Community as a Feeling

For years I’ve been trying, with varying degrees of success, to define and describe community and the leadership that’s necessary to make it happen. Now, after several decades of applied research, writing, teaching and doing, I’m happy to report that the picture on the top of the puzzle box is finally becoming clear and focused.  I’ve also learned why it’s been so difficult to nail it down. This is good because I’d hate to think it’s because I’m a slow learner. 

It’s been difficult to nail down and convey the importance of community because it is about “feelings”. And, while I hate to generalize, that might also explain why more women then men are involved in community building.

Ed Everett, a retired city manager from Redwood City, California recently wrote that he believes community can best be defined by four feelings….a feeling of belonging to something or some group, a feeling of pride in that group, a feeling of being part of something important and of being included, and ultimately a feeling of not being alone, of knowing that others in our community will help us even if they don’t know us.

Each of us find and experience our feelings about community in a variety of ways. I’ve found it within a respected group of colleagues. My husband finds it through his kiting community. A new member of our team finds it through the volunteer work she does rescuing Basset hounds. Others find it through service clubs, sports, recreation and hobby groups, family, or neighbourhood initiatives.

Even though we may find our individual communities, the majority of us are sensing that the communities in which we live are breaking down and want to do something about it. In fact, researchers suggest that a whopping 75-80% of us believe there should be more emphasis on community even if it puts more demands on us. 

If community still sounds a bit too intangible, consider the research of Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone, where he was able to demonstrate that when a community has a strong level of social capital, it will also have increased educational performance, decreased crime, and improved physical and mental health. If that isn’t a reason for investing in community building then I’m not sure what is.

There is also a growing movement, inspired in part by Ed Everett, suggesting there is an important role for municipal government to play in leading the building of communities. 

Everett has suggested that while the role of local government with the public in our early history utilized more of a townhall approach with the public active as citizens, we moved to one he characterizes as political bosses during the 1800s to 1930s, to city fathers during the 1940s to 1960s, and to our current format which he characterizes as a vending machine. He believes we are stuck in the vending machine form of government with the public viewing themselves as customers who put in their tax dollars and pull a lever to get the exact service they want. 

He’s suggesting the ideal approach is instead one that views the community as a partner. The public will in turn then see themselves as citizens rather than customers.

If we view ourselves as customers, we allow others to define our needs, consume but don’t create, feel entitled, and think in terms of I and me rather than the collective we of community.

If we instead see ourselves as citizens, we are committed and willing to be accountable to the well-being of the entire community. We shape the future rather than wait for it, we choose to utilize our power rather than deferring it to those we elect or appoint, and we understand that sustainable change in a community can only happen when we step up to the plate.

For sure stepping up to the plate as a citizen rather than a customer is hard work. Ultimately though, it is work that will make a difference in whatever you define as your corner of the world. It is work that will bring you passion, joy, challenge, and excitement.  It will touch your heart, your soul, and your spirit. 

And that my friends, is why the picture on the top of the puzzle box is getting clearer.  I now know, and am so very proud to say, “My name is Brenda Herchmer and I am a community builder”.   


Posted on 09-06-09


Great article Brenda…like the historical perspective of municipal government!

•Posted by DBayley  on  09/21/09  at  10:25 AM

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