I just travelled 8000KM (5000 miles) through a large variety of communities across Canada- some big, some small. Here is what I learned about what makes a healthy, strong community.
In a happy, vibrant community, there are strong social connections that create a sense of belonging. And along with belonging comes a sense of responsibility to support your fellow members. With a strong sense of belonging and knowing other community members will take care of each other comes a sense of peace, security, and meaning. Communities provide a soul nurturing experience when you have the opportunity to contribute and know others are there for you.
For example, in Yellowknife (population 20,000) while walking down the street, people want to reach out to you and see if you are a new member of the community. If you are, you are treated to the experience that Mark had. Mark is Pilipino and when he first arrived in Yellowknife, for the first two weeks he was invited into one strangers house after another, all making sure he felt he belonged in the community. Mark told us he felt the responsibility to pay this welcoming forward and wondered whether we wanted to go out on his boat to catch white fish. What a treat.
A few days later we were driving through the remote community of Zama City, population 50 expecting to get some gas. The gas station was closed and we were 100Km (60 miles) from the next possibility. We found someone working outside and asked him if we could buy enough gas to get us to the next town. We expected to pay a high premium and we gladly would have. He gave us $25 worth of gas and refused any money. Then we had to show him our gas gauge just to make sure we had enough to make it there.
Contrast these experiences with my friend who lives in a hamlet of 160,000 people on Long Island, New York. As we talked about what it means to live in a community, what we discovered was that he doesn’t. He lives in a house that happens to be surrounded by lots of other houses, he doesn’t know his neighbors and when he drives to the mall to get what he needs, he never meets anyone he knows.
So does size matter. My son and grandchildren live in Toronto (population 5 million) in an area near Kensington and Little Italy. His kids walk to school, both he and my daughter-in-law walk to work and they walk to the grocery store and markets to get everything they need. They have a car, but rarely use it except for family outings outside the city and to pick up big heavy things. As they walk down the street, it is amazing to see how many people reach out and say hello, stop and chat. While we were in the playground, someone across the street came over with a pizza and shared it around the playground. People accepted his generosity with gratitude and without fear even though he wasn’t known to anyone there.
In this same city, I have friends who live in a large house in Mississauga, an area on the western end of Toronto. Although their house is very nice, they don’t know anyone in the neighborhood, have to drive everywhere for anything. There is nothing central to the community except how big your house is. They live in a house, not a community. In this same place, I was talking with a woman who lived in an apartment building. She lamented that she didn’t know anyone in her building including in the apartment next to her.
What this says to me is size does matter- that the definition of community has to be small enough that the members of the community can feel connected to the other members of the community, but more importantly, the community has a common sense of we share this place together, you belong and I will look out for you without imposing my judgement on you. In this kind of community, people meet on the street or in the community hall and welcome others with a sense of openness.
While flying back from Calgary, I was seated next to Maggie, the sister of one of the women who was killed by Robert Pickton. Maggie’s sister was a sex worker for twenty years in Vancouver’s Lower East Side. As we were talking about community, she shared about how important healthy communities include diversity including people like her sister who are often marginalized by society. This caused me to reflect back on Yellowknife. I had noticed homeless men with alcoholic problems and how the community acknowledged them. They simply accepted them as part of the social fabric of the community. they belonged in the community.
So what makes a healthy community? There are two biggies.
- Belonging and acceptance where there are strong social connections throughout the community.
- A culture of taking care of each other while accepting people’s differences.
Communities come with all kinds of flavors, but without these two ingredients, people live in houses disconnected from the spiritual and emotional support that healthy communities provide.
I am truly grateful that my grandchildren are learning the basics of living in a healthy community.