What Is Community, and Why Is It Important?

In 2005, the Center asked several people whose work involves community building this simple question, and got some not-so-simple answers.

Riché C. Zamor, Executive Director, Latin American Health Institute, Boston

To me a community is a group of individuals connected to each other by one or more attribute(s). The element that links them together is at the core, and is the essence of the group. Just as denoted by the root and the suffix of the word (common-unity), a certain segment of the population is united by a familiar thread. In the field of Public Health, we see community as a group of folks that are at risk of being infected or affected by certain types of diseases based on their demographic, social, and economic status. A community is a familiar thread used to bring people together to advocate and support each other in the fight to overcome those threats. As human beings, we need a sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging is what connects us to the many relationships we develop. Communities are also rich in resources, that is where their collective aspect comes into play. We are all members of many communities (family, work, neighborhood, etc.), and we constantly move in and out of them, depending on the situation. Community is where we find comfort in difficult times. When things are not going well in one community, we have the option to move to another. For me, the community is where one finds the balance between physical and mental fitness.

Sarah Michelson, Teen Intern with The Food Project

Most people in today’s world rely on a community for practical purposes. The necessities of life rarely come from one’s own hands, but rather from a complicated “web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once phrased it. While most people need to be part of a community for life’s necessities, most people want to be part of a community because there is something indescribably lovely about being a part of a group of people who share something more substantial than geographical location… something they feel passionately about. Something that, when shared, makes individuals seem less lonely. A community is a safe place.

But there is something potentially dangerous about communities. A community that is safe, comfortable, and trusting can be so enticing that individuals can forget about the world outside of their community, or regard other communities with subtle prejudices.

I am a member of the Sudbury community, an affluent suburb of Boston. While I work to give back to my community, I also need to spend some time away from Sudbury, to know what life is like in Bolivia, in the American South, or in Roxbury, the inner city neighborhood where the Food Project does a lot of its work. I need to go to these places to remind myself that this way of life I am used to is not the only way or the best way. I need to be reminded that, while I give to my community, other communities are no less deserving. I need to be reminded that when I form a connection with someone based on common experience, it is not because that someone is from Sudbury. It is because we are both human beings, and I am part of a global community.

Alan O’Hare, Schenachie (Celtic Storyteller) and Director Life Story Theatre

In the silence of an early morning walk recently, the crystal song of a scarlet red cardinal atop an oak tree awakened me more fully. As I stood listening to him and his mate in a nearby tree serenading each other, a couple walking their dog joined me. Without speaking a word, it was clear we were enchanted by the gift of their song, and we joined together briefly in a community of celebration for the gifts of Nature.

The new light, the morning hymn, and the momentary connection with other travelers evoked images from other communities. Each of these whether for learning, work, healing, prayer, or friendship creates for us a safe experience of belonging, purpose, and shared values. In them, each of us encounters who we are and what our gifts are.

In the Sufi tradition, it is taught that the primary purpose of life is to awaken to the essence of who we are. Once we do so, we are invited to lovingly embrace this realization. The gift of community is that it offers each of us the fire of affirmation and support to achieve this… even on those days when we feel no fire.

But at that time we can recall the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “I ask all of you to hold up your hands and tell me the truth. Do you believe, as I do, that someone in our hamlet is keeping the fire alive?”

Frances Moore Lappé, Author of Democracy’s Edge

Community — meaning for me “nurturing human connection” — is our survival. We humans wither outside of community. It isn’t a luxury, a nice thing; community is essential to our well being.
Inclusion in the social life of society is community’s foundation. By inclusion I mean universal access to entry, starting with legal protections against exclusion — racial discrimination, for example — but going far, far beyond. Inclusion means access to jobs with fair pay, decent shelter, effective schools, and reliable health care. If you deprive “a man of a job or an income,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “you are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist…it is murder, psychologically…”
Yet today the ethic in ascendance is exclusion. We have allowed the government to let the minimum wage lose a quarter of its value in thirty years. One out of every five jobs in the U.S. will not lift a family of four out of poverty. And we’ve allowed health care to become unattainable by so many that America now ranks 42nd among the world’s nations in infant survival.
This profoundly disturbing assault on community calls us to accept an irony: We must risk exclusion — alienating or at least disturbing others — to become advocates for inclusion in community. That may mean speaking our minds even if  doing so triggers discomfort in others, reaching out to those excluded even when it feels awkward, engaging in visible civic public action such as a vigil or door-to-door education even where we risk angry rejection.
Appreciating that community is essential to human well being calls us to a particular kind of courage: walking with our fear of exclusion in order to stand up for inclusion.

Lisa R. Fortuna, Staff Psychiatrist, Cambridge Health Alliance

Community is about growing with others. I grew up surrounded by a culturally rich and loving community which has shaped my identity and pride as a black Latina woman. I have been blessed to be around young people and families ever engaged in improving the vitality of their community. Now, thirty five years into my life, I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Everyday, I get to meet with young people. I have the opportunity to be there in their lives during some of their most difficult and distressing moments. Because of who these young people are, and because of the love I have received, I strive to be the best physician I can be and to serve those who need me most.

In the process, my spirituality has been a central stabilizing and informing force in my life, one that has been very personal, very quiet and that has nevertheless guided every one of my life choices. This interface between community, medicine, and personal faith started with an early and long-standing fascination with the world around me. My mind was ignited by a love of science and medicine, and reliant on the power of community and deep respect and appreciation for healing. This attitude towards the world was inspired by my grandmother my mother, and the elders around me who took the time to care. This is what community is about… taking care of each other.

Shirley Tang, Distinguished Professor for Asian-American Studies, UMass Boston

I accepted the invitation to write for the BRC newsletter as a way to reflect briefly upon my own questions about community-building after twelve years of teaching and developing Asian American Studies in both university and street settings with students from urban immigrant/refugee communities. I was first drawn to Asian American Studies, and ethnic studies in general, because of its revolutionary commitments to community-building, justice-centered education, and hands-on, practical work. I have always felt that the best places to learn/teach are not behind the closed doors of an ivory tower but where people are experiencing marginalization and exclusion from decision-making power and resource-rich opportunities.

Several years ago, that was all theory. After I listened carefully to how young people and their families experienced problems first-hand and after I realized that they had always been at the forefront in fighting for a just and healthy community for all, I had begun to see things from their perspective and apply myself to keeping their—our—dreams alive. Since I started working at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, I have become a U.S. resident, and like many of the students and community members that I work with, I also found my life becoming more and more tied to the political and social situation of immigrant communities/communities of color in U.S. society.

So, why is community important? Because community saves us from the isolation and alienation we fear. Because in the real world people have no choice. Because community is about finding each other and a place we can call home. But we are also compelled to build community not only because we are survivors in an existing world order but because we bring differences to a society that erases our differences. By dealing with differences we confront the question of the social and economic foundations of our society. By building community we put some order in the fragmented world.