turn, must steadfastly work with community members to create safe circumstances in which members can struggle with one another to identify both shared commitments and differences of opinion in a constructive manner based on mutual civility and respect. At the same time, leaders must themselves be fully human and approachable. They must, by example, create the space and confer the permission for the humanity of others to flourish unabated, despite occasional mistakes. And it is paramount that leaders understand the real nature of their duty as leaders.

A true leader is other-centered and is therefore concerned primarily with facilitating someone else's ability to reach his or her potential as a human being by helping that person develop his or her talents and skills and recognize the value his or her experiences. Authentic leadership comes from the heart and deals intimately with human values and human dignity.

Authenticity is the condition or quality of being trustworthy or genuine. Beyond any dictionary definition, authenticity is the harmony among what we think, say, do, and what we really feel—the motive in the deepest recesses of our hearts.The adage "deeds speak louder than words" is true as far as it goes, but left unsaid is:  motives speak louder than deeds. We are authentic only when our motives, words, and deeds are in harmony with our attitudes, of which Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  "Your attitude thunders so loudly that I can't hear what you say."

Our attitudes are the visible part of our behavior, but our motives are often hidden from view. When our visible behavior is out of harmony with our motives, that attitude points to a hidden agenda. Therefore, an authentic person is one who is willing to risk shedding stereotypical roles and being a real person in a relationship. Trust can only be lived in our motives, thoughts, attitudes, and behavior.

Trust must be based on truth. To make this point, consider the following true story, which took place in northern Australia, where some reporters tape-recorded two policemen insulting an Aboriginal person.The reporters then printed the transcript on the front page of the newspaper:

The chief of police, an intelligent and open-minded man who had for some time been trying to reshape his police force, was to be interviewed about the incident on television. Hearing this, the minister of justice told the chief to fire the two policemen and warned him to be careful of what he said publicly, or he would be fired also.

But instead, on camera, the chief said:  "I must tell the truth, and the truth is those two policemen are not an exception. The rest of the police could have done the same. But I will tell you more. The rest of the population of my region of Australia could have done the same as well. We are becoming racists."

There was an explosion in the press and on television, and the chief of police was fired the next day. The firing had not been approved by the Parliament, however, and the opposition party in the Parliament applauded him for one full minute for telling the truth in public. This action forced the government party to applaud as well, which resulted in the minister being fired and the chief being reinstated.

The upshot is that the police in that area of Australia became the best in the country because the truth had been spoken. After truth has been spoken, there is not only room for but also permission for spiritual growth and personal authenticity, which leads to trust—the stuff communities are made of.

With respect to trust, you and I can take someone else only as far along the path toward healing, as we ourselves have been willing to go. For justice to be transformative, therefore, every one in the judicial system must be healed themselves before they can help anyone else to heal. I say this because the level of consciousness (thinking) that caused the problem in the first place is not the level of consciousness that can fix it, which brings me back to community.

Because choice is the essence of democracy, social-environmental sustainability, and sustainable community development, which is based on the trust of human relationships, no greater disservice can be rendered by those in authority than to unjustly limit the people's power to freely choose. The whole purpose of choice is for local people to guide the development of their own community as sustainably as possible within the mutually sustainable context of their landscape. After all, the local people and their children must reap the consequences of any decisions that are made. To limit their choices is to force someone else's consequences upon them, often at a great and increasingly negative long-term cost, first socially and then environmentally.

In true community, therefore, people collectively create a context in which each member can feel sustained, nourished, stimulated, engaged, and appreciated while simultaneously maintaining a sense of personal autonomy within the protection of an interdependent whole. Interdependence means focusing on the gift, the value each person brings to the common weal instead of focusing on what we perceive to be a lack in this person or that because, when one person is elevated, all are elevated in like measure; when one person is diminished, all are diminished in like measure. We (you and I) must seek strengths in others, rather than dwelling on perceived flaws and weakness that we all possess, which brings to mind a French proverb:  "To know all is to forgive all." We must pull when needed and push when required if the goal of moving a community toward social-environmental sustainability is to be realized.

Genuine communities take seriously the life situations, aspirations, identities, and necessities of their members and support them as they struggle individually and collective toward the community's shared vision of its desired future. Next to personal growth, building, maintaining, and nurturing community is perhaps the hardest work we will ever do because it requires us not only to fully engage our hearts and souls but also to be vulnerable, open, humble, and to find the intestinal fortitude to be consistent in our efforts with bulldog tenacity.

"Compassionate tenacity and vigilance," said Love one day to a city planner, "are the padlock and the key that hold Fear at bay."

"I don't understand," said the planner. "What do you mean?"

"Fear is always in a hurry, always watching the clock lest people be allowed to really touch their inner-most feelings and express their true values because that would require leadership to be shared among those who make up the community. And if there's one thing that threatens Fear," states Love with a gentle smile, "it's giving up leadership—being out of absolute control."

"Is that why our visioning processes are so carefully controlled and citizens held so tightly in check," queries the planner. "Is that why they're allowed only a few minutes to formulate their thoughts and express themselves?"

"Precisely," responds Love. "After all, the citizens have elected Fear as their Mayor and Greed, Uncertainty, Self-centeredness, Control, It's Mine, Loss, and I-Know-Best to the city council. These elected officials do not really want the citizens to have their way; that would be giving up control, and sharing leadership. That would be practicing democracy as a verb! For Fear to remain in control, therefore, democracy must forever be enshrined as a holy relic—a noun—that is venerated but never, ever put to use."

"Alas," sighs the planner, "you are correct. I have tried for years to sincerely and authentically involve the citizens of my community in helping to plan its future, not only for themselves today but also for their children tomorrow. But all the Mayor and city council can see is growth and money. And they never allow the citizens a scrap of real control over the destiny of their own community. How did we get to this state?"

"You can help to remedy the situation if you really want to," consoles Love.

"How?" asks the planner. "I love my community and its people. I'll do whatever you suggest."

"Then take the principles of true community as they are outlined in this section, print them up, and make sure the citizens get a copy. You may have to start small study circles to discuss these principles and see if the citizen can improve them or add any that may have been omitted."

"That sounds fine," says the planner, who is a little dejected by Love's response. "But you see," sighs the planner in a sad tone, "few people will come to such study circles because they feel powerless to change anything—and that is based on their past experiences."

"What you say is true," concedes Love, "but have there not been a handful of citizens who have always managed to change things, at least a little? Give them a real chance, and you'll find authentic leaders emerging from the crowd, leaders whose hearts are governed by my co-workers:  Compassion, Understanding, Patience, Truth, Other-centeredness, Gentleness, Honesty, and many others. They will help you build true community."

"I will do it," cries the planner with joy.

"You see," smiles Love, "my helper, Joy, is already speaking from your heart. If you will allow me to guide the process, you will win in the end, and send Fear and its grizzly gang back to the dark side of the future, where they belong. If you need an example of how people can work together when given the chance," Love continues, "visit W.L. Gore & Associates of Newark, Delaware."

Associates but no bosses? No wonder people like working at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Goretex, the waterproof-yet-breathable fabric of sportswear. The company's facilities house a maximum of 200 employees so they can get to know one another. "There are no titles, no big perks. There's the ability for anyone to talk directly to anyone," says Sally Gore, daughter-in-law of late founder Bill Gore.

"We don't have bosses," confides Heidi Cofran, who works in corporate communications, "but we have leaders [who can't give orders]; people go to certain people as a matter of course. It makes much more sense to let those people emerge as leaders, because others are much more likely to follow those people than people who are thrust upon them." Corporate management is guided by four principles:

be fair

encourage, help, and allow other associates to learn and gain skills and responsibility

allow associates to make commitments and keep them

consult with others before taking actions that can affect the company's health, which, according to Mrs. Gore, is called the "waterline principle because it comes from the feeling we are all in a boat together; if you shoot holes below the water line, you're going to sink"

Bill Gore started W.L. Gore & Associates in 1958, after leaving DuPont in frustration because the company was too restrictive and thwarted Gore's attempts to use Teflon to insulate electrical cable. Forty years later, W.L. Gore & Associates has grown to more than $1 billion a year in annual sales, based almost entirely on various uses of Teflon. In addition, Fortune magazine ranked W.L. Gore & Associates as the seventh-best company at which to work in the United States.

Can such a team effort work in a community? Of course it can. What else did Bill Gore do but create a true community?

In creating and maintaining community, as in life, the process is the product. The joy lies in the struggle to grow and mature psychologically and in the search to find meaning in our collective social experience. To find joy and meaning in life, we must each recognize that to be of value and to be valued, we must consciously share life's experiences with one another. To lose sight of our mutual need to share in order to know we exist and have value to the well-being of the whole is to die inwardly the death of social isolation in a crowd of humanity, to starve spiritually with the displaced and disenfranchised masses.

Here one might ask how community and justice coincide given the community ideal expressed in the above paragraphs. It is a good question with many answers.


The above piece is experted from my book Fear and Violence, and includes these references:

Chris Maser, Russ Beaton, and Kevin Smith. 1998. Setting the Stage for Sustainability:   A Citizen's Handbook. Lewis
      Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 275 pp.

Larry D. Roper. 2000. Building community no easy challenge. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. January 1

George Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley. 1955. The Vedas and perennial wisdom. The Quest 8(4):32-39, 80-81.

Wendell Berry. 1993. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Pantheon Books, New York, NY

David Schuman. 1994. Common Ground. Oregon Quarterly. Summer:16-19.

Chris Maser. 1991. Authenticity in the Forestry Profession. Journal of Forestry 89 (4):22-24.

Marc Luyckx. 1997. The Re-enchantment of Politics. YES A Journal of Positive Futures, Winter:16-17.

Alex Dominguez. 1998. Gore pioneers 'bossless' plant. The Associated Press. In:  Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. July 5. TOP

©chris maser 2005. All rights reserved.

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