When we were part of a humanitarian expedition* in 2014/15 to help improve a local primary school in remote Nepal as architects, led by a community development veteran, we spent more than a few nights musing on what community really meant.
Eventually, we arrived at a unanimous (groupthink?) conclusion not far from a conventional definition of the word. A community is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common, or it is the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.
Pretty ordinary. Pretty boring. Pretty so what.
There must be something more in this oftentimes intangible, organic thing we call community. As we embarked on the ambitious goal of building a community from scratch through Habitat, a co-working initiative of Alter Atlas, it began to dawn on us that there are two kinds of people who are drawn to a community:
Those who look to give, and those who look to take.
Of course, there is often an inevitable element of transaction in most forms of participation. I bought a plane ticket to come here, the entire country of Nepal, what are you going to give me back in return? And perhaps you do get a response from that demand. Perhaps you're appeased, or not. In any case, you probably would not ever feel like you were part of a community at any point if you approached it that way. You don't feel like you're a part of the Woolworths Community when you get a bargain for a bottle of milk, do you?
You see, we can't buy community, and we certainly can't buy into a community. It's not a profitable country club membership where we pay to get perks, kiss asses and get to call ourselves a part of something.
A true community is a group of people with common (and true) interests and values, who are looking to give. It's the ones who give that anchor community. We have to turn up with something to give and put in the work. A community is something we earn, that we are accepted into, by the measure of our generosity, hard work, and contribution. That's the beauty of a community. It is self-evident. It is self-regulated. And when we get down to it, unequivocal. Communities only become stronger and truer over time as the false ones are revealed or sifted. A true community takes time, commitment and real conviction. In the end, the ones who remain are the ones who embody community. The ones who remain are the ones who look to give.
This spirit of service is also what I love most about being an architect. As with any profession, we can use our skills to give, or we can use it to take.
It's "What budget are you going to give me to work with so I can express my true creative genius?" versus "How can I use my knowledge and skills to help you make more informed decisions, to reach a better outcome for you?" It's "You're not giving me enough this or that" versus "What can I do to help you, despite the circumstances?"
Unfortunately, we find most professionals approach their work, or most things for that matter, with the former mindset. And we could all do better to remember that it is the latter mindset that makes our communities better places to live in.
When we give, we become the community. When we take, what we take away, in fact, is ourselves away from the community.
So, what are you expecting in return from your community?
What are you giving?
What are we giving?
By Steven Chu
*This humanitarian expedition lasted over a month, starting with a five-day trek to a remote Nepalese village, and camping on farmland under the stars. It was jointly organised and led by Aussie Action Abroad and Architects without Frontiers.
Full Disclosure: The author is a voluntary member of the Board of Aussie Action Abroad, a registered Australian charity actively collaborating with communities in need to provide practical and realistic support leading to sustainable outcomes and enriching the lives of all involved. The organisation has been working in Nepal for the past 16 years in community development projects. http://www.aussieactionabroad.com/