Written by Johanne Robitaille
Who is Johanne?
My name is Johanne Robitaille and I live in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I studied humanistic mediation at the University of Minnesota in the USA and Non Violent Communication with Marshall Rosenberg in Switzerland, Belgium, and Quebec. I was hired by the department of justice of Canada in order to help restore justice within the Inuit’s and First Nations communities of northern Quebec.
I worked with couples, families, school systems, universities, communities, municipalities, and the justice system. I drafted policies to help enhance the quality of life of families and seniors in many municipalities and animated large groups of seniors to bring about more consciousness.
I became passionate with community living in the late 1970’s when I travelled and spent time in various commune. I loved living with people, growing gardens and cooking together, communicating, and connecting. Throughout most of the 1990’s I ran a summer camp with 50 people on staff and 200 children per camp. I realized early the gift of living in Nature with others. I feel alive, touched by others, real and that type of lifestyle brings a lot of meaning to my deep Self. It touches my heart in a way that nothing else does. All is interdependent! Community life brings that to the fore.
Community – How are we when we are together? – Part 1
Tell me, are communities emerging? What is emergence? It is all that surfaces after certain forces have been neglected or repressed for too long and the time has come to meet them. For example, in a person, we can expect an emergence when intense emotions have been ignored or repressed for a long time: at some point, we witness a burst of excessive anger or depression. In a geological system, there is emergence when a volcano erupts as a result of too intense pressures inside the earth. In the same way, in a community, there is emergence when people have neglected certain levers of their collective wellbeing for too long.
Emergences are preceded by situations that no longer make sense, situations that have become intolerable, where the imbalances are so great that one has the impression of chaos.
In Quebec, as in many countries, the financial system is unstable, the economy is shaky, the environment is threatened, health care is demanding an increasingly large share of the national budget, and problems are multiplying in education such as in many other areas. In Quebec as in other regions, over the past few decades, the average income of families has fallen significantly in relation to the cost of living, the unemployment rate has increased, and property taxes have continued to rise, even forcing some people to leave their homes. These instabilities in all social systems are warning signs; they announce an emergence at the collective level.
What has been set aside or suppressed in our community? It is the capacity of people to assume their power, to take matters into their own hands. It is also their connection, their impulses and their deep aspirations as they manifest themselves in the collective domain. We can, of course, tell ourselves that we have acquired a certain material comfort and a feeling of security. But these are likely to be compromised as imbalances grow.
What has happened is that people have become very inward looking, they have adopted an individualistic way of life. The need to exchange and to feel part of a community, of a collectivity, has been denied, ignored, it has slipped under the rug. But this period of individualism is over. It is important to mourn and close this time.
It is important to install a listening system so that people are heard, to promote a dialogue. It is in the exchange with others that we develop a sense of belonging. Real safety and real comfort comes from there, at the end of the day. The benevolent presence of people we know and who know our needs constitutes our real security, security from the human point of view, not institutionalized. Likewise, regular exchange with our fellow human beings constitutes our true wealth, that of human relationships which alone can nourish our hearts, awaken our feelings of communion with others. No institution can do that. A nurse may be benevolent, but her benevolence is her own, not that of the hospital.
Do you realize how important it is to do things differently and let go of old patterns? Do you also realize how much we would benefit from focusing on what is positive − our resources, our talents − and offering them to our community, instead of just criticizing the people to whom we have given our power – politicians and other people in positions of power?
It is through the connection between beings and the intention to work for the well-being of the community that any society can be built and it is through them that the social fabric is made. This weaving is made of subtle threads which are an accumulation of small gestures: listening, availability, acceptance of differences, sometimes even silence… to better understand the other. It’s so simple!
Anyway, no matter how much we elect the best city councillors and the best deputies to the National Assembly or to the House of Commons, these elected officials remain subject to forces that escape us, such as lobbies, and, above all, they cannot replace benevolent human presence. We may have the best hospital and the best Court of Justice, but we will never be better served than by human beings who take our daily well-being to heart. These institutions have their place, of course, and the people who work there are generally competent, but they are there to respond to crisis situations. We have wasted so much time developing policies!
One of the most powerful keys to empowering our community is to realize the power of small gestures, encounters, harmonious exchanges with others. And one of the first steps in recreating our sense of belonging is to see, to grasp this: how are we when we are together? Are we attentive, benevolent? Do we care about each other’s well-being? How do we act towards others? Do you change sidewalks when the other approaches? Do we turn our back on it? Do we welcome it?
It is precisely this change in attitude that is emerging. Institutions have – and will have – fewer and fewer financial resources at their disposal, whether they are for health, education, justice, etc. Moreover, in cases where they obtain resources, it will often be at the cost of their own autonomy and sense of mission.
Who says emergence says period of transition, often of chaos, in any case of fragility. Structures are weakening. They are called to transform themselves in depth. It is essential to seize these moments of transition, because they carry a creative power. These are ideal times to inject our intentions on what we want for our community. Do we want to be there for our young people? Do we want to include our elders in our projects and make our contacts with them livelier? Are we open to receiving their wisdom, to benefiting from their experience? Are we ready to work together so that everyone’s experience is richer and more alive?
“When a child comes into the world, he brings with him a talent, a gift from the spirit world, which the community needs.”
− Sobonfu –
Personally I feel the call. And you, do you feel it?
Let’s go deeper: Community – How are we when we are together? – Part 2
Just as a house is built with materials, expertise and some planning, so is a community built on talent, goodwill and, above all, good communication. In this period of emergence that results from the failure of old ways of doing things, and where institutions are more than overwhelmed, it is important to look at what makes a community viable, even enriching for everyone.
Focus on talents, resources
To build community, it is important to focus on people’s talents and strengths rather than their deficiencies. In the life of a community, deficiencies have no value, they bring nothing worthwhile. Take volunteering: do the people who volunteer announce their disabilities? No, they rather present their abilities. In any community life, the talents and strengths of people are what counts. Citizens of a community want to know clearly what each can offer.
The professional world of services and large industries generally relies on the shortcomings and weaknesses of people. Social services, medicine, therapy and psychology are organized around what is missing, what is broken in beings. Go see a medical professional and tell him that you have no problem that you are there just to tell him about your talents… he will show you the door. On the other hand, go to an association or a group of neighbors and tell them about your abilities, you will see their eyes shine with interest in you.
Taking care of a community or participating in its transformation means staying connected to the talents of people, to the gifts they can offer, each in their own way. It is to ensure that the talents of each person converge towards the center and come to nourish it. If you want to strengthen your community, it is good to list the resources, the talents of the people. It is good to pay attention to it. It is a sine qua non condition, a necessary step for a social renewal to take place.
Over the past fifty years, our society has increased professionalized care. It has created “systems” so that people receive the services they need. But these systems have a limited impact. They produce service, yes, but not real care − in the sense of benevolence. Talk to any poor or vulnerable person, and they can tell you a whole list of services they receive. Obviously, they are well served, but try to see how these services have changed their life, how they have met what they need on a fundamental level.
The alternative to “systems” is community life: people who come together voluntarily to do good. Support groups that offer to help vulnerable people through follow-up phone calls, neighborhood support networks, etc. These initiatives bring generosity back to the neighborhood! In a community where associative life is reborn, all the vulnerable people who have remained hidden – in fact, all of us – experience a transformation in their lives. They experience comfort, a sense of belonging, a feeling of being useful to others and a connection with what is close to them. Community life is the basis of the community. It is the weaving of social fabric. Organized professional systems are able to provide services, but only associational life can truly provide the care, the heart.
The power is in our hands
The third condition for rebuilding a community is faith. It is the faith or trust that citizens can identify and solve problems on their own. The real changes happen when citizens discover their capacity to act. In the face of any symptom of a falling society – poverty, a shaky economy, violence, drug use, etc. – citizens can take action. It is important to stop waiting for the action of professionals and elected officials, it is important to decide now, to respond to the urgent needs of the community. This citizen empowerment, this way of becoming autonomous again in relation to institutions, can be found in the history of several communities which have reclaimed their power, which have taken control of themselves.
A real transformation occurs in the places where citizens choose to be together to shape their future.
The power of communication
It is important to transform our communication and our listening. If we want change in our culture, we will have to transform the way we communicate, learn to communicate differently.
True communication has the power to create something new in our world. It is a communication that pushes us to name what is authentic inside oneself, where there is no longer any blame and judgment towards others nor towards oneself. It is a communication that brings us back here and now and which, therefore, places us in clarity and opens us to possibilities. The old communication was based on unintegrated emotions, therefore on a defensive attitude. The position of victim caused us to drag a cloud of dust which prevented us from facing the facts and responding with just action. The new way of communicating is based on “responding to” rather than “reacting to”.
The power of possibilities
It is important to distinguish between the word possibility and other terms that are often used in the same sense, such as vision, purpose, meaning, and destiny. The word possibility is a statement. A possibility is brought alive in the act of declaring it. The possibility is created by our statement. We become that possibility and that is what is transformative.
However, realising the possibility requires most of the time that we mourn our stories, that we die to our identifications. Only when one is dead to the past and everything is complete can there be space to create a new future.
In his book Bowling Alone, the American political scientist Robert Putnam describes a discovery he made after extensive research into the success factors of certain cities in Italy, both in terms of the economy and health or education. He discovered that it is a greater connection, a better cohesion between citizens that distinguishes successful, flourishing cities from those that are not. Hence the importance for a community of enhancing its social capital.
The success of a municipality or a city depends neither on its geography, nor on its history, nor on its economic base, nor on its cultural heritage, nor even on the importance of its financial resources. An example of this, which criminologists have demonstrated, is that the level of crime in a neighborhood is markedly reduced when neighbors know each other.
For our community to transform: Let’s spread the word!
1) Let’s work to build the social fabric! Why? Because not only is the social fabric the primary basis of the community, but also because relationships and social cohesion make it possible to empower citizens. When people care about each other, they become responsible for themselves and others. Care – in the sense of caring – and responsibility create a vibrant and healthy community. It is therefore necessary to create ways to bring citizens together (including elected officials, because they too are citizens), so that they experience the living, the sparkling, the Joy. This can only happen if you pay particular attention to how you bring people together.
2) Let’s join the others! A community life is essential and central. Community life is the binding aspect of a community. It arises from the fact that citizens choose to build and tie their interconnections to direct them towards a common objective. Large systems, such as government, education, health and social services, as well as businesses, are of course important, but they are not essential to the transformation of a community. A system is a means, not an end in itself.
3) Let’s regain consciousness of our power! Citizens who use their power to summon other citizens find themselves building the future. A quality of life emerges from these efforts, and this enables change. A reversal of the thoughts and actions of citizens is more vital and more transformative than a reversal of the thoughts and actions of institutions or elected officials. This is contrary to the belief that better leadership, better programs, bigger grants, or new laws with more vision are the way to a better future. At times, all of this may be necessary, but it is clear that institutions do not have the power to bring about fundamental change.
4) Let’s put value on smaller groups! A small group is a transformation unit. It is in the structure that small groups give themselves where the creation and the future of a community rests. It is important to mourn our need for greatness and speed. The spirit of greatness, speed and the race for performance were the codes to keep the old systems in place. The desire to be part of a large group can arise, except that this form of belonging reduces the power of citizens. Small groups offer a space for valuing everyone’s uniqueness. On the other hand, in belonging to large groups, we often have to sacrifice our own identity.
5) Let’s change the conversation! A transformation within a community necessarily involves a change in conversation. It is even the most important thing to do to change our community. Let’s talk about possibilities, generosity and restoration. This creates a refreshing psychological context that has the power to build strong social capital. Hence the importance of engaging in a new conversation, a conversation that generates a living experience and induces a sense of belonging. This conversation includes listening to and communicating one’s own ideas and visions. We must also remember that the meaning of the conversation − its ground wave − is influenced by the architecture of buildings and public places, by the way in which the places in which citizens meet are laid out and by the space reserved to the arts in these places.
6) Let’s detach ourselves from the problems! Our attachment to problems is insidious. We believe that to create a better world, we must solve problems. This is the state of mind that prevails in Western cultures. In this approach – already “old” – social development efforts have focused on the challenges of public safety, work, local economy, we wanted low-rent housing (HLM), a place for young people, health care, education services, etc. Each municipality has its institutions, agencies and programs dedicated to serving the public good. In reality, as mentioned above, the problems are only symptoms, those of the fall of communities, those of fragmented, divided communities. Violence, economic and financial problems, poor health, dropping out, etc., all come from the fact that citizens have given up their power to create a place of peace and abundance in their living environment. However, trying to resolve the symptoms only preserves them. We have been working on it for a long time… and yet! Let’s close our umbrella and welcome the sun, the one that shines in the eyes of the other. It is time to restore the experience and the vitality of the community.
7) Let’s make visible again and revalue care and benevolence! We live in a landscape where punishment is brandished as a threat at the slightest misconduct (tickets, warnings, notices of payment, etc.) and where the duty of retribution is omnipresent. We even feel guilty for not giving a favor right away to the person who gave us one. The marketing of fear, fault and the price to pay for everything, the pyramid spirit in business and, above all, the fact that we have marginalized the bearers of hope have devalued the spirit of care and benevolence. . They have depreciated associative life to the point of making it invisible.
8) Let’s mourn the past! The restoration of a community can only be envisaged if we mourn the past and the stories attached to it. This creates the opening to produce a new collective story. A story based on the restorative community. A story of possibility, generosity and responsibility.
Comment by Carina Ramm
Johanne wrote this essay on community in 2015 but I feel it is as relevant today and its message has only amplified in strength. People are reestablishing their connection with their local environments, and are restructuring the way we work and live together across regions and countries rooted in a renewed embodiment of care. Taking our lives into our own powerful hands, we are building a future which we have always known is possible. It is now becoming reality once again on this planet. Are you part of it? Letting old identities go…