June 5, 2007

Building Community Locally

Posted in animal advocacy at 1:44 pm by nevavegan

This has been on my mind a little while obviously.

I’m going to try to pick my words very carefully here. That doesn’t mean I won’t totally mess up and say the wrong thing though.

I’ve heard a lot of complaining lately that there is not much sense of community among vegans and animal rights activists in the Washington, DC area. Some object that there is too much arguing within the vegan community. Others feel slighted and left out, and so disengage from involvement.

When I’ve been involved in AR in physical locations where there was a strong sense of community among the activists, there were several common factors. The first was that the group of activists tended to be on the small side. The second was that in those locations there were either no or very few people employed full time in Animal Rights–that is the national groups tended not to be headquartered there. I think this is worth noting because I think it did create a feeling of all activists sort of being in this together and all more or less on an equal playing field, so to speak. Activists felt free to debate, disagree, reach consensus, etc, because everyone’s viewpoint was valued. Another factor was having a clear, visible target that all the activists worked together on–whether that was the chicken farms down the street or the local vivisection lab.

I’m not saying that there is not going to be a similar sense of community here because things are different. I’m not even convinced that cohesive communities like that, in such a small setting, were particularly effective. But perhaps we should keep in mind that our unique situation here: the presence of so many large, national groups here, and such a large, wide-spread population, and thus many wide-spread activists is going to create a different atmosphere.

It may be that given this our natural tendency would be to subdivide ourselves into smaller more cohesive sub-communities. Maybe that’s acceptable and maybe not.

I feel it’s easy to demonize individual people, and perhaps doing so contributes to a feeling of community among those doing the demonizing. It’s a much more difficult thing to try to understand where the other person is coming from and why. It’s hard to ask someone what they believe and the basis for that belief and then to actually listen to the answer. And then to ask clarifying questions and listen to those answers. It’s much easier to assume that we’re all mind readers and already know what everyone else thinks.

Of course sometimes you ask and the answer is just incomprehensible, but then, hey, at least you tried. More often I feel like I ask questions and they are met with deafening silence from those who feel they are too important or too right to have to answer questions. And as I keep repeating, the presence of some actual, quantifiable data would be so, so helpful in guiding everyone’s views.

The thing about having an external bad guy to blame when stuff goes wrong though, is that it excuses us from having to examine our own methods and our own communication. It means we don’t have to wonder if we ever said anything wrong, or failed to communicate fully, because it’s all that guy’s fault, over there, not us.

It also goes without saying that there cannot be community without some level of respect, but that’s a harder nut to crack. How do we work around that? How do we define respect? How do we live with it when we realize that some people in the community are incapable of treating us as individuals with respect?

One thing that really troubles me each time the topic is brought up though is this starting position that we lack community in this area. It is not the same as some other places, true. It’s not so cohesive and we argue, but so what? So many times I’ve asked for help, I’ve gotten help above and beyond the call of duty. I’ve had people here offer sympathy, advice, and support on so many issues. There is community here in that sense. There are a lot of really kind, generous, caring people here and we shouldn’t forget that just in doing what they already do, they are building community every single day.

Some possibly boring theory stuff from M. Scott Peck

M. Scott Peck wrote extensively on the exercise of community building, though his topic was directed toward building a sense of community within churches and religious groups. Still perhaps some of his thoughts are relevant to us.

He wrote that in any community building situation there is an initial phase where everyone is very polite and tries to get along but there is no actual sharing or communication going on. He refers to this as pseudo-community–it looks like a community, but at a more basic level it really isn’t.

The next stage in community building is chaos. People stop being polite and start to actually say what they think. They consider issues at a deeper level and therefore agreeing for the sake of agreeing is not so appealing anymore. Fights can become very heated. Many people think this means the end of community and feel it is a complete disaster. But according to M. Scott Peck this is a necessary step without which true community can never be formed.

The next step would be emptiness, even more painful than chaos, as community members attempt to understand each other and let go of the ego factors that previously blocked true communication.

After going through these difficult growing phases the final stage of True Community becomes possible. Though true community never means the end to disagreements, it should mean that there is more empathy between those who disagree. There is more actual listening and more acceptance of community members as individuals with unique perspectives who may see things in very different ways.

Of course many prefer to stay forever in the first stage because they feel positive about it so long as nobody ever voices any dissent. As M. Scott Peck pointed out, generally those who are leaders in the first stage of community building try to hold everyone in that stage and prevent moving onward. To some extent this would be because of a loss of power concentrated in individual leaders that this theory anticipates should the creation of true community actually take place.



  1. Deb said,

    I moved here less than a year ago, and the word I always come up with to describe the groups here is “disjointed.” But I have to put that in context – where I moved from there was basically one group. I’ve been learning that there was one group because that one group would essentially bully any individuals or other groups into doing their work under the banner of The One Big Group.

    I didn’t see this at the time, because I never got involved more than superficially with activism there. That is, I’d go to protests and generally be friendly with the AR community, but that was the extent of it.

    So here, yeah, it seems disjointed in comparison. There are many groups, national as well as local. I’m still not involved more than superficially – I’m learning that something in me resists that. I have a low tolerance for the politics, the petty backstabbing, all the things that seem to come with the territory with any group of people.

    So I end up doing my own thing. Maybe I create my own unofficial group. I have a good friend who is generally up for most anything, at least for the things that I seem to end up doing. Which, now that I think about it, often involves going to sanctuaries to offer help. When I leaflet, it is almost always on my own, with a couple people, not under anyone’s banner. Sometimes I join the official groups for leafleting, and stock leaflets at local libraries and coffeeshops, which is technically under the banner of a local group. So it isn’t that I refuse to work with official groups, just that I don’t seem to do so on a regular basis.

    I’m not sure I have a point to make, I feel like I’m just rambling. Maybe my point is that the community I experienced previously was more a facade than a real community. But even that doesn’t sound right. I think that my community is never quite located in one physical location. Maybe this is because I tend to move every few years, so whether I’m talking about friends in general, or really any kind of community in my life, it tends to span oceans and time zones.

    Effective, when it comes to campaigns? Probably not. But then maybe being effective is as much about avoiding burnout, and perhaps the cynicism that can contribute.

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I have an online community that I have mixed feelings about, and finally determined that it is like family. Annoying much of the time, comforting much of the time, something I might not want to be around all the time, but which I would really miss if it wasn’t in my life to some extent.

    The ‘net has changed so many things, I wonder if it can change our view of community as well. Maybe “local” becomes a relative term with the ‘net involved. I’m not sure, exactly.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks for the comment Deb, it’s actually very interesting that you later found what you felt was community had the same issues of kind of stifling dissent and forcing everyone into one big mold.

    I think when we are just superficially involved, then the illusion of community is generally enough. Everyone is nice, we show up, we go home, nice, nice, nice. The problem happens more when we’re participating in something and then someone says or does something that catches our attention in a negative way. At that point we might ask “What are we doing here and why?” That’s sort of the stage where many people have told me they felt a lot of pressure to keep silent on their ideas and concerns. Also people who felt inspired and wanted to suggest new methods or take on a project on their own have sometimes felt discouraged from that.

    I do think that one price of forming community is putting up with some stuff we might not like. We could find we just don’t mesh all that well with another participant, or we might feel that discussions go on too long. However, within community at some point there has to be a little tolerance for individual differences, while at the same time leaders should gently try to pull participants back toward the issues at hand.

    It’s definitely a tough balance to find, and yes, much like family, we probably all find that our communities drive us nuts sometimes and support us very well at other times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: