This post is part of a series written by Foundation Board members from their own perspective, when asked to think about what a thriving community could look like. This series will run leading up to our What Matters event on May 1 and will conclude with a recap post of the conversation at the event.

M. Christine DeVita, Foundation Board Member

We talk about wanting a thriving community, but what does that really mean? The “thrive” part is easy to define: “to grow vigorously, to gain in wealth or possessions, to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.”[1]

But how do we define community? A definition I particularly like was offered by Fabian Pfortmuller[2]: a community is a group of people that care about each other & feel they belong together. Sounds simple enough. However, in an increasingly diverse, mobile, and fast-paced society, we are often too busy to get to know our neighbors beyond a quick hello. We are often unaware of the talents they possess, the challenges they face, or the needs they may have, and of how those talents, challenges and needs might relate to our own.

If we want to see a sense of community flourish, we need to think about how to build personal relationships, invest in individual growth and development, and re-imagine use of community resources. Let’s take each one of these in turn.

Build Personal Relationships

It’s easy to develop relationships with people who look like us, think like us, live like us. To extend our sense of community, we need to ask ourselves how much space we are willing to make for people who are not like us? How much time and energy are we willing to spend reaching out to others? How do we even begin? Like all habits, I think you start with small steps: acknowledge or say a kind word to a neighbor you don’t know; start a conversation with a new person on the sidelines of your child’s soccer game; attend a community meeting to learn about a particular issue and meet others with the same interest. Get out of your routine and comfort zone.[3]

Invest in Individual Growth & Development

“Talent is equally distributed around the world, but opportunity is not.”[4] For a community to thrive, it must ensure its residents have equal access to opportunities to learn. For children, this means high-quality educational experiences, from preschool through high school and beyond, regardless of what neighborhood they live in. For adults, this means access to post-secondary education, job training, and placement. For policymakers, this means rethinking how public monies are allocated to ensure these opportunities are provided.

Reimagine Use of Community Resources

The historical community commons where everyone gathered is long a thing of the past. We do, however, have shared community resources (schools, parks, libraries) that could be better used to provide access to a wide variety of services and opportunities for people to connect. When I was growing up, our neighborhood public school offered free “summer camp” programs where kids could engage in a wide variety of activities — sports, arts and crafts, music, and theater projects just to name a few. Our local park had a recreational worker who would provide balls, jump ropes, and other equipment, and supervise the children at play. Space was made available for community gardens. Libraries were open every day, including weekends, offering a safe and inspiring place for people of all ages and a venue for many different community meetings. All of these shared spaces provided opportunities to interact with all of our diverse neighbors and helped us see how much we had in common.

“None of us are as smart as all of us.”[5] The challenges we face in the 21st century, at the community, national and global level, are well beyond the capability of any one individual. All of us must be involved and contribute to solutions. If we do, we will truly have a thriving community.

[1] Merriam-Webster

[2] Fabian Pfortmuller is a Swiss community builder and entrepreneur in NYC. He is the author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder @weareCOMMUNITY, @Holstee, @Sandboxers.

[3] The Aspen Institute has a new initiative called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. It offers lots of examples of how people around the country are “building connection where there was no connection, creating relationships where there were no relationships, weaving thick neighborhoods where there were thin neighborhoods.”

[4] Leila Janah, CEO of Sama Group, a San Francisco-based family of nonprofit social enterprises.

[5] Kenneth H. Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager.

Written by M. Christine DeVita, Triangle Community Foundation Board Member. Learn more about our upcoming event, What Matters: A Thriving Community, here.