Building a sense of community

What do snow, power cuts, dogs and babies all have in common? Out of context, they appear a ragbag of ingredients for an eccentric cartoon. Little appears to bind them.

In fact, these are all things that in my recent soundings of people working in the nonprofit sector have been suggested can bring people together: discernible, grounding conversation points that permit us to step out of ourselves and interact with other people, whether we know them or not. They are things that, as small as they may seem, can create a sense of community.

Of course, for each of us ‘community’ means something different. We can feel part of many communities — our geographical neighbourhoods, our social class, our faith groups — or none. At different points, the feeling of togetherness can swell or recede. That’s normal and natural. We don’t always want to be around people. But we do always want people to be around — to share life’s experiences with, to support us in times of need, or just to enjoy a little joke with.

So I had mixed feelings when I saw some new private polling conducted by a UK charity which showed that a majority of people in the UK would pay more to live in a strong community. On the one hand, it shows the value that people place on feeling at home: three quarters of us believe that being part of a community is important; 65% say there’s strong community spirit in our area, even in our big cities which can sometimes feel like lonely places. These are positive trends.

And yet there are also signs in the research that while people value community, we may have become passive to it. 69% of us admit to not actively taking part. A third of us believe community spirit is dying out. And nearly seven in ten would pay to live in an area with community — a sure sign that, somehow, we’ve begun to think of it as a commodity, something we can buy into and, by extension, opt out of. The result is that only 17% of us believe that community spirit is now intrinsic in the UK.

Given the importance people seem to place on community in theory — and indeed the trend toward potent division in our headlines and our psephology over recent years — this is not something we should treat with equanimity. It’s not enough to ‘keep calm and carry on’, to crave community but let others take the responsibility for it, to expect it to come to us, to value something so much but to be ambivalent to its potential to slip away.

Rather, we should be aggressive in our search for community and gentle in its nurturing. We shouldn’t wait for big government, big business or big charities to solve the problems we can see in front of our eyes: we all have the agency to identify an issue or a need and to organise the people around us to tackle it. Organisations like Xenia, The Chatty Cafe Scheme, Future First and many others have all been established at the grassroots and demonstrated potential to grow beyond their own neighbourhoods, often with the support of national funders that back local community.

But we don’t just need to value organised, professional community. We also need to find a way to acknowledge the value to society of the small informal gestures of organic interaction — the millions of people who pick up a pint of milk for a neighbour; the friends who take our kids to school as well as their own; the coach who gives up her weekends to give kids confidence down the park; the lolly-pop lady who’s there to be a welcoming face as well as to stop traffic. These small cooperations enrich us all, and we need them.

Community is hard. It takes work. It requires a pro-active choice to not just seek to save time, but to spend it, to invest it in the people around us and to feel the benefits in return. But by each taking that individual responsibility, we can all add to the collective. And the good news is: we don’t have to wait for a beagle, a blizzard or a blackout to take part.

Alex Smith is founder and chief executive of Manchester Cares, South London Cares and North London Cares.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.