Creating a Clear Picture of Community

When we examine the concept of community, we immediately have a picture in our mind of a group of individuals with common values working together towards a common purpose, supporting each other, and making sure everyone is looked after. A thriving community works towards a purpose that is greater than what one person can accomplish alone.

Pointillism, a painting technique developed in the mid 18th century, creates the perception of a unified picture, but upon closer examination, the composition is created by many small points of colour carefully placed to create a larger image. Community is similar to this. A thriving community appears as a unified whole moving towards a greater purpose, but upon closer examination we see individuals reflected in small points of colour.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, oil on canvas by Georges Seurat, 1884–86; in the Art Institute of Chicago.

So, what is the difference between a group of individuals and a community?

When a group of individuals come together for the first time, there is an initial state of uncertainty and effort to seek commonalities. There may even be a state of disharmony. Each person exists on their own without connection, or interaction with others. It is not a cohesive entity. The community comes together into a state of balance and harmony with intentionality and explicit effort. And then under the right circumstances, the community begins to thrive as a unit. Between disharmony and balance there is a growth state, and leaders attend to certain aspects of the community to bring everyone together. Often processes, structures, and shared vision are topics of conversation. They are important in a smoothly functioning educational system, but to take the system beyond a smoothly functioning and forward thinking entity, there is more that needs to be present.

Empathy and connection are essential ingredients to take our systems to thriving communities. In our previous blog post we referred to a playground bridge as a metaphor to explain aspects of self, and how we stabilize both individually and within our relationships.

The planks on the bridge may sway due to internal factors or external events, such as illness, or other life circumstances and we pause on a stable plank to regain our footing. We also discussed that others may reach out to individuals to support them and in this way, as it is like holding on to the guide ropes on the side. We can think of holding onto the guide ropes on someone’s metaphorical bridge as helping the individual points of colour stay in place in Seurat’s painting. Supporting each other not only helps the individual, but stabilizes the bigger picture of community as well. If you look at A Sunday on La Grande Jatt (Seurat, 1884), imagine that the points of colour were not securely in their place. The painting would appear distorted. In order to establish a thriving community, each individual must be artfully connected to one another. We stabilize each other. So thinking of this concept, we spend a lot of time just holding on and surviving. How do we move forward, past surviving into thriving? We believe that collective care is part of this answer.

From Self to Other

Parker Palmer (1998) reminds us that “We receive community by cultivating a capacity for connectedness”. Receiving community implies that the individual must be open and willing in order for the whole to function in its best way. Community is full of give and take interactions. We are both givers and receivers of connection in a healthy community. We stabilize within ourselves and become more capable of becoming present and aware with those around us and reaching out to stabilize another’s bridge, reaching out to someone else for support. Self examination and presence is essential for these interactions to move communities to thriving.

When our bridge sways, we understand that although we try to put our problems, our worries, our lack of sleep, to the side to serve students and one another, the residue remains and we are affected. It takes courage to reach out to a colleague or friend, or to the community to help stabilize the bridge, but when we do, we can then finish balancing ourselves by practicing moments of mindfulness, and then become present and aware with those around us. This job is important. You matter. Through self awareness and connection, we can hold each other in place.

Author: Kathleen Robertson

Palmer, P. (1998). Thirteen ways of looking at community. Centre for courage and renewal.

Seurat, G. (1886). A Sunday afternoon of the Island of La Grande Jatte. [Oil on canvas]. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.