Communities Week 2017 provided a refreshing reminder of how local communities continue to take action on the issues that affect them, without apology or permission. It reminded me, too, of many national conversations I have been party to around how to support, stimulate and invest in community action. Frustratingly, the word ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, professionally detached from personal experience during the design and preparation of a national community programme. This detachment is exacerbated by attempts to categorise communities of interest, place and need.
Detailed knowledge of one of an endless list of communities of interest, such as faith, environment, health, black and minority ethnic, might well be outside an individual’s own experience. But that individual might be a participant in their own community of interest, able to empathise with what brings people together and how to engage others. That experience could be consciously applied to their professional practice.
Then there is the old nugget of how you define a geographical community; this question is usually met with raised eyebrows and a sharp outtake of breath. Ever-shifting electoral boundaries are the too-easy answer, yet we might find a more relevant one if we considered our lived experience of how we come together in our own community. We should simply suggest possible options and trust the community to democratically decide how its area will be defined.
The definition of a community might in some cases relate to a specific issue, for example, reaching communities of economic and social disadvantage. In this case, we should try to dig deeper and learn what discourages or enables these communities to come together. Access to different resources, or adjusting the pace of delivery to reflect local capacity often demonstrates that there is no less enthusiasm or capability in these communities, than in areas of greater prosperity.
And of course, sometimes all three of these descriptions of community are at play at once. Understanding community is not a straightforward task then, but we risk making it more complicated than it should be by disconnecting our personal and professional experiences. It could help if next time we talk about ‘community’, we remember that we are all part of one.