ORLANDO, Fla. — It took me a long time to understand the full meaning of the word “community.”
For a long time, I saw it as a synonym for “city” or “town” or “place.” Nothing more. But as I grow up, and I think about what I want for my home and my worlds moving forward, I have realized all that that term encompasses and why it is so vital.
I was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., a medium-sized city in Southwest Michigan, and we lived in Portage, just outside Kalamazoo, until I turned 10. I was just a child, but I certainly got the feeling that that was a great community, the kind of place where we knew our neighbors on both sides (my childhood best friend lived next door), where people communicated and interacted without putting on airs, where people cared about each other and wanted to work together. Since it wasn’t a big city, there wasn’t an arrogance to the community; it was people who wanted to help people.
I do recognize that I was a child observing these things, and that I am likely painting a bit of a falsely positive, utopian picture of that time because I am looking back far. I have no doubt it was not a perfect place, but it was a community that we loved.
Then we moved. After his company merged, my dad chose to move to Indianapolis and work for another company rather than be relocated to New Jersey. I still recall sitting at the kitchen table, learning that we would move, and saying “Cool!” out loud. But I was very soon in a quite different place about the matter.
We moved to a suburb of Indianapolis with incredible schools and significant wealth. While there are great people there, it was a significant shift as far as community. I spent my junior high school years with few friends; I think back now and feel lucky that I didn’t feel lonely — I liked what I liked, whether that was watching “Boy Meets World” every day on Disney Channel or surfing the Internet on the chunky family desktop computer.
The community we joined was very tribal and judgmental, so much so that I didn’t think of it as a community, a place where people interact and converse and learn from each other. It wasn’t that — too much, I think, it was a place where opinions were deeply calcified, and challenging said concerns was seen as terribly out of line. It was a snooty place, a place with a hierarchy, a place that did not seem like a community.
I did find my own communities in high school — the honors/AP kids; the band’s drumline; the school newspaper — but I never really thought about the elements of a community until much later, in college, when “community” is used so often. Colleges have an incredible opportunity to create places and spaces that have the tangible and intangible objects within them to allow for interaction, education, conversation, and growth and development. When our university president talked about changing the campus with construction in order to create places where people gather and have the experiences they desire to have, I began to redefine “community” in my head.
I also realized what I want in a community, what I value in a community. I value the opportunity to travel without a car. I value the ability to interact with others, the opportunities to see people and have brief (or lengthy) conversations. I value openness, diversity, uniqueness, local shops and restaurants run by local citizens. I value deep discussions over a beer or an appetizer. I value the ability to attend events in town without being far, far away. I value my family and my friends. I value supporting people in need in all ways we can do so.
And those things have to inform my community, the place in which I live my life. That’s why Christine and I live in a city, a place where those things can all happen if you’ve got the mix right. That’s why we’ve committed to living in cities, not in suburbs, at least when that’s a reasonable thing economically. I believe in communities that sprout up in cities. We love our neighborhood, where we can walk our dog and they know him (“Hey, it’s Marvin!”), where we can walk to a few restaurants and bars and where we have a run/bike trail that goes for miles. It’s my kind of community, in all senses of that word.
Today’s #ThinkKit post was to think about what service I want to do for my community in the next year. Well, I think it’s clear: I simply need to give back and support the things that I care about. For a good part of this year, Christine and I volunteered at a food bank in town, heading there on Saturday to pass out food and organize for them. Christine has found another outlet for service, tutoring adults in Indianapolis on how to read, which supports literacy, a huge passion of hers. I volunteer for my fraternity, helping young men have developmental experiences, but I have to do more. I must. And I must find the ways to do that.
Communities matter, and that word contains so much that it’s bursting with possibilities. To make them better, we must commit to them as much as possible. I’ll keep you posted on how I’ll do that in 2014.