This week I had a chance to meet up with a special group of my lifelong friends. They are not my best friends and we have known each other for barely five years. However, we have a bond that knits us together in a way that ensures our friendship will endure through the rest of our lives. What is that bond? Suffering. At least, that is what one of my friends says it is. In fact, we bonded through the shared experience of a grueling paper chase. For over five years we have lived together in the crucible of higher education in pursuit of the Doctor of Philosophy in Organizational
Leadership. Together we have been afraid, angry, hurt, exhausted, frustrated, on the edge of total collapse, and ready to walk, no, run away. Also, together, we have wept, laughed, comforted, celebrated, supported (even with calls and texts in the middle of the night), forgiven, and lovingly kept one another close so that running away was not possible. In this crucible we forged a friendship, a community, to which we will belong and cherish for the rest of our lives.
Much of my career’s work has been in community social change efforts. I have been in innumerable meetings in which someone would raise the question in that hushed, quasi-philosophical tone, “So, what do we mean by…community?” What usually ensues is a debate about geographic boundaries, homogeneity, ethnicity, etc., etc. Too rarely have I heard “shared experience” raised as a means of defining community. Considered individually, there is little that our group of 15 lifelong friends has in common. We are racially diverse, professionally diverse, and geographically diverse (Calgary to Addis Ababa to Malawi and all points in between). We are from different generations and different faiths. And yet, we have among us a single shared experience that is unique to us as a group. It is this crucible experience that has forged us into a community.
In fact, is it not shared experience that defines a community more than any other characteristic? For this reason, when we attempt community social change it is important that we understand that shared community experience. There is no better place to begin to increase our understanding than with the people who have lived the experience personally. These are also known as “context experts” because it is their first-person knowledge and understanding of that experience that helps us understand the community context. Without the context experts and an understanding of that shared experience in the community, our efforts will always be less effective and more short-lived.
In our next community change initiative…whether it is focused on poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence prevention, or something else…let’s call in the context experts first to help us understand what the community is really all about.
Be greater. Do good. Everyday.