What Does Community Mean?

  | Board of Directors, Food For Thought

I had no idea what I was going to write about until Grace, a newly elected board director, shared a link to an article written by Shanta Lee Gander in The Commons titled “Not a word, but an action.” It was the subtitle that ensured I would read the article very carefully: “What does ‘community’ really mean, especially for those who face moments of being outside of it?”

One of our Ends policies states that the Co-op exists to meet its shareholders collective need for a welcoming community marketplace. What does community mean, or encompass, here? What does it mean for you if you are a shareholder? What does it mean for all the people who work at the Co-op? What does it mean for your Board of Directors? What does it mean for shoppers who are not shareholders? And very importantly, what does it mean for those shareholders who called out the Co-op at the Annual Meeting over an event during which a Co-op shareholder of color, who lives and works in this community, was accused of stealing from the Co-op even though the person had not?

In the article, Ms. Gander shares points from conversation with Curtis Reed, Executive Director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, about community. She reports he said:

“The assumption about community is that we’re all members…Language creates our reality, and, … [language] is the road to the assumptions we create about who is included and excluded when we use the blanket term ‘community’ … Often in a town as small as Brattleboro assumed intimacy passes for community. What do we mean by inclusive community? Who is included, and how does status play a role in that inclusion?” [1]

Mr. Reed’s points make it all the more urgent that we spend time thinking about what we mean by community.

For me, community is both a feeling and people – a rich, vibrant, diverse group of individuals and specific groups within larger groups (or group), which are connected and in which I feel like I belong.  We share certain things. We share a place and neighborhoods or areas within that place; we share the experience of the seasons – light and darkness, the weather, cold and hot; we share the land under and around us; we share common human needs; we share schools, places of worship, places of commerce, places to get care, etc.; and we live within a specific overarching culture, locally and nationally. Locally, we share the Whetstone Pathway and Transportation Center, and the discomfort some have felt about sharing those spaces.

In my places of work, I have been privileged to find community – teaching and training programs that were communities of practice and learning for faculty and learners. We shared common beliefs, values and vision for what education could and should be like even though the way each of us approached learning/teaching and how we continued to learn was somewhat different.

And just like that my simple definition of community is challenged and has to become much more complex: even though we share things, we don’t all experience them in the same way nor do we necessarily perceive or value them the same way or want to experience them at the same time as others.  As individuals, we have different norms, beliefs, history, aspirations, religions, experiences, expectations and language. The idea and experience of community is filled with tension.

Community is not a simple word. It is not a simple concept. How do we as individuals come together to become and be a community?  Your Board is working to try and figure this out and we value your input. Tell us:  What does community mean for and to you? What is the Co-op community? What would make, or makes, the Co-op a more welcoming community? What do we all need to do to ensure the Co-op community is diverse and inclusive, and so healthy and authentic? How can the Co-op contribute meaningfully to the wider community in this area?

Please let us know. Talk to us when we’re tabling. Leave feedback at Customer Services. Attend a Board meeting or two. And if you were able to attend and participate in the lunch time discussions about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility [2] in March, I encourage you to continue the conversation with others.

By Beth Neher

[1] Please note that I changed the order in which Ms. Gander presented Curtis Reed’s points by reordering the original first and second points. The points quoted here occur in the second section of the online article.

[2] DiAngelo, Robin. (2018). White Fragility. Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. U.S.A.: Beacon Press.