Kate Balug, another Creative Community Fellows alum, writes powerfully about narrow definitions of “community” and how her work seeks to do the opposite by breaching walls to promote inclusiveness.
After several years of working as an artist in under-resourced neighborhoods in the US, I developed an uneasy relationship with the notion of “community.” In particular, I noticed that local non-profit organizations like community development corporations benefit politically from deploying the term ideologically. Local governments count on such organizations to make legible the interests of inhabitants within the areas they ‘serve’. In exchange, they get rewarded with unelected representative political power with limited accountability: even if they only serve a fraction of the population, they become the representative voice of the whole in local politics. Further, the reality of limited resources such as grants or donations leads non-profits to compete over who qualifies as their ‘clients,’ so that one agency may cater to one ethnic group while another provides the same services to another group. Here is where organizations sententiously deploy the term “community;” the result is a lot of service overlap and identity-based fragmentation that furthers residents from having a true political voice.
In my projects with the art collective Department of Play, we emphasize notions of community based on shared geographies and political stakes, which at times strategically cross political borders. For example, in redeveloping one urban area to attract wealthy young urbanites, city agencies redrew the neighborhood boundary to exclude a large public housing project. In community planning meetings, then, the public housing residents are not considered part of the “community” and neither their presence nor their needs are visible, much less acknowledged. As a first step to seeing each other, our project created a public venue for sharing personal stories from both sides of this political border.
Rather than a focus on local, exclusionary identities that perpetuate walls of privilege or poverty, both equally driven by fear, I am drawn to communities that combine local instances with a broader network. In the case of our work, that network has been city planning. A different example is that of Fab Labs, a global system of digital fabrication laboratories made affordable and available in their local contexts. Each of these follows an explicit, locally-flavored but globally similar, interest-based agenda – learning to make physical things via digital processes. However, it also connects its local users to a network of learners for sharing ideas or opportunities. Unlike the first examples, there is no incentive here to fragment populations based on politically-salient differences: the sense of togetherness is not held in tension with other communities to which visitors may belong. Instead, there is opportunity to breach walls based on a desire to learn a technical skill with a variety of applications. Of course technology is far from neutral and this model has its own issues. Yet I offer this imperfect example as a positive instance in which community emerges not as an ideology that serves practice but as a by-product of experiences that draw people together.
As I raise my toddler son far away from family, I have a new sense of reliance on community that further complicates my relationship with the term. It means having someone to call on to go to the park; an online forum of formidable local moms who offer an endless source of wisdom; and neighborhood places where my family feels safe and welcome. This community is mobilized by politics that affects our kids and lately, the kids of our neighboring countries, but our membership, and our identity, is too loosely defined to become a pawn of any organized political interest.
Rather than subscribe to one definition, then, I rest at proposing that “community,” “identity” and “politics” continually dance uncomfortably together, and resist any too-fixed relation or definition.