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In conflict resolution, the notion of community building comes up regularly. We often do that from the perspective of city dwellers where cities are composed of a mixture of cultures that, effectively don’t always mix, causing cultural misunderstandings, friction, and at times long term conflict.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, we were discussing the value of the old style community where people would stay in the same village and house all their life, where they knew everyone and had a solid circle of “friends”. The implication according to her argument is that this would be a more caring and nurturing environment where individuals would feel safe and would have a greater chance to thrive than the often isolated inner city dwelling where neighbours often don’t know each other. This young person was not only born in a city but falls into what is coined as “a third culture kid”, raised in foreign countries with frequent moves, thus did not experience having deep roots attached to a particular place. I believe her stance could be in part due to the romanticised way this life style is projected by Hollywood.
My own life experience taught me differently, however. Staying in one place can certainly mean that you know “everyone”. But it does not always equate with caring. I was raised in the equivalent of social housing in France. All the kids went to the same school, the same church on Sundays, we all had our 1st communion together, I would babysit for the neighbour’s kids… Anyone looking in from the outside might have thought it was a “nice” community. But when my 15 years old best friend got pregnant, unexpectedly, she had to leave school, go to another part of our city where she was not known, to escape the shame on her and her family. She was not able to go back to school and in the end, her parents had to move to a place where they were not known, and where they could make up a story about their daughter. That is the other face of the “life-long community”.
When visiting Ireland recently, I befriended a couple of young women who had gone back to their mother’s village and took over the family farm, effectually going back to their “roots”. From day one, the village farmers had put bets that “they wouldn’t last 3 weeks”, “them city girls”. They were not “foreigners” their grandfather had built up the farm, their uncle kept it up and they would go every year. Still the atmosphere was far from caring and supportive. The girls kept telling stories of backstabbing and family feuds.
I am all for building community. Anyone living in London knows the deep need we all have for this, to feel a part. But we can’t be naïve and think it is all that simple, that you stay in one place and that is your community. Community is something we all have to BUILD, together, wherever we are. We have to make time and space for one another, and put some thought and effort into bringing down the walls we surround ourselves with. In practical terms, in the cities it might mean joining circles of activities where people have the same interests, baking some cookies at times of Festivals (Christmas, Eid, Chinese New Year or Diwali) according to the cultural background of our neighbours, taking a few minutes to chat about the weather- a very British thing-
The point is that it doesn’t just happen. We have to want it and want to make it happen, we have to reach out. So in the cities, the councils need to think about this. Provide places where people can cross paths and enjoy time together. Nowadays, sport centres have taken on some of this role but wouldn’t it be nice to also have common gardening, more play areas for the children, activities that people can join, which requires affordable room hire or open spaces.
Ultimately though, it is up to each of us as individuals to make “community building” a necessary investment of our time and to take practical steps toward it. As the saying goes:
“Nothing will change if we keep doing what we have always done”.