What is Community?

Having led a very solitary life – by necessity, design and preference – over the last nearly 6~years, I found myself venturing into full on and in my face “community” over the last three weeks.

First I had a holiday~in~the~community in rural Devon, Southern England, where the central attraction of daily life was the pub, especially on quiz night and accessed after dark by torch light. The Tesco, or is it Sainsbury’s, van will bring your shopping to the end of the lane and you can just back~up the car boot. Fresh farm produce is up the road. Everybody knows everyone else’s business intimately, and can give you chapter and verse. The annual highlight is the village fete.
Dartmoor National Park

Living in the hamlets of Devon I was ‘in’ the community ~ which seemed welcoming and is probably 'tolerant' ~ but was not ‘part’ of it. The moors provided respite from both 'community' and the usual touristy attractions.

By contrast, over the last six days I have been observing and participating ‘in community’ in Barking in cosmopolitan East London, during a six~day volunteering stint on behalf of my dear friend Jazzi and her Jasmine Street emporium. This is not a large retail store selling a wide variety of goods you understand, but a business establishment that specialises in providing services, in part, in and for the community. I particularly love the idea of being able to simply ‘drop~in’ and brainstorm your creative ideas, or even to generate one!

The word on the street is that the Icehouse Quarter in Barking will soon rival Shoreditch, which in recent years has been revitalized by new ‘tech’, retail and creative industries. There’s even a women’s erotic emporium at the heart of it all. Oh my days. Go for it Barking, your turn!

But back to ‘community’.

Does the Polish or Somali community in Barking feel as I did in Devon - on the outside looking in...in the community but not part of it? How long does it take to belong?

There are of course all sorts of ‘communities’. The ‘black community’ is a shorthand description for an extraordinarily diverse group of peoples who happen to share skin colour, and whose cultural inheritance and contemporary experiences intersect at various points. There are vast areas of sameness and similarity, but also significant areas of ‘difference’; one size definitely does not fit all, and nor should it.

Unlike Devon, I felt very much ‘part’ of community in Barking although I did not ‘belong’ to it. For an area of London to which the xenophobic British National Party (BNP) is attracted, this very diverse community seems to be quite cohesive. The UK Independence Party’s obsession with immigration is simply a euphemism for a nostalgic hankering after the ‘good old days’ of empire and ‘Britishness’ whatever that means, but probably a white 'mono~culture' that never was of course, but that is the way of nostalgia.

How long does it take to become integrated into community? A speech made by Roy Jenkins, a British Home Secretary during the 1960s, is even more pertinent today than it was then. Jenkins saw integration thus:

not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.

[what does that say for what is going on in Egypt and elsewhere in the world?]

Jenkins asked:

Where in the world is there a university which could preserve its fame, or a cultural centre which could keep its eminence, or a metropolis which could hold its drawing power, if it were to turn inwards and serve only its own hinterland and its own racial group?

The sense I took away of ‘community’ in Barking, and I realise that it was just a snapshot in time and place, was not one of a shared and common past, far from it; and not even necessarily shared common values in the sense that this is bandied about especially by right~wing politicians, but community more in terms of a human eco~system, based on tolerance, respect, kindness, interrelationships and interdependence, that acts to sustain the wellbeing of the whole. That is the kind of community I wish to be a part of, wherever it is in the world.


  1. Very insightful. and thanks for sharing your insight :-)


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