What is Community?

"There is no liberation without community." Audre Lorde

What is community? 

Community is a mutual commitment to equitable relationships. 

Capitalism diminishes and commodifies community. In 2008 Seth Godin redefined (and culturally appropriated) “tribes” to describe groups of consumers who follow a brand or idea. Now entrepreneurs and influencers call their newsletter list, social media page, or paid program a community. 

Community is co-opted to describe what are actually parasocial (one sided), commodified, and/or hierarchical relationships with conditions for belonging. Conditions may include: payment for participation; limited participation because the group has a specific focus (participants can’t bring their whole selves to the relationship); and/or following a hierarchy and rules defined by one person or small group of people.  

Paying someone to facilitate a connection that only exists as long as we pay isn’t community, it’s a transactional relationship. Intentional or not, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on our desperate need for connection in a disconnected world. We pay for belonging because we’ve been hurt, we’re lonely, and/or we don’t know how to find connection in a world where most of us spend more time scrolling than directly connecting with people. Instead of investing in interpersonal relationships, we’ve turned “community” into a hustle that supports one person’s livelihood while it temporarily soothes our needs for connection and belonging.    

So what is community? The definition of true community by psychologist M. Scott Peck, MD is my guidepost. The characteristics of a true community are mutual commitment; inclusivity; consensus (leadership by agreement); realism (includes nuance and complexity); safe-to-be-brave space that nurtures transparency and vulnerability; willingness to dismantle internal oppression; ability to work through conflict gracefully; and ability to repair when hurt or harm occur.

A true community bond requires going through conflict and coming out the other side together, safe, and transformed. Navigating conflict and repairing hurt/harm creates trust, cohesion, and longevity. Inability to do so creates fracture. Because we lack skills to navigate conflict, most of our groups eventually fracture and leave us broken-hearted and afraid to try again. Paying for a facilitated relationship is easier and safer for us than trying to build a true community. 

Reclaiming a non-transactional meaning for community is important because we don’t have another concept that describes the type of collective relationship we need to navigate being human together. Building cultures of care and interdependence are the best option we have to ride chaotic shifts in landscape, population, and politics. We need a vision to aspire to that isn’t defined or cheapened by capitalism. We need a guidepost for the social containers that will hold us in safety amid cultural transformation. 

This is why my work is focused on safe relating. The world is never going to be safe, but we can create communities of safety and care to hold us through the chaos and suffering. From my previous experience as a poor and working-class queer single mother, I believe it’s the only way we can thrive while we fight for our own and one another’s lives.