Reflections on community

I have spent a decade voraciously learning everything I possibly could to discover how communities are created and all the vast number of complex skills that are needed to nurture them. 

I think learning how to build great communities is a hugely important skill for our species. And I think it’s a sorry shame that there are so many people who know an amazing, beautiful, life-transformative skill inside and out - like dancing, singing, music, theater, painting, art, crafts, coding, contemplative practices - but don't know how to build a community. We need to build great practice communities in order for these beautiful activities to take root, thrive, have meaning, take flight.

My laboratory for community-building has been Los Angeles and the shared activity has been Tango. Tango is an incredibly dense, complex, and poorly understood/poorly articulated dance form and I did not find any really clear training methods that helped. To succeed in building a Tango community I had to learn many skills: to follow, to lead, to DJ, to teach group classes and private lessons, to work with a partner, to do public demonstrations/performances, and to organize milongas and practicas. Each of these took hundreds and hundreds of hours to gain competence at. I estimate I have taught 1800 hours of Tango locally here in LA, and I am still learning all the time about how to teach. Also, to do all of these well I had to develop much better body awareness which took a lot of time and a lot of discipline. 

But building a real community requires a bunch more skills than just the skills related to Tango. It also requires: mentoring, hospitality, introductions and breaking the ice between people, public speaking, writing and blogging, networking, casting, recruiting, training, asking questions and listening, negotiating, boundary-setting, budgeting and resource-allocating, convening meetings, throwing parties, celebrating transitions, self-care, self-discipline, affirmations and visualization, expressing gratitude, asking for what you need, being yourself in public, giving and receiving feedback, continuous learning.

All that sounds so huge, but really now that I understand it, it all boils down to one thing: presence. Are you present or not? Are you here? In this moment - are you connected? Are you willing to let go of what you are telling yourself, or what seems like it should come next and let the spirit of improvisation take us to the place where giving and receiving are the same thing? How much more honest can you be?

It's tempting to be cynical and say that talking about community is a sophisticated manipulative form of marketing. A lot of times it is. People give a huge amount of lip service to the concept of community without really understanding it. Community is not the same thing as a bunch of people gathered together in a space. Even the same group meeting at the same time regularly every single week does not equal community. Your yoga class isn’t a community. All the people who have subscribed to your newsletter is not a community. A loose bunch of people who do the same activity who randomly sometimes see each other at events are also not a community - not yet.

But that doesn’t mean everything called “community” should be discounted. It means we need to hone our ability to make fine distinctions and discover what is the difference between authentic, and community that's not there yet. Because no matter how cynical you are you need real community. Every human being does.

Community means forgiveness and understanding when you mess up. It means imagining a future together. It means confronting awkward situations and talking through misunderstandings, not avoiding them. It means committing to making our relationships non-disposable. When you are part of a community there are a few people you can call when you need help and they will answer and help you. It means eating good meals together. It means conversations with the same people in different settings as you discover an emergent quality of who you are together. It means there is something that exists and endures beyond the specifics of the moment, and this thing helps you understand who you are over time, lots of time.

I am eager to share what I have learned about community - slow-growth, long-range, organically built local community - and spread the joy that it has brought to my life to others who are called to do this work.