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Disentangling deep confusions about community

Here is a series of pieces I've written as I've explored and created community. My aim is to ease the path for those who do the very important work of building community. 

  1. Pseudocommunities
  2. Why we are confused about what community is
  3. What is community? 
  4. What are the challenges to building community? 
  5. Why is it hard for the people who anchor communities? 


How many communities are or have you been a part of? When I was in college I was part of the "campus community;" now I am part of the "alumni community." Then I got a job and was encouraged to partake in the company's "community-building activities." I took yoga classes in Santa Monica, making me part of their "yoga community." Over the years I have been a member of the MySpace, Friendster, Facebook "communities." When I decided to start working for myself, I was excited about the concept of joining a "coworking community." And so on.

What is the purpose of these communities ?

And why is it that when I need help, the only people I can turn to are my family members and tiny knot of closest friends ? Why do I eat all my meals alone, or with my husband if he's not teaching - except once a month when I drive up to see my dad and mom ? How can I be running a "community" of a hundred dancers and still feel lonely every single day ?

The reason is because the purpose of these communities is gathering the attention and resources of people toward a specific activity. These communities, including mine, are not actually there to create community - it's not their intent. It is striking that if a community has a clear intent, it is only a very narrow kind of community - an intentional community.

There are new well paid jobs out there - "community manager" or even "chief community officer" - most of these have something to do with sales, marketing or fundraising, or in some cases moderation and rules-enforcement. None of them (including me, because I have seen myself as a community organizer) cares if we all eat, or bowl, alone, every day, or if we have no money, or if we need help navigating a rapidly changing world that the best education that society was able to provide did not prepare us for.

I have personally been caught in the crux of a very deep misunderstanding that is embedded in our culture that has caused me a lot of confusion and we need to sort it out.

I started dancing Argentine Tango and was stunned by how amazing it was to feel so connected with people in the "tango community" through dancing events. And then, when I started teaching and dancing Argentine Tango, it was natural to try to create a "community" around our little tango school. It has been humbling to experience firsthand the many deep disconnects the word "community" can engender (including within myself), the deep division and confusion this has potential to cause, and the healing that continues to happen through the power of the relationships and love that has been kindled through tango. 

We don’t understand what community is

  • The word community has been appropriated by people endeavoring to promote specific things, and these people do not have a reference point for what community is

  • Collectively we have a pitiably low standard for community, most people have no reference point for how community should feel or what it should do

  • In our culture we often use skill development activities as a kind of proxy for community. This creates a model whereby financial resources for “community” are directed only toward those who teach these activities, or who exemplify some standard of excellence in a particular skill

  • The other proxy we have for community is a group of people focused on income-earning activities together

  • Skill development activities, and companies, while important, are not the same as community. Community is not the same as a bunch of people gathered together to do something or learn a specific activity.

  • Some people try to fix this by adding and adding more different kinds of activities into the mix, so more kinds of needs can be met, like in a studio. But even the grandest variety of activities does not amount to community.

  • Those who teach or lead activities well (like teachers and gurus) or who can organize others to lead activities (like studio managers) do not necessarily know how to create community nor are they inclined to do that

  • Those to exemplify excellence in particular skills (like stars) also do not necessarily know how to create community nor are they inclined to do that

  • Because teachers, gurus, studio managers and stars need a following, they initiate many misdirected, half-formed attempts to create a community around them, which often backfire and give community itself a bad name

What is community?

  • Community requires that the same people gather over and over again and participate in rituals together that have shared meaning.

  • Communities require that the stories and hardships of those on the fringes are centered and understood by all. Community is fragile until this is so.

  • Communities must provide resources for the development of each participant’s connection with themselves, with others, with the collective and with spirit or something bigger. (Most skill-building activities focus only on one or two of these areas.)

  • Communities must enable participants to know when a member needs help and for there to be enough that can be found to provide for that member’s needs

What are the challenges to building community?

  • For there to be a community there has to be some articulation of shared values. It is very hard to articulate values, and risky to speak through the lens of values today, especially for people in financially fragile situations, because it is a time when speaking in values often has the effect of polarizing people.

  • Communities that are well-functioning welcome new members with detail and care, and members leave-take with detail and care. However today most people have the expectation of being able to come and go from social constructs anonymously whenever they feel like it through simply not showing up, sorting away emails or unsubscribing from newsletters which are a community’s lifeline.

  • A community is stronger the more interconnected each member is, i.e., the more different real relationships he or she has. However most people don’t really know exactly how to build authentic relationships, or how to facilitate others to have real relationships, so as a result communities are weak or superficial.

  • Because our culture prizes the married couple as the principal unit of culture, there is a tendency for couples who find each other in community to then withdraw from community instead of continuing to participate in it.

  • Relatedly, community fosters a context for accessing human contact that most people need. Often, once friendships, relationships and new projects are established between people who meet in a community they withdraw since they no longer “need” the community. Nobody thinks of paying money to support the existence community of the that has facilitated major transformations into their lives in the form of major relationships that enrich them every single day.

  • When cash is scarce, financial resources are directed toward one’s own self, household and family first and foremost. There isn’t cash available for something that seems a little fuzzy like “community.” At best you could justify paying for educational classes, but not directly toward the settings and network of relationships that makes those classes possible.

  • There are no culturally sanctioned procedures for sharing information publicly about who needs help when.

  • For there to be a community there has to be shared spaces that operate outside of economy, and there is practically no funding for such spaces. Spaces are funded when they are tied to specific activities that yield money per time unit predictably.

Why is it so hard for the people who anchor communities?

  • As a society we do not understand the work that is done by those who anchor communities - its complexity, its subtlety, its longtermism

  • Those who are drawn to doing the actual activities that support the emergence of community do not do those activities within any well understood economic model. Which is to say, there is no secure livelihood for those who spend all their time anchoring a community.

  • Most people have no frame of reference for a life-long community or for the extreme longtermist thinking of a community organizer; since the interpersonal paradigm that most people functioning within is that of business, their expectation is that the community organizer’s commitment is on a par with the commitment of any entrepreneur to their business, and that their primary motive is personal/financial

  • Because of the emphasis on activities or skill-building, and the business paradigm, peoples’ relationship with their community tends to be that of a “consumer.” However, communities only work when everyone is a co-creator, because the work is too complex to be differentiated into roles

  • Building community requires a very specific kind of relationship building. The people who anchor a community must be able to build and maintain real relationships with a very wide range of people. Building real relationships means developing points of shared reality around each person’s tensions and potentials as they navigate their paths of self-development, spiritual development, partnership and leadership with care and sensitivity around individual boundaries. This is very challenging to do on any kind of scale.

  • Furthermore these real relationships must be continuously tuned toward awareness of the community's own health and well-functioning. In a context where resources are scarce, this tuning can engender suspicion about the community anchor’s motives for building relationships. This can emotionally exhaust and alienate the people on whom the community relies for its functioning.

  • Real relationships are built through sharing experiences and developing shared realities across a wide range of contexts and situations including informal settings. Building relationships is emotionally intensive, and requires emotional and time resources that our current accounting systems have no way to measure or budget for, and other creative or personal resources that tend to be outside of the purview of what are normally considered “business” expenses.

  • Community requires that the community anchor perform a continuous density of tiny tasks and touches that are too subtle to be meaningfully measured and tracked by traditional time management and productivity approaches

  • Because of the information environment, and how many different choices there are for personal communications today, and because each individual has unique personal preferences, the burden is on the already overburdened community organizer to send out important information across many different platforms and multiple times  - email, text message, social media - to ensure the critical mass of the community receives it. This is too hard for one person handle. Those at the nexus of a community's information need to have a reliable, relatively straightforward way to reach everyone in the community, or else more people need to be accountable for this activity.

  • There are pitiably few mentorship or education programs that provide guidance for those who wish to dedicate themselves specifically to community emergence, those that seem to work are actually overwhelmed and resource strapped themselves

  • As we mentioned before, communities only work when the needs and hardships of those on the fringes are centered and understood by all. Community organizers themselves are the ones who are very likely to be on the fringes living in a completely different socioeconomic world than others in their community and have difficulty putting their own experience into words that can be shared.

  • People who are putting everything on the line for community do not have a voice or a lobby or an association or even a legitimizing job description that protects them and gives them the confidence to speak out. These are humble people and they really don’t care about money. They might feel in this environment that if things aren’t working well it is their fault, and that to talk about their struggles would be shameful or a drag or would turn people away.

I am heartsick as I think about people whose lives have been squandered and broken, or whose souls have been severely tested, by the paradox we are trapped in. I am thinking of people who cared about nothing except bringing people together to create beauty together. A lot of them are now poor, discouraged, sick, drunk, cynical, sad, worried, angry. Some of them have quit, maybe they think they have “sold out.” A lot of them are persevering thanks entirely to angels who help them, friends who give them supportive words, kind hearts who write checks when things are really desperate. It is for them that I am continuing to do this work until we emerge with something that will help.