Community: Beyond the bounds of geography

Communities are complex and dynamic collections of individuals who share places, characteristics of identity and motivations for action. They are rarely just one of these things. What happens when we look at community beyond the confines of geography?

Community. When you hear that word, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of your hometown or a group of people with a common cause or experience? A lot of research has been done on communities, especially for the purpose of participatory research. Very often, "community" is used to describe a geographic location; we are members of the Michigan community, you live in a specific city or neighborhood in a city or village. This element of the term “community” is common because it's self-defining. The impact is has on us as practitioners, researchers and educators is that we do not have to concoct definitions or draw boundaries. They are preexisting based on zoning or physical structures. While this definition of community is indeed valid, it in no way encompasses the range of realities in which we as humans identify community.

In his book “Community- The Structure of Belonging,” Peter Block states that, "Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness." This is a general statement that fully encompasses the other, transgeographic, ways we identify with communities. One group of researchers separated these transgeographic elements into two categories: social interactions, and political and social responsibility. It is in the first element that we find our communities of people with shared experiences, such as survivors of disease, a particular profession, common religious beliefs or family values. The latter element refers to bonds created between individuals who hear a similar call to action on a specific topic, or come together to collectively influence some kind of social change. It is these transgeographic communities that shape much of our identity, our worldview and our commitments to advocacy.

One of the goals of  Michigan State University Extension  for youth is that they develop the skills to be leaders in their communities. What happens if we limit our definition of community to the purely geographic element? We then put limits on the potential capacity for positive impact by our young people. Don't get the wrong idea. Framing programming for youth leadership development from a geographic lens can be a great place to start. It is easy for youth (and adults) to understand the community that is there school, neighborhood or city, and by starting from a locus that is tangible it makes it easier for participants to see the direct impact of their actions. That being said, don't stop there. When working with youth, ask critical questions that help them identify the other transgeographic communities in which they consider themselves a part.

Communities transcend geographic bounds. They depend on social support and networks and can be generated or formed around collective action that is ever evolving. At one time we are citizens of many communities. Helping youth discern this idea helps them understand that their capacity for impact is limitless. The best approach would be to collaborate with youth in ways that engage them in their communities and give them a sense of connected identity and voice in ways that let them step up to be leaders in all their communities.

For more information on youth in community, youth-adult partnerships and giving value to youth voice, explore the Leadership and Civic Engagement page on the MSU Extension website.

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