Community. It’s the new buzzword. We’ve attached the word to college courses and majors, written textbooks on how to build it, painted pictures depicting it, and had dinner table conversations on how great it is. Yet, I’m often stuck asking myself “what is community, really?”
I suppose at it’s stripped down version, a community is just a place where people live together. Maybe those people have the same interests or goals. Perhaps they aren’t working toward anything in particular, but have a certain characteristic in common. It seems to imply some form of interaction among the people. The physical area could be very defined, or not exist at all. Yet, all these words I’ve just written don’t seem to touch on that special ingredient that makes community something people are so excited about.
I’ve decided to look closer by examining the Columbus “communities” I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in. The first is Linden. I was there originally to volunteer with BCEC at a library. I worked with younger students, many of whom were the children of Somali immigrants. I learned that Linden is so plagued by crime and poverty that it’s name carries a negative connotation—some people living in North Linden have even tried to get their section renamed “East Clintonville” so that they don’t have to carry the stigma. Talk about lack of unity! My next experience was at an urban farm in Franklinton. It’s an area rich with history and arts that also struggles with food insecurity, gentrification, and vandalism. Inside abandoned houses is evidence of squatters, drug deals, and robberies. Longtime residents take pride in the area and lovingly call it “the Bottoms.” As of recent, I’ve began running a program at a high school in the Near East Side. In this conglomerate of neighborhoods, typical issues like poor nutrition, lack of transportation, and low access to healthcare are common. But I’ve also noticed unique dynamics, like an increase of diversity causing unwelcome readjustments and residents living in unequal socioeconomic situations.
But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to work and volunteer there. It’s not enough to interact with stakeholders and read statistics. It’s not enough to observe the behavior of mothers, laugh with kids, or listen to stories of teachers. It’s not enough for me to get on the COTA and let it drive through each of these neighborhoods, occasionally deciding to just wander around alone with mace clasped in my right hand. I still didn’t (and don’t) understand what community meant in these places. Something was missing.
One night, while thinking about these disadvantaged groups I don’t understand, I realized the key to understanding community was to look at the place I’ve lived and learned in for the past few years—The Ohio State University. Then, I thought about what community meant for someone from here, and I realized what was missing was a feeling.
It was the camaraderie of walking down High Street when it’s dark out and everyone is a little tipsy but anyone could be your best friend. The collective, unspoken stress that wavers in the air while studying for finals at Thompson Library. The rush to get soft serve ice cream at Traditions before they turn off the machine. The sound of a Crimson Cup frozen hot chocolate being blended. That first day of spring where it’s just a little bit warm but everyone floods oval beach. Our complicated relationship with the panhandlers outside Buckeye Donuts, our desire to skip chem lab and go day drinking on Thursday, our love alongside our deep weariness of football culture, and our hatred of major rental companies in the area.
It made me think that in Linden, Franklinton, and the Near East Side, there are similar feelings unique to that place. These shared feelings and experiences was what really made a community a community.
By briefly working in these neighborhoods in Columbus, I wasn’t going to get it. As much as I want to be apart of the euphoric sense of community these places felt, I can’t. I’m just some student from a university who probably won’t even stay in this city permanently.
But that was okay. Perhaps the most important thing was to be aware that you’re unaware of so much. That was the key to good community service: serve a community, but understand you don’t understand. Come from a place of curiosity. Be consistent. Be humble. Listen. Know you’re outsider. Try to be an insider. Fail. Start over the cycle. Maybe, just maybe, after a dozen times, you’ll come to terms with it.