The real value of community

5 Apr

I recently got into a discussion with my father about the importance of community and whether building community should be a responsibility of councils and government. My argument was that yes, it should be. I see a resilient and connected community as synonymous with having functioning street lights, clean streets and fresh water. They’re like the relationship between the African Honeyguide and the Honey Badger. The bird leads the badger to a bee hive where the badger feeds on the honey. When it is finished, the Honeybird can feed off the beeswax. In the same way, having services such as street lights and waste management is essential to having safer communities. And communities that are connected are also more likely to look out for each other.

Am I wrong? Well according to my dad I am. After much debate, he commented, “You’ve got no proof of this connection. I think we’ve got onto a topic where you and I need to have a lot more discussion about how things work” to which I childishly (as you do when you’re the youngest child having an argument with your father) retorted, “well, at least I’m doing something about it.” He replied simply, “but are you really?”

This got me thinking, why am I so caught up on building community? What difference does it make if people know each other in the street or not?

Perhaps some people don’t need community. They’re self-sufficient. Maybe my father is one of those people. He’s a bit of an introvert; he’d rather stay home and be with his family than go to a community event. He can afford to have his hedge cut and to get his pants hemmed if they are too long. If he runs out of eggs or milk, he doesn’t need to go to his neighbour; he walks to the dairy a block up the road. Maybe indeed he doesn’t need community.

However, looking at my life for a moment, I am in a different situation. I need my community for many reasons. Being connected to my community adds social, economic and cultural value to my life. There are those people who cook me meals, give me lifts to the airport, and generally look out for me. I am a member of the time bank in Wellington which has given me access to people who have skills that I don’t have – people have written me press releases, fixed my clothes, and watered my garden. Other people in my community have acted like mentors. They have given me professional advice, linked me up with the right people, looked over my CV, and helped me get funding for projects. Then there are just those familiar faces around my neighbourhood who smile and say hi whenever we pass each other in the street. They just make me feel like I’m part of something that is bigger than myself.

It was at this point in my reflections that a video made in Lyttleton after the Christchurch Earthquake sprung to mind. It is a short video that illustrates in ways I couldn’t possibly manage here, the essential nature of community at a time of crisis. “In this time of great loss, Lyttelton and its community stood out as being resilient, organised and sustainable. It already had the community connections, timebanking, resource sharing and a cooperative arts community.”

Essential city services are, well, essential. I do not doubt that. But when those things fail, when the world is taken out from under our feet like it was in Christchurch. What is left? There is no electricity for the street lights. There is no-one coming around to collect waste. There are just the people and the community looking out for one another. And being from Wellington, where ‘the big one’ is a constant threat, I think it is vital that we are connected, resilient, and generous at heart. This is just one reason why Council and Government should see that putting resources, money and energy into supporting a connected community is not just pandering to the ‘lefties’, it will in the long term have significant social, economic and cultural benefits.

Hannah Mackintosh

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2 Responses to “The real value of community”

  1. Nathan April 5, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Yes I think they should too.
    But they’re highly unlikely to. As Nicole Foss says, even if there is individual willpower & good intention amongst government, they can’t act.
    I think they’re weighed down by so much bureaucracy and there’s too much corporate influence & lobbying for anything to get through that is fundamentally anti capitalist in nature, which all these awesome things are.
    Not that I think we should give up on them, but that we should focus on making change from the ground up, hope they help us, but don’t sit around waiting for it.
    Like you say resilience is the key. Peak Oil, Climate Change, GFC II. Community will help us in such times.

  2. taniamead April 12, 2012 at 2:38 am #

    Awesome post Hans. Bit stink that as a community worker you still get told that you just don’t know how things work!

    As far as Nathan’s comment goes, I think it’s a little dramatic to insist that councils (as opposed to governments) are genuinely unable to enact postive change. I’ve been a part of at least three small scale community projects which would not have been able to get off the ground if it weren’t for council funding. That’s the real tragedy of the government’s proposal to limit councils’ mandate, because their smaller scale can be a real asset, as well as their clsoer proximity to small communities.

    Sadface xx

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