What Does Community Truly Mean?

True sense of community and where to find it

 

The classic definition of the term community is fairly straightforward, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” or “the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.” Simple but somehow rather vague. As a word that lately seems to be used almost to a point of exhaustion, I’m unsure if its simplistic definition is accurate anymore. Nowadays, it veers between representing something we all strive for, a sense of belonging and camaraderie, and a term that is being used for advertising and marketing purposes to sell products. Not to mention the vast-reaching online communities we all seem to be part of, willingly or not. Just like most trend keywords like organic, recyclable and diversity, the word community has begun to lose its true meaning. Between this and its slightly outdated definition, it dawned on me that the term community was experiencing an identity problem. The more I looked into it, the harder it was becoming for me to define this term for myself, especially as someone who has never really felt like part of one. So, what does community truly mean?

Entrepreneurs, social advocates and journalists have been addressing this topic for some time now, asking what makes up a community and why they are so important. Editor of Prospect Magazine, Tom Clark writes in an article for U+I Magazine that, “Community is really important. Why? Most obviously, because human beings need to belong. Just reflect on how you feel when you return to your hometown after a spell away. In contrast, consider the alienation or homesickness that almost everyone feels in an environment where they don’t know or understand anyone.”

 

Our first opportunity to be part of a community is through our ethnicity, our religion and/or our hometown.

 

Where is Home away From Home?

What Clark says about the meaning of communities makes perfect sense, so why was this something I felt so disconnected from? While it may certainly be very true for most, it’s also not everyone’s reality. Anyone who’s migrated to a different country and has moved around a lot from a very young age may agree with me. Our first opportunity to be part of a community is through our ethnicity, our religion and/or our hometown. Being Venezuelan, my own “mother culture” is very different to the culture of smalltown Germany, which is where I grew up. Latinos by default are pack people – inside and particularly outside of their own country, they look for fellow countrymen to connect with their own culture through language, food and music in order to feel a little closer to home. It’s the way it is with most cultures, which is how big cities end up with their own Chinatown, Little Italy and so on.

But where I grew up there were no other Venezuelans, let alone Latinos. So, as much as you practise your own culture at home and share it with friends, you gradually adapt to your new culture. So whenever I was back in Venezuela, people jokingly called me “La Alemana”, “the German one” which meant, I was already no longer one of them. In Germany I was never La Alemana and so, it was quite clear to me that my community was never going to be based on my ethnicity or my hometown. My sense of belonging had to be found somewhere else. There had to be a community outside of the usual provenance for people like me, which meant the term had to be redefined.

 

A New, Connection-based Definition

Community builder, entrepreneur and co-founder of strategic advisory firm Community, Fabian Pfortmüller argues that since we are now living in big, modern cities, the term community needs to be updated. As such we should differentiate between different types of communities. Instead of linking communities only to places or ideals, he suggests focusing more on the human relationships within them, defining it simply as “a group of people that care about each other and feel they belong together.” This way of looking at it definitely felt more real and more attainable to me. I began to reconsider how I had defined the term myself and slowly realised that potentially I’ve been closer to being part of a community than I thought. Thinking back to when I moved to London four years ago, I remembered what pulled me to this city – a place I had no ties with whatsoever oddly felt instantly like home. Without knowing a soul and even if I never found my “pack”, I felt a sense of belonging. I loved its ethnic and cultural diversity. There were so many others experiencing similar, if not more severe identity dilemmas that I started to connect with people over our mutual cultural confusion.

Multiracial group of friends sitting in balcony and smiling. Young people relaxing outdoors in terrace in the summertime.

 

Community Makeup: A Web of Loose Ties

Once here, I started to see a different type of community spirit, one that doesn’t always have something to do with your roots or the place you grew up in. This is something that actor and co-founder of innovation group and incubator, Impossible, Lily Cole shared during a talk by Second Home at the Museum of London. Having worked and lived in metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, she was asked what drew her back to London. Her answer was for one the culture, “London has multiple bubbles. LA has the film bubble and San Francisco has the tech bubble. London has all of them – fashion, film, tv, art, tech. It’s hard to get bored here.” On the other hand she said that above all else it was the community that drew her back, which she specified as her family, friends and colleagues. This may be very obvious for most but for me that was a small aha-moment. In that moment with her simple explanation, it became clear to me that my own views on what a community is were also outdated.

A community can also exist with just one person as the focal point where many different relationships overlap.

Today, a community is no longer only linked to a physical place or a group of people who all know each other, all sharing the same ideals, goals or interest. A community can also exist with just one person as the focal point where many different relationships overlap. We all build and nurture our own, unique group of people. Without noticing, I had slowly but surely built my own tribe, with each person being part of it for different reasons – professional, creative, cultural or social. Together they build a web of loose ties that sometimes coexist in parallel worlds, sometimes brush alongside each other and other times come together as one. Redefining the term in that way, made me feel less out of place and I stopped wondering why everyone else was part of a community (in the classical sense) and I, for the life of me, couldn’t find mine. Looking at things from this new perspective, I learned that community and the sense of belonging that comes with it is not always black and white. It can be unique to you and your needs and at the end of the day it always comes down to the human connections you make. Sometimes it’s not linked to a physical place, but a hand-full of people that can feel like home.