One of my favourite words is ‘community’. When I look around – at billboards out the front of churches, at posts from my friends on Facebook, in books and academic literature – I notice that lots of other people like the word ‘community’ as well.
While ‘community’ is a common word, within the lexicon of most English-speaking groups in Australia, it has taken on a certain appeal, a particular special flavour, with many of the Western-cultured middle-class. I haven’t checked, but it’s the kind of word, with all its connotations, that you would find on Stuff White People Like.
These ‘community lovers’ – myself included – lie awake thinking about the possibility of community gardens and community-run organic fruit and vegetable co-ops. We long for neighbourhoods where people greet each other on the streets, and where you can drop around to your next-door-neighbour’s house for a cuppa and piece of orange-poppy tea cake. We crave church ‘communities’ that are more than stiff Sunday church-pew sitting obligations, but are places where real relationships are formed, where we can ‘journey’ together through life and faith. We long for craft groups and cafés that showcase local art and host community poetry evenings.
And when we pursue our social justice agendas, we incorporate the word ‘community’ as well. We have ‘community development’ and host ‘community meals’. We aim for inclusion, belonging and connectedness.
I’m actually not meaning to be cynical here – because I am as drawn to these things as anyone else. What I have realised recently, however, is the pull towards these things comes from my own sense of loss. I crave ‘community’ because I live within a social substrata that has, for so long, forgotten all about it.
I did a workshop recently on the ‘Hidden Rules of Class’, which was based on the work of Ruby Payne. Payne had the fascinating experience of growing up middle-class, but falling in love and marrying a man from a background of generational poverty. His own family had once been middle-class himself, but something had happened (an accident or illness, perhaps?) so that they had slipped a few classes down. Whenever she visited the neighbourhood in which he lived, she found she was continually baffled – by what seemed like a completely different set of rules that everybody lived by.
Dave Fagg ran the workshop that I did, and he boiled it down to this (I hope I’ve got this right!):
Basically, middle-class people are achievement-orientated. Partly, that’s why they’re middle-class. We put achievement over relationships. For example, if you’re at school and you have an exam the next day, and you want to go and hang out with some friends, your middle-class parents are likely to tell you to stay home and study. Achievement over relationships.
Or, if you are a middle-class young professional, you are likely to be very busy with your work, your yoga classes, training for the marathon you are running as well as meetings for the small NGO board you are sitting on. If you want to have dinner with some close friends you haven’t seen in four months, you will need to schedule them in around all the things you are doing. Achievement over relationships.
People living in generational poverty, on the other hand, are more likely to put relationships over achievement. This is the way it often works:
Your grandparents were from working class stock; your grandfather worked as a fitter and turner, and your grandmother was a dressmaker in a local shop. During the war, your grandfather volunteered but came back with an injury that meant he could no longer work, as well as severe depression.
When your dad was growing up, he never had the experience of seeing his own father go to work during the day. That kind of ‘work ethic’ was never modelled to him, and as a result, when he came of age, he followed in his father’s footsteps and stayed at home with the family during the day, or spent time with friends. This was also modelled to you and your brothers and sisters. You all found it difficult to do well at school (were there some hidden rules that you weren’t privy to, or something?) and most of you found it difficult to get consistent work once you left school. In the end, you gave up on working full stop.
The result of all this is that you are not committed to the idea of ‘achievement’. It is not a high value in your family to do well at school or in extra-curricular activities, or to have a brilliant ‘career’. The focus, rather, is on relationships – because, in a sense, that is all you have. Because you are not out working, getting better at taekwondo and doing part-time masters courses in the evening, you have lots of time to give to relationships. Thus, there is a culture of relationships over achievement.
So here’s the thing. When many of us middle-class people decide to connect with poor people in our area, we assume that what is needed is more ‘community’. After all, that’s what everybody needs, right?
In fact, many people living in generational poverty have got community aplenty! That’s what they live for, and they have the time to commit to it properly. They probably don’t call it ‘community’, though – they might just call it ‘hanging out with mates’.
My feeling is that us middle-class people might have a thing or two to learn about ‘community’ from the people we are trying to help. We must recognise the place from which the desire for ‘community’ comes – not necessarily from the need we witness in the world, but from our own culture that is so busy working on our ‘achievements’ that we have no time to dedicate properly to relationships.
But there’s more. I also think that people living in generational poverty might have a thing or two to learn about ‘achievement’ from us busy, over-educated, over-worked middle-class people, as well!
What the middle-classes have going for them is that they have ‘work ethic’ down pat. We have had it drilled into us from an early age, and modelled to us by our parents. For people who have had none of that, it is knowledge of a ‘work ethic’ that the middle-class has to offer.
And so it seems to me – and this is my warm, fuzzy conclusion – that what we actually all need is each other. Those who crave community need to learn how to be less busy, and how to value relationships. We can learn that from the poor. And those who need a work ethic can learn that from the middle-classes.
Easier said than done. It’s actually not that easy for middle-class people to form meaningful relationships with people who are generationally poor. It can seem like we are worlds apart, with nothing in common. It is hard, but it is necessary. Because I think that it’s the only way we can all grow to be a healthier, more whole people.
I affirm that what the middle-class needs is ‘community’. But we need to go further than seeking ‘community’ with people who are like ourselves. We actually need to be in community with the poor. We need the poor, and the poor need us.
It’s as simple as that.