Four or five years ago a community organizer friend of mine worried that the word “community” was losing its oomph, and wanted to come up with a new word to get the point across. I remember thinking that was silly, how could the word COMMUNITY lose its meaning? I looked it up, and Merriam Webster gives exactly twelve definitions of the word. Since when can a word mean so many things? But just because a word is working for a lot of people in a lot of different ways doesn’t mean we have to abandon it. We just have the job of being specific about the way that we use it.
Your community might be the group of people you eat with, drink with, work with, or play with. Or the ones who share your heritage, your house, religious beliefs, or passions and interests. They might be the ones that give you high fives when you do good work, or hug you when you’re really sad. Everyone’s got a different configuration of the communities that are important in their life. But why are they important?
Well, because we can’t do life on our own. What if you had no one to bounce ideas off of, no dance partners, no one to empathize with you, nobody to cheers? You would probably feel something missing, because we need community like we need food and water. We are healthier, happier, and more effective in life when we find a group of people who care to share experiences with us.
I’ve always felt happiest and most alive when part of a community. I’ve also seen my communities come together to pull off awesome events and projects that spread that happy-and-alive feeling. So it made sense when I arrived at (hashtag) community-based development work. Let me share with you some of the nuance to that in our work in Nepal.
I always talk about the community that ParticipAid works with. It used to be very simple. Karmidanda is a small village of about 70 families that everyone in the surrounding area can basically agree on. I worked in, for, and with Karmidanda for about 5 years before the earthquakes in 2015 happened. As ParticipAid and our partner Share Nepal were born and raised after the earthquakes, our commitment to community-based work was strengthened, but the community changed. Share Nepal began to recognize political boundaries instead of historical ones and the community grew from 70 families to 700. Then, as you might have read in our last blog, the government recently did some redrawing of state lines and the community is again redefined! Things are fluid in Nepalese life in many ways, that’s part of its charm. Sometimes this fluidity is amazing (socially), and sometimes it’s problematic (politically).
Our objective at ParticipAid is to build community resilience. We think we can do this by training local organized groups to engage their neighbors in building and executing development plans in a participatory way. Our service is directly to the smaller groups, with the intention that this will build capacity for the larger community in the long term. Does it matter that the community’s boundaries may be ever-changing? Probably a little, I hope not too much, but only time will tell.
So for ParticipAid, we’ll define community broadly and simply: the group of people in the geographic region served by our partners. Easy enough. Our work is to nurture them, not define them.
Here at home, how can we nurture our communities so that they will nurture us? As usual, we first have to show up. Attend the event, get to know the other members, and be as generous as we can with our time for others. Give what we can so that when the time comes, we can take what we need. I like to think of community as a team. We self-identify in a group together because of some common objective. In a lot of cases, the objective is too big for just one person. So your win is my win, and my win is yours. And if we reach our objective, we can both own that. The game of life is like any other sport, we have to practice to get better at it. Go Team!