Take the leap.

5 things every strong community needs

Three thousand miles away from my family a few years back, I was really feeling stressed about community.

I mean, I’m from Durham, where people sit on their front porches and watch thunderstorms and drink beer. They look you in the eye, wave, and say, “How y’all doing?” (I’d missed that, especially, when I was out there in Seattle.)

But there was one thing that made me decide, very fixedly, it was time to return to North Carolina.

It was a conversation we hosted with a friend, John Boylan.

red umbrellas at the eiffel tower in during a hail storm......

A Seattle roundtable about community

After meeting John Boylan at one of the many festive conversation tables he hosts at public spaces around Seattle, I invited him to host one at our house. Kornerhaus was just freshly painted and the entire first floor of our new two-story place would be dedicated to holding meetings of just that sort. The topic would be “what does it take to have community?” It would be a potluck. We called it Gather.

People who came shared a sentiment that, to me, was new. At one point in time, it would have seemed absurd for anyone to try to want to “make” community. It was just there. A given.

But realizing some of us were new to this concept, they shared some key points that a community needs to stay cohesive:

1. Variation in age. Multigenerational events feel more like community gatherings than when everyone’s the same age.
2. Open doors. In urban settings, people have the choice to participate in events where there will be other people. You always have the option of leaving a group. Or joining one.
3. Time and effort. Sometimes, newcomers have a mistaken impression that community is built-in to a place when they arrive and all they have to do is join in. But that’s not how it goes. It takes work to build a community, it takes risks, and making our emotional selves vulnerable. It takes time, too. Then again, people can form instantaneous sense of belonging in a camplike setting, even if it’s just for a few hours. Like what happens at an artist retreat nearby called Smoke Farm. But even in those cases, there’s someone doing a lot of background work to set that up, over time. Think of Burning Man.
4. A leader. Oftentimes it takes some kind of figure to organize things and keep people involved and connected.
5. Care. If you care about people, and do things for them, that’s what makes a community. Even if you don’t like everyone in the group, knowing that you’d help them in a crisis is a key indicator of the bonds that are really there.


We have to take care to not try to “belong” to groups we don’t genuinely connect with. That can be tricky in the modern era, where Internet connections can feel like spiritual ones.

Ultimately, what makes community is when people gather for a common reason: whether it’s sharing a meal, moving a heavy box together, or being together in a spiritual context. Breaking bread together.

Companionship literally means, “with bread.”

Enter the Year of Dialogue

Seeing how John Boylan hosted his dialogues inspired us to do the 2012 Year of Dialogue project. Noting how he made space to allow a lot of different kinds of people to feel okay about divulging intimate details was like watching a performance, of some sort. Yet there was real interest. A kind of feeling that is hard to find when you’re not paying to go to a production like an opera or play or musical. You’re just showing up because you want to see who’s around. Who else amongst you are your neighbors.

The awakening

Ultimately, when I had a chance to reflect on the three years of what I call “The North Carolina Return” I’ve discovered community is much more than what you think it is when you’re looking at it from the outside. It’s people who know one another, trust one another, and realize they can count on each other. It’s people who aren’t afraid to ask for help when they need it. It’s people who have formed bonds, over time, and learned to work together even when there are times they grow apart.

Without that rubber bandiness of stretching when you have to, and relaxing when you can, it won’t work.

But our society isn’t cut out to adjust. To give. We’re trained to cut our losses, and move on. Sometimes, that can make us feel more lonely than we ever have before, whether we’re surrounded by people or not. Loneliness is not sharing. Not sharing happens when we isolate ourselves from opportunities to truly participate in one another’s lives. However that looks. Whatever it means. But the work of gluing the community together lies in the intention that’s set to do it.

Without the intent, there’s no glue. Glueless, a community implodes. It’s up to us to decide how to keep that from happening, to those of us who feel it’s important to love, share, and care.