Creating Community

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Abstract: 

In Creating Community, the author articulates an approach to building community on campus that returns us to our roots. She suggests that by taking this journey, we have the possibility of reconnecting to that which is most important to us. From this vantage point, we suggests that we will be better able to consider prospects for addressing the current challenges.   

Article: 

 In one way or another, the economic crisis has forced us to re-examine what we do and who we are as educators. The uncertainty that our students feel has now become our own. We don’t know if our budgets will be cut, or if we will be able to maintain our prized programs. Staff are fearful of losing their jobs; students are concerned about supporting themselves while trying to finish their studies. Solutions are demanded, but the “tried and true” is old and broken. Much like our ancestors, we are challenged to come together as community for the good of all. 

 
This challenge to re-group, re-focus, and re-define ourselves will be responded to uniquely campus by campus. One of the initial steps, however, that could assist in the process is to personalize the journey by providing opportunities for folks to figuratively return to their roots. In our busyness, it is easy to confuse titles with substance or achievements with worth. Maybe this is the time to take a deeper look at what actually motivates us, guides us, and defines who we truly are. 
 
An exercise that has proven very powerful for me and others within our district, has been to travel back through time to when we were children. Traveling back to those days may seem an odd exercise, but when we realize that we are not separate from the families who have nurtured us, it makes more sense.   In fact, the emotional learning that occurred in our childhood largely shapes our experiences as adults. Whether we are conscious of it or not, this early conditioning strongly influences our sense of self. Our capacity to relate to others, to be successful, to have a solid sense of the spiritual, is linked to this early conditioning. 
 
If we can pause to re-acquaint ourselves with this precious side of who we are, we might be surprised by the clarity that is achieved. Our families structured our worlds through the cultural messages they communicated. We adopted these messages as our own when we were quite young, and thus we are often unaware of their presence. So accustomed are we to their “rightness” that we do not question or even notice that the vantage point is ours, and not necessarily a perspective held by others.   
 
Generational messages lie deep within our consciousness. Some are constructive; some are destructive. Most of the time, we are unconscious of their life within us.   Sometimes looking through old photos helps us identify the hidden messages.   We can glimpse ourselves in the captured struggle of our parents as children or perhaps notice a familiar optimism at a family gathering. Like my toddler father in this photo, we are reminded of ourselves and our beliefs. All in all, the process of looking back, prompts us to pause and to think about who we are. 
 
We unknowingly adopt what our culture names as true. So if our cultural group values hard work, we define ourselves by this standard. To be part of the tribe, we must work hard.    Importantly, the messages we’ve incorporated become expectations we place on others. In fact, we judge others and ourselves by these internalized criteria. Taking the time to understand our internal framework will help us respond more objectively to colleagues and students. My sense of what is “right”, may be your sense of what is “wrong”.   Neither may fully capture the situation.
 
If we can travel back to our beginnings, to glimpse the child who is our internal guide, we open a door for working more effectively in our conflicted environments. Sometimes the way to reach this child is to look at what gave the child a sense of security, or who brought the child joy. Just as effectively, we can examine what frightened us, what made us recoil from others.  Though I played in hay stacks and cotton fields, you may have played in city streets or suburban playgrounds. The time spent in re-acquainting ourselves with this precious part of ourselves is time that will serve to build our relationships with others.
 
Perhaps a comparison of vantage points will better explain why this is an important exercise. Shaped by family and community messages, we interpret through our unique experiences.   What if your colleague doesn’t share one of your deeply held cultural positions? My “normal” may not be your “normal”. We may have been taught to mistrust or even disdain someone who is not truthful; but another person may have been taught that truth is relative and sometimes dangerous. Take a look at the chart below and notice the contrasting vantage points.
 

Some of the author’s messages:
Possible contrasting messages:
Put others first
Toot your own horn
Be grateful for what you have
Take what you can
You are only as good as your word
Tell them what they want to hear
Be respectful of everyone
I’m better than them
Do it right the first time
See who can do it for you
Treat everyone equally, fairly
The end justifies the means
Take responsibility for your actions
Never take the blame
Give it your all – 100%+
Life is too short; enjoy it while you can
Stand up for what you believe in
Keep your ideas to yourself
If there is a problem, fix it
It is not my problem
Don’t whine
The squeaky wheel gets the grease

 
We are being called to be community, to stand shoulder to shoulder, as we address the implications of our staggering fiscal situation. Taking time to reflect on what motivates or defines us is time well-spent, for it will assist us in working with our colleagues. Moreover, listening to our childhood messages brings us back to a time of group-think, because our world was family. Perhaps from this childhood sense of vulnerability and openness, possibility can emerge.