Community—What Can We Do for Each Other?

Leslee Among Lilies - Oil on Canvas - Jean Forsberg

"When you don’t have community, you are not listened to; you don’t have a place you can go to and feel that you really belong. You don’t have people to affirm who you are and to support you in bringing forward your gifts"
- Sobonfu Some

Communities populated by people who know and support one another possess a unique form of wealth known as “social capital”. Rather than prioritizing their independence, people in these communities dwell within what is sometimes referred to as a “gift economy”. Cherishing their interdependence, they share their talents and resources, while engaging in joint projects and collective problem solving. In sum, their social bonds act as a kind of insurance policy—guaranteeing their support of one another, especially in hard times.

Though the idea of a gift economy may sound like pie-in-the-sky idealism from a present-day perspective, it has been foundational to human survival for millennia and it continues to exist, in some measure, today. For example, the free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, exists as a result of tens of thousands of people gifting their time to create tens of millions of articles of information that are now accessible to all us, free of charge. It’s the same with Internet open-source software and file-sharing provisions that allow for the free exchange of news, videos, music, podcasts and more. The fact that so many people give their time and energy to engaging in these initiatives is testimony to the satisfaction that comes with gift giving.  

What Can We Do for Each Other?

A foundational question in gift economies is: What can we do for each other?  You could explore both the practicality and delight of a gift economy by creating a gift circle in the place where you live. It is easy to do. Just gather with some neighbors and invite everyone to take a turn sharing a need that they have. It could be anything. For example, maybe you need someone with a strong back to help you put in a garden bed; or perhaps you need someone with technical skills to help you solve a computer problem; or maybe it’s as simple as needing to borrow an electric drill or a pasta maker or a ladder. After each person shares their need, others in the circle can, if they choose, volunteer to meet the need or suggest ideas for how it might be met.

After needs are shared, there is a second round where each person has an opportunity to specify something that they would like to give. It could be an item that they no longer need, like a toaster oven a certain piece of furniture, like a bureau or a table. Alternatively, it could be a willingness to share tools or talents—e.g., by assisting with home repairs. As participants offer their gifts, anyone can say, “I would like that!” or suggest the name of a person or organization that might benefit from the gift being offered.

Gift circles typically conclude with expressions of gratitude for the naming of both needs and gifts and for the pleasure of each other’s company.

The beauty of gift circles is that they reduce the human economy down to its essentials—namely: needs, gifts and gratitude. Owing to this, regular gift circle participants discover that they don’t need to spend as much time working to earn money because some of their needs can now be met by those in their gift circle. Furthermore, once a culture of gifting takes root, it has a way of building on itself. Homemaker and author, Shannon Hayes explains it this way: Gifting sets in motion a cycle of generosity where one gift prompts another. As generosity grows…we start to enjoy each other, even encourage each other… We’re so much more gifted, all of us, in a generous society.

In light of what has just been described, can you imagine what might emerge if we all awakened to the possibility of creating gift economies in the places where we live… by freely offering our time and energy and talents to each other, trusting that what goes around, comes around!

"Love is the only cement that can hold this broken community together. When I am commanded to love, I am commanded to restore community, to resist injustice, and to meet the needs of my brothers."

- Martin Luther King Jr

With a shared commitment to community, Pittsburgh folks gather together each summer for a Peaceful Gathering of Hands.

Filmed and Edited by Intentional Media Co

What’s Possible Here?

Jay Walljasper of Seattle’s Project for Public Spaces points out, “The neighborhood is the basic unit of human civilization. Unlike cities, counties, wards, townships, enterprise zones, and other artificial entities, the neighborhood is easily recognized as a real place. It’s the spot on Earth we call home.”

Think about your own neighborhood. Is it a real place where you experience a palpable sense of belonging and kinship; or, like so many so-called neighborhoods, does it feel a bit lacking and disjointed? If the later, you could take a step toward community building by inviting some neighbors to join you in a brainstorming session focused on the question: What’s possible here in our neighborhood?

For successful brainstorming, is it is essential to create a welcoming space where those gathered are free to think outside of the box. A fruitful neighborhood brainstorming session could begin with neighbors imaginatively completing the open sentence: What if…? Then, as a means of maintaining positivity, participants would preface their responses to each other’s what if statements with the words, Yes, and…  Now, for the sake of clarity, here’s an example of how a brainstorming session might unfold:

--What if we replaced the fences separating some of our properties with edible boundaries comprised of raspberry and blueberry bushes and trellises for grapes.

--Yes, and what if we re-envisioned one of our neighborhood intersections as a social    gathering place, replete with a bulletin board for announcements and benches and game tables for socializing?

--Yes, and what if we encouraged neighborhood enterprises centered on local food production—e.g., baking bread in front-yard wood-fired ovens, while growing vegetables and herbs in backyard gardens?

--Yes, and what if we placed free-cycle items, along with favorite books, in special front-yard giving boxes?

--Yes, and what if we made a map of all the households in our neighborhood, along with an inventory of the gifts and talents, as well as the needs, of those dwelling within each household?

In sum: When it comes to turning our neighborhoods into real places, we don’t need to have a grand plan. It’s enough to just begin by gathering with neighbors to imagine what’s possible; and then to trust that forces, both within and beyond us, will be there to guide us forward.  Indeed, this was the mindset that gave rise to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri.

"Whatever the problem, community is the answer. There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Only when we turn to one another do we discover the wisdom and wealth that is so abundantly present in us, our traditions and our environment."

- Margaret Wheatley

"I was filled with a desire to spread acts of kindness and goodwill to others, as a way of building community."

- Amanda Krakovitz, Steppingstone #24 Guide

Join the conversation hosted by Amanda on the Community Page