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Community: What is a Vibrant Community?

One of the questions in the Tamarack Learning Community is, "What is a vibrant community?" The question is an important one, and Paul Born's perspective on it is clearly holistic. This is an important discussion - please feel free to join in by taking out a free account. I have copied my first response to the question below (please add any comments directly in the Discussion Board section of the Tamarack Learning Centre)...

From the Tamarack Learning Centre Discussion Board

In thinking about the important question of what it takes to build a vibrant community, I am reminded of an entry I wrote that briefly explored Jean Vanier's thinking about a sense of belonging. In his wonderful book Becoming Human, Vanier invites us to explore the question, "Where does a broader sense of belonging come from?" Primary questions such as these focus our attention on the source of design, and in this sense one important source of design in building a vibrant community is a deep sense of belonging.

"Society is the place where we learn to develop our potential and become competent… Belonging, on the other hand, is the place where we can find a certain emotional security. It is the place where we learn a lot about ourselves, our fears, our blockages, and our violence, as well as our capacity to give life; it is the place where we grow to appreciate others, to live with them, to share and work together, discovering each one’s gifts and weaknesses."

A vibrant community, from this perspective, is permeated by a relentless sense of active compassion in which people help each other to live a life worth living. For me, I think the key word here is "vibrant" since it is possible for communities to be stifling and in some cases painful places to live. To be vibrant in life means to be fully human - to be fully alive. To be fully alive means, by default, that our orientation to other people originates in the power giving, sharing, helping, healing, providing, and caring. If we are vibrant in our beliefs, we not only think and reflect on these ideals, but we actively pursue and live them out in the breadth and depth of everyday life.

My life's work has been focused on one important and powerful question, "How to people learn the things they value most?" A vibrant community is immersed in learning as a means to build others. One of my heros in life is Stephen Biko and one of the most powerful statements he makes is:

"I own this cattle all right, but if someone is starting a house next door, it is custom for me to have empathy with him, it is part of my cultural heritage to set him up, so that my relationship with my property is not so highly individualistic that it seeks to destroy others. I use it to build others."

Biko created one of the most profound and powerful learning environments the world has ever seen. And although he does not use the term "vibrant" as I can recall, I would have to say that he embraced it as a source of design in his life's work. He does use the word "freedom" frequently, and his orientation to freedom is one that originates in giving, sharing, helping, healing, providing, and caring as well. In the end, Biko gave his life to these beliefs.

Stephen Biko's life and the vibrant community he forged in dire circumstances, for me, helps to define what a Hero really is. His is a life that never perishes in our hearts and minds. Biko's ability to activate his beliefs in authentic and practical ways takes us to the source of learning itself. His "classroom" was the full breadth and depth of the reality of his everyday life and his "instructional design" leveraged the entire social, political and economic realities he was immersed in. It is what Jean Vanier might describe as, if I may, becoming fully and completely human.

I agree with Joseph Campbell's comment in The Power of Myth that we have, in many ways, lost our heros in life. In my own work, one idea that I have focused on is that narratives that serve to inform our lives and help us to live a life worth living are the nucleus and true source of design in learning. Information, knowledge, skills and technology are important, but not centre-stage. If we are to explore vibrant communties then I think in some way we are directly interfacing with the lives of real people in real situations - their successes, their failures, their happiness, their pain and suffering. These are models we can learn from to inspire a greater sense of belonging in communties by embracing their experiences as much as humanly possible and finding practical ways of applying the lessons they have to teach us in our own reality.

One important sense of a vibrant community is to think about it as a way of belonging that is practical and authentic. In Vanier's words, it is a way of becoming human. Learning in a vibrant community is a means to cull the best elements from all dimensions of our society (cultural, artistic, social, political, economic) in order to relentlessly inspire this sense of belonging and promote an orientation to living that, in Stephen Biko's words, helps to build others. Both Vanier and Biko found ways to work in collaboration with all sectors, designed business strategies to reduce poverty, built new kinds of community assets, and, even more profoundly, elevated the power of learning for all people regardless of their walk in life.

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