“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
I have frequently written about the importance, and primacy of personal relationships when it comes to working for change. I continue to believe that most things that ultimately succeed in this world do so because of personal relationships. There are, however, complementary endeavors that lead to success, and the relationship that makes those work is not interpersonal, but rather it reflects a person’s relationship with their community as a whole.
A number of years ago I was in a work meeting that was winding down, when the subject of LinkedIn came up. For those of you not familiar with LinkedIn, it was created to serve as a “professional” social network. It is not the kind of social site that many people who belong think about, much less check on a regular basis. People you’ve met through work make requests to become part of your list of “connections.” The site identifies varying degrees of connectedness among your connections. Its algorithms also predict that you know lots of people you’ve never heard of.
Anyway, back to the story. Most of the people in the meeting were saying that even though they were not active very on the site, accepting someone’s request to be a connection was a painless way to have a potential bridge to someone who might be a professional contact in the future. Plus, it provided them a tiny bit of validation when someone thought they were important enough to be networked with. Almost everyone agreed, however, that they did in fact have numerous people among their connections who they couldn’t remember, or had any idea how they were currently connected to their work.
Then a woman shared that she had set about the task of weeding out her list of connections on the site. She said that she used one simple question as a determining factor. The question was: If this person asked me to do them a favor, would I do it? If the answer was yes, they stayed on the list. It was her way of turning a confusing, infrequently used, personal network, into more of a trusted personal network.
Our non-professional, offline lives operate a little differently than social media sites. Our community may include relatives, friends, acquaintances, people we know of only by reputation, and strangers (there are probably many more categories, but you get the idea). There are varying levels of connection, and trust exist across and within these categories, but all can, and do bring value to the quality of life in the community.
Community-building, and community development obviously benefit from trusted relationships that result in constructive community engagement. Community engagement and connection, however, also occurs outside of trusted personal relationships. It happens because individuals with few individual connections place their trust in the idea of community itself.
Community engagement can be thought of as people doing a personal favor for the community. You can be a loner, or a hermit, and still value the quality of life created by community. A strong commitment to a place might simply come from the comfort of the familiar, or the lure of some natural feature, or maybe you just want the community to thrive for convenience of not having to go out of town to shop, or get a haircut.
I don’t think one can underestimate the power that an individual’s sense of place holds. As philosopher Patricia Churchland wrote, “Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”
The efforts of strangers can complement, or build upon the work of organized allies. Just because people are not acting as part of your group’s plan, does not devalue their contributions. Maybe they eventually get to know you, maybe not. It doesn’t matter, because you always have a common friend – the community.