Tag Archives: Community

What is Community?

For me, community has always meant people working co-operatively together for the longer term, sharing values, ideas, resources and making something that is more than the sum of its parts. ‘Community’ as a term gets banded about to mean ‘group of people with something in common’ when there’s not much community involved in it at all. For me, if involvement depends on ability to pay, it’s not a community. If you don’t look after each other, it’s not a community. I’ve been in a lot of spaces that have called themselves communities, or tribes. I’ve never managed to stay.

I tend to assume the problem is me. I can’t turn a blind eye to problems. Increasingly, I can’t remain silent about who isn’t in the room, who is excluded by the very way in which things are run. I can’t deal with people who want power over me specifically, or who are there to build a personal power-base. I’m very happy to deal with people who want the power to get things done, and very wary of people who just want power. If I care about spaces and am wholehearted about them and giving as much as I can, I can’t also be complacent about the things I find difficult. I don’t have the apathy that smoothes over problems, or the disinterest that allows a person to be calm, and professional detachment is beyond me.

My experience has been that I am never patient enough. I don’t give enough, I’m not sympathetic enough, or co-operative enough, or hard working enough, when dealing with people. I’ve never been in a space where I’ve been able to do enough to go from the peripheries to the middle. If there’s a designated ‘team druid’ or similar, I won’t be in it. The only exceptions have been spaces I’ve run myself.

I’ve never been able to work out what the differences are. Why some people are loved, cherished and valued apparently with little reference to what they do, and no matter what I do, I don’t get treated that way. I left one community a little after a chap was obliged to step down due to bankruptcy. He went with love and praise and was treated with honour and respect. I left shortly afterwards, unacknowledged, pushed out over other people’s anxieties that issues in my personal life could get in the way of the work. I’d not done anything wrong.  I had thrown everything I could at that space, I had pushed into burnout repeatedly, gone way outside my comfort zone, and it still wasn’t enough to feel like there was a place for me – and in the end, there was no place for me and I left feeling humiliated. It’s one example amongst many.

I left because I’d been accused of bullying, and the person accusing me tried to get me fired from my day job. I left because I just wanted to participate quietly, and the older men in the space kept pushing for my energy and attention. I left because I was so burned out I could no longer function. I left because I thought the person in charge of me was acting unfairly towards people I was responsible for and I couldn’t fix it. I left because I wasn’t given the information I needed to do the job properly, and because I was always outside of the key clique. I left because I’d stepped in to try and deal with a conflict and although the conflict sorted, I took so much damage that I couldn’t continue. I left because I was tired of feeling peripheral and making a lot of effort to be somewhere no one needed me. I leave.

The decision not to do any of that again has been a painful one. I crave community. I want to be part of something. But, I’ve never managed to stay in a community space I wasn’t running. I’ve tried, but this stuff is beyond me.

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Being a bit rubbish with people

I’ve carried the idea that I was rubbish at dealing with people ever since I landed at playschool and found I had no idea how to relate to other kids. Shy and nervous, I did not do well socially at school, although I am blessed with some good friends from that period of my life. I’ve never found relationships with people very easy. I’ve spent my life to this point looking for places to belong. I’ve fallen out of all sorts of communities and spaces.

There are so many things I can’t cope with. Any situation in which a person needs to be tough, emotionally robust or able to deal with pushy people interested in power-over… I don’t cope. People who move goal posts. People who want everything you have and then rubbish you when they’ve burned you out. People who mock and belittle mental health problems. People who dish out all kinds of crap while expecting saintly patience in return… all of these things seem normal in spaces with people in, and I can’t deal with them.

I’ve started saying ‘I am rubbish at doing stuff with people’ out loud, and it is an incredible relief to own it. I can’t do spaces with people in, in the way that other people do. I can’t care insufficiently to just ignore problems. I’m not emotionally robust enough to deal with casual sexism, or spaces that can’t make allowances for the anxiety I suffer.

I’ve tried, and tried again, and failed, and failed again. I’ve had plenty of people along the way tell me what I rubbish person I am to deal with – I don’t give enough, I make too much fuss, I don’t forgive enough in them… and I’ve thrown so much energy into trying to prove I’m better than that.

And now I’ve stopped.

If I’m not good enough for someone else – fine, so be it, I will go away. If I’m not robust enough to function in a space, I will leave that space. I am a bit rubbish at dealing with people in the way that many of the people I have encountered expect to be dealt with. Fair enough. I cannot change me, and I cannot afford to stay in these kinds of fights, so I won’t.

I am a bit rubbish at doing stuff with people. And every time I say it, I feel a weight on me easing. I don’t know how much there is to let go of, how much more relief there is to find. I can’t do this stuff. I can’t do conventional workplaces and I can’t do community membership, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I can just wander off and be my anxious, cranky self places that won’t be a problem, and the people who are ok with me can seek me out when they feel like it.

Maybe I never properly feel like I belong anywhere because there is nowhere I could belong. Maybe that’s ok. I’ve spent my whole life to this point aching for a place to belong, so putting that longing down is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. What I want doesn’t exist, and there is no need to keep hurting myself trying to fit into spaces that aren’t there. I accept that I cannot do the things with people that have proved necessary in every community space I have ever explored. I can’t do it. There is so much relief in saying it, and a kind of grief for that which never was, but that’s ok.


Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Community creativity

My local theatre festival happened over the weekend. I was, at various times, a paid worker in a venue, a performer, a volunteer and an audience member. I went to three of the ten venues and saw six of the forty shows. It was an intensive sort of weekend.

It struck me how innately good it is though, to be moving between those different roles. To be a performer, and also an audience member. To be someone who moves the chairs around, and someone working the door, and to experience an event from most of the available perspectives. These are wonderful opportunities to have. Over the weekend, it was very normal to see performers going to other people’s shows, and volunteers who had been on stage in other years.

We’re so used to being entertained by people who aren’t even in the room. Television and film give us distance between performer and audience, and no sense of moving about. If you watch alone at home there is, for most of us, no sense that other roles might be available. However, go to a community event like this and getting involved in some capacity is easy. There’s no barrier between performer and audience. No one is so grand that they can’t do a shift on a door, or help set a room up.

There’s also something very powerful about sharing this kind of experience with other people. Over the weekend I talked to other people about shows I had seen, shows they had seen, shows we had both seen – and that added depth to the whole experience. Performers talked to me about how their shows had gone. The feeling of involvement was delightful and made me realise how little most of us get of that in the normal scheme of things.

If you can only ever be an audience member, only a consumer of other people’s creativity, you miss out on a lot. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to be creative and expressive. The way in which we hive off creative roles for the few – especially at the level where you might earn enough to live on – frustrates me. It’s not how I want to do things.


Apple harvest

At the weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to be involved with harvesting and processing apples. It was a small, non-commercial thing, helping out friends whose garden has a lot of fruit trees. I picked apples, cut apples, spent quite a lot of time extracting juice from apples. I drank freshly squeezed apple juice – which is wonderful. Someone else made apple crumble, and we ate it together. There were some spontaneous bursts of collective singing, and an improvised apple shanty.

This kind of seasonal working and feasting creates not only a sense of community, but also a rich relationship with the time of year. For me, it also creates a sense of connection with ancestors. I’ve found that around jam making, preserving, making Christmas puddings and other seasonally specific domestic activities. I feel it at the first point in the year when I can hang washing outside. These are the things people have been doing for a very long time. The technology changes, a bit, the recipes evolve, the songs get new words, or new songs are added, but the essence remains the same.

Ever since the industrial revolution, working people have been sold an idea of convenience. That it is better for us to work just the one job, and buy most of what we need from other people who are doing just that as their job. Before then, most of us would have been much more involved with the practical realities of daily life. We get told all the time how much we want and need convenience – usually this information comes in the form of adverts for products.

We get told that doing a job the slow way and by hand is drudgery, old fashioned, and undesirable. My experience has always been that going the slow way gives me more. I can’t do it for everything all the time, in no small part because I don’t live in a space that would allow that. I need a bigger kitchen, some workshop room and a bit of garden. Maybe, one day this will be possible.

Self sufficiency is clearly hard work – but it also isn’t what most of our ancestors did. When you work together in a community, any given job doesn’t take so very long, and you can focus on what’s most urgent, and share the loads out and deploy people where they are more useful. As an ambidextrous person, I was able to work the apple juice machine faster than a single-handed person could, I enjoy the opportunities to use my hands that way. Other people are better suited to other things, and sharing the work out this way has its advantages.

Communal working for the good of your community has a very different feel from paid work. There’s more investment in doing the best possible job, there’s no incentive to rush, and there’s room to have fun while you’re doing it. ‘Convenience’ offers none of that.


Life after cars

I’ve been cheered over the last month or so to see more people online talking about how we are going to have to cut back on car use. The only way to deal with congestion, is if more people drive less. I’m so glad to see growing recognition that building roads does not solve this problem. We need to tackle our dire air pollution – which is killing people. We need to square up to the way driving impacts on climate chaos. We also can’t simply replace current cars with electric ones, because there are rare earths currently needed for electric cars and the planet can’t afford us over-consuming those, either.

What needs to happen next is that we need to start getting excited about the implications of a mass cutback on car travel. So, here are some benefits to contemplate.

Reduced noise pollution. How much nicer and less stressful human environments are when we aren’t bombarded by car noise!

Less air pollution – which will help with respiratory diseases, and maybe make colds a bit less awful, and improve our life expectancies.

Less time wasted commuting. How much time does a person who sits in traffic squander in a state of frustration as they breathe in the toxins from the other cars around them? Think how much quality of life could be improved by reclaiming that time!

Being bodily and mentally healthier – getting about on foot or on a bike helps reduce stress and keeps us fit. This is a great life improver, and with fewer cars on the road, walking and cycling will become safer and nicer to do.

It’s more social – if you’re on public transport or on foot, you meet people. You might even talk to them in passing and make friends with them. Loneliness is a modern western epidemic and cars don’t help us with that.

If you don’t drive to work and for leisure, you have to be more involved with your local community. People are often less willing to shit where they eat, and being more involved with the people around us builds communities and gives us better lives. If we go over to car sharing or other, more communal systems, this also requires us to be more co-operative, which is good. We’d have to restructure so that accessing key resources was less car dependent. This would be good, and would inject life and opportunities back into small towns and villages.

It saves money. Cars cost money to buy, fuel and maintain. How many people are pushed into sudden debt because of an unexpected car expense?

Being safer. Every year many people are killed and injured through car use. Think of the pain, stress, misery and grief we could end if we got more people out of their cars.

Get people off the roads, and driving will be less stressful and dangerous for those few who really need to do it. It’ll be easier to move emergency vehicles around at need as well.


Druid community and anxiety

Yesterday was full of interesting challenges and unexpected opportunities. I spent the day at Druid Camp in the Forest of Dean. I missed the previous 2 years, because there had been a lot of painful drama – accusations that I had bullied someone, that led to said victim trying to get me removed from the field, prohibited from being a speaker there and fired from my day job. I had evidence of what had actually happened, and was not fired from my day job, but it was a scary and stressful time. It was also deeply emotionally loaded for me because I feel very strongly about taking bullying accusations seriously.

So, back to Druid Camp I went, but only for one day because I didn’t know how that was going to work out. I felt welcomed and supported. There was no residual stress or drama. I did a talk and it got all the sorts of responses I had hoped for, especially getting other Pagans thinking about the transition towns movement. I sat as a model (entirely clothed) for some of Tom’s life drawing class, and I spent some intense time with a number of people I am deeply fond of.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with fear is to try again. It’s hard to see what’s a reasonable response and what’s out of date, and what never was that big a deal in the first place, without testing things. Testing things is scary. But, without that, nothing can change. Fear wins. There are issues of picking your fights and assessing what information you have – not all anxiety inducing things will turn out to be fine if you go back and give them a second chance. If something was genuinely wrong and hasn’t changed, it will be as scary as it was before.

If there are reasons to think things have changed, going back can be the best way of dealing with fear. Having support also makes worlds of difference. I know I could not have done this on my own. I had considerable support for making the journey and people around me I would trust with my life. I knew I had a number of very good friends who would be on site, and that helped. They were my incentive for having another go. The organisers were supportive and encouraging – particularly Bish and Fleur who went to some lengths to reassure me, and make things as easy for me as possible. This all gives me space to consider what I might do next year.

The measure of a community is not what it does when everything is fine. The measure of whether a group of people even are a community comes when something is difficult, or broken, or on fire. How people treat each other when there are problems says a lot more about who we are to each other than anything else. It is a very big deal to me to feel safe and welcome.


Creativity, community and audience

As with most things, it’s all about finding a workable balance, and exactly where that balance lies is likely to be quite personal.

If you create purely for yourself, what you do may well be quite self involved. You probably haven’t given much thought to where it fits in genres or markets, or who the readers/viewers/users/listeners might be. This is fine if all you ever meant to do was make something for yourself. However, trying to go from making something that is only about your own vision and inspiration, and then trying to pitch it to other people can be very difficult.

If you create purely for other people you’ll probably spend your time doing things that are in keeping with genres and led by market trends. For a significant number of creators, this is a viable way of making a living. But, it can be emotionally exhausting, and it tends to result in work that is a lot like work that already exists. If you dreamed of doing something groundbreaking – and probably when you started, you did – this can prove deeply unsatisfying.

I’ve come to the conclusion that finding the balance between what you do for yourself and what you do for other people may be better approached outside of the creative process. I think the key here is relationships and how you interact with people. If you don’t read/listen/look at things akin to the stuff you are trying to make, you have no relationship with the form, the market or anyone else in it. This may seem ok if you are only creating for yourself, but it does cut you off. If you love something, surely it makes sense to engage with it? I’ve encountered creators who don’t want to sully themselves with other people’s work, but I’ve never felt it enhanced what they did.

If something truly excites you, then you explore it. I’m frankly suspicious of creators who don’t want to engage with anyone else – you can’t even know how relevant or obvious your work is if you go that way. There’s so much we can learn just by paying attention to other people. You want to talk to other people who are in the same territory. You want to exchange ideas, and find out what other people are excited about. In this process, you build a sense of people you might want to create for. You end up with interplay between your own vision and creativity, and the enthusiasm, vision and creativity of other people. It’s fertile ground – not wholly commercial, not wholly self involved.

I firmly believe that no good work is done in total isolation. All creativity is to some degree a consequence of a wider community and influences – whether you own that or not. The people who work consciously with these relationships get a lot of advantages. The snobby creator who sees themselves as a lone genius needing no relationships to sustain them, tends not to be as good as they think they are.


Policing your community

Community means taking responsibility for how we engage with each other. It means dealing with bullying, not ignoring sexism, racism, abelism, ageism or anything else of that ilk. However, it also raises issues of gatekeeping and exclusion.

I’ve never seen a community improved by people making it their job to try and push others out for ‘doing it wrong’. If you have gatekeeping urges and feelings about quality and maintaining the integrity of a thing, there are better ways to go. Help people learn – give them pointers, tools, tips, insights, support and encouragement. This takes time and effort and doesn’t get you as much attention as standing at the entrance pushing people away. Where support and inclusion are the norm, people wishing to take power through gatekeeping are more easily identified, so they can be taken aside and supported and encouraged to do something more productive…

Here are some other questions I would like people to ask about how their community spaces function.

Who gets to speak, and who speaks most often? Who doesn’t get chance to make themselves heard? How could that better be rebalanced? Who gets to make decisions and how are those decisions made? Who gets a say in the process? Are the decisions made by the people doing the work? If there is a democratic say then there must also be a democratic sharing of effort and responsibility.

If there is conflict in your community, doing nothing is the choice that supports the person who is out of order and further harms the person on the wrong end of things. If you think both parties are equally to blame, please consider that other people may be silenced, shut down or made uncomfortable and unable to participate as a consequence of undealt-with conflict. The character of your community is in no small degree defined by what people do, and how they do it, when something goes wrong.

If there is sexism, and everyone looks the other way, then your community supports sexism. If someone raises bullying as an issue, and nobody wants to know, then bullying is something your community supports. If someone feels excluded because they can’t physically get into the room, and no one responds to this, then exclusion is something your community does… and there’s a startling amount of this around. Usually it appears in quiet, low drama forms, and is dealt with quietly with a shrug and a ‘this is how we do things’ that just leaves no room for change. I’ve been in a fair few spaces dominated by straight, white, middle class, middle age and older, physically and mentally healthy men, and I can say with confidence that many of them cannot see how business as usual excludes people who are not exactly like them.

Educating people who don’t understand how what they do needlessly excludes others, is a relentless and emotionally draining sort of job. It tends to fall to those least resourced to do it – the one woman in the meeting may be the one person who is able to talk about why the culture of the space means there aren’t more women in the room. The one disabled person will be the person telling you why the venue is so problematic. The one queer person will be the one explaining why the language used is so excluding. The one victim of bullying will be the person on whose shoulders falls the job of explaining why the culture of your community enables bullying. This is hard stuff to bear.

So often what happens when the person who has made it over the threshold but doesn’t fit easily into the ‘normality’ of the group, is that the group resents them for flagging up problems. The community may feel comfortable with itself, it doesn’t want the hassle of changing or the discomfort of looking at its own norms.

If you aren’t the person at the sharp end, and you see someone raising something like this, don’t dismiss them as a nuisance. Don’t call them a snowflake. Don’t insist that the problem is them and that what you usually do is fine. Don’t be part of the subtler forms of gatekeeping that keep out people in this way. Listen to the issues. Try and see it from someone else’s perspective. Don’t assume that your experience is what everyone else gets. Open your heart. Open your community space. Take pride in accommodating people and being flexible around their needs.


Soft and fierce

One of the best things about being able to sum up who you are is that it gives you a fighting chance of finding people you can identify with. The word ‘Druid’ has served me well over the years. So has Pagan, green, folky, and steampunk. However, there are aspects of who I am it would be really useful to be able to explain to people I’m closely involved with. The lack of language is frustrating.

All of the words available to me carry a lot of sexual connotations. In the contexts in which I need some words, those sexual connotations would be more trouble than help. It’s hard even to talk about the kinds of relationships where this is an issue because the language simply doesn’t exist. As a bisexual person, I don’t automatically have a bunch of people I can be friends with where sexual attraction could not be a thing. I have a capacity for very deep and emotionally involved friendship, going far beyond what people generally mean when they say ‘friend’. That lack of language to even talk about who I am and what I’m offering has tripped me up repeatedly.

Over the last week I’ve been reading a book of essays – Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. I read it out of curiosity and a desire to understand more about other women. I did not expect there to be anything much in it that related to me. I have a female presenting body and a fluid/queer/androgynous sense of self and little enthusiasm for trying to make the overtly female body I have better express what goes on inside it. I learned a lot from the essays about ways in which other women deal with their masculine and feminine aspects, and that was good.

I came away with one phrase, found in a femme essay. ‘Soft and fierce’. It’s the shortest identifier I’ve found that communicates something of how my inner spectrum works, what kinds of contradiction I am and perhaps what to expect in dealing with me. It’s not a conventional identity label, but it is something I can add to my personal dictionary, and maybe even use. It’s a term I can carry to remind myself that I can be a real and authentic person without having to fit neatly into any of the more conventional identity boxes.

In my experience, the majority of people have very narrow ideas about who and how we are allowed to be in relation to each other. I’m bi, and pan-romantic, emotionally plural and physically faithful, I’m a bottom except when people need me to be a top because really it’s all about the service. I’m too scruffy to be conventionally feminine but too female bodied to be the genderqueerness I feel and anyway, I’m not sure why that genderqueerness is best expressed to other people by minimising the female aspects. I don’t know enough genderqueer folk to know if that’s really somewhere I belong, or not. I like ‘queer’ as a term because it’s short and evocative, but for people who have no queer language of their own to deploy, it’s not that helpful.

Most of the time, I can just let people make of me what they will and I try not to worry about it too much. The trouble has been the people who got too close in the friendships that were not as straightforward and who did not know what to do with me. More often than not they read as sexual things that are not uncomplicatedly sexual when I do them. My track record in recent years has been better though – not because I have the right words but because I’ve dealt with kinder people, more willing to make the effort to understand.