Can We See in Communities a Crucible of Humanity?

Communities are as old as humanity but have amazing plasticity. Today, they are becoming more ambiguous, uncertain and volatile in our world than ever before, but they carry demands that require, for those who wish to set them up, to follow a sincere path of transformation.

I have been struck in recent years by the way communities have come back to the fore, not to say fashionable, when we talk about organizational transformation. Yet probably communities are as old as humanity. It seems that our ancestors were gradually constituted into homogeneous (but not necessarily uniform) social bodies that shared the same vision and the same mission in existence, including the most basic: that of escaping the claws of the wild animals at night and to capture a mammoth from time to time to feed everyone. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, anthropologist and primatologist, cited by Pablo Servigne and Gauthier Chapelle in their book “L’Entraide” was the first to formulate the hypothesis that the fact that human babies are particularly immature at birth would have led the first hominids to organize a framework (community) conducive to the safety of the children but also of their mothers, thus giving a role to the tribe and encouraging an advanced cooperation between the males of the group. We could almost say with epigenetics that we have communities in genes.

Beyond prehistory, there are also religious communities that have come together to escape persecution or pray day and night when the storm has passed. In English-speaking countries, the word “community” is easily used to describe a small agglomeration. Closer to home in the 60s of the last century, young disheveled idealists went to live sometimes naked in communities where the motto was to make love but not war: Woodstock, Auroville … so many mythical places that have been marked by community spirit and even communitarianism. And we could multiply the examples at will: communities are everywhere! The community movement has even touched the socio-economic sphere: the brotherhoods and the guilds of the Ancien Régime were indeed living and prosperous communities in the towns and villages of Europe in which the craftsmen had developed extremely powerful solidarity and exchange mechanisms. Cooperatives invented in the nineteenth century or the mutualist movements that have followed suit are generous and always alive community expressions.

     Basically, a community has a duty of openness.

I am, by personal inclination, particularly sensitive to the question of communities. I have the chance to share the passionate daily life of the Ouishare community in Paris since 2015. It is a little crucible where I developed my experience and I must give back to this collective the paternity of many of my points on the issue. At the same time, I had the amazing experience of helping to create a community of support professionals in 2018. Finally, I even led a community of psychologists. I would like, on the basis of these experiences, to try to describe what seems to me to be the constituent features of a community.

Most communities in the socio-economic sphere start from a utilitarian perspective. We get together to do something useful: accomplish a mission (save the world, awaken others, resist the attacks of the Indians, …) or a set of tasks. A community is useful. One does not sacrifice without purpose a piece of its individual square for the benefit of a collective or for the simple pleasure of being right there together. It can happen but it is not called “community” in these cases but rather a group or a network.

I identified three main utility functions of a community:

  • breaking loneliness and isolation. It is amusing that when humans have never had the same technical means of being connected to others, there is a resurgence of community practices.
  • the opportunity to pool prospecting efforts to recruit clients or even patients, creation, innovation, ….
    We find here probably the qualities developed by our ancestors in buffalo hide to organize the hunt for antelopes.
  • encourage the sharing of knowledge or mutually enrich each other’s experiences, including interpersonal relationships.

It seems to me that a second characteristic of a community is openness. That is to say that basically a community has a duty of openness. It is not an injunction because it would not work. You can not force someone to be open, or he may do it badly. It is more a state of mind that allows anyone who feels in tune with the vision and mission of the group, more exactly any individual who is inspired by the project of the community, the way it exists or its works , … to be able to join and contribute to it. However, being open to “everyone” does not mean being able to welcome “anyone”. It is really important for the person to be adhering to the values, the spirit and the codes of the community they want to enter. It is symmetrically a requirement for members of the community because they must be able to receive and assimilate. That is to say, also to be able to accept that the “new” or “new” is, by its differences, not a threat to an established order but rather a richness constituted by its differences. Being open to others, even if (one should probably say “especially if”) it brings new blood or fresh air that contributes to the dynamics of the community. Nothing is worse than deadly consanguinity, although we can quite naturally prefer to co-opt people who look like us.

A third characteristic is that communities can not develop without the contribution of their members. Obviously, it is up to everyone to evaluate their level of contribution according to their means, abilities, limitations or timeliness. But it’s important to contribute. It is even vital and communities in which there is no active contribution of members (and if possible not always the same) are in my opinion at risk. I like the Latin etymology of the word contribution, which means “to share”. Double requirement! In this regard, I have in mind this community of practice with which I worked. Each member was first there not to stay alone, improve his turnover and interact with his peers. Everyone was there too because there was a particularly inspiring way to do this job. But probably because the codes and rules were not clearly oriented towards cooperation, it was very difficult to get members to contribute to the “commons” or at the cost of high energy expenditure. This is why I think it is also essential that part of the contribution of the members be free or voluntary. And that makes sense because the “free” contribution is the expression of the commitment and the sense of belonging, which bring together the members of a community. At Ouishare, for example, members perform activities or activities for the community on a voluntary basis, or with daily rates that are so low in relation to market prices that it amounts to a form of volunteer work. It is important that there is this part of donation and gratuitousness in the relation to the group because it is implying. If there is not this disinterested relationship to the collective then we are at risk of falling into a purely interested relationship that makes it difficult to “make community” and to taste all the fruits. It is also a major pitfall for all companies that try to import community practices to improve their performance with an exclusively productivist prism: “we will install a community in this or that service with collaborative practices and digital and poof … like magic we’re going to have happy people at work and gain 15% productivity. ” I do not know of any example where it has worked sustainably.

Ultimately, the essence of a community is the ability of its members to care for one another.

I met many people who have never lived in a community and who tend to think spontaneously that such an organization would crush or erase individualities and dissolve them into a big collective whole. Such a configuration exists, of course, in cults or totalitarian regimes. And it’s a risk. A community, in the sense that I understand it, will instead organize not the balance but the optimization of the development and expression of each individual member on the one hand and the prosperity and progress of the collective on the other hand. It is as if the dynamics of a community were proportional to the encouragement of individual expression. Here too, far from constituting a threat to the collective, it is on the contrary synonymous with diversity, complementarity and therefore wealth. This characteristic echoes the notion of openness developed above. Individual expression is particularly evident in initiatives and decision-making processes. To use the example of Ouishare, it is customary to say that we are a “do-ocratie” that is to say that individual initiatives, entrepreneurial type in particular, are encouraged and even incubated most of the time: the most experienced members of the community dedicate significant amounts of their time to support, often on a voluntary basis, to enable these initiatives to take off. Enspiral, a New Zealand community also from the 2008 post-financial crash eco-collab movement, uses Loomio for collective decision-making. With Loomio, everyone can vote for or against, but can also say that it does not matter to him or that it does not suit him so much that it blocks any decision process. When someone waved his red flag (in this case it’s a hand!), The community must seek to reach an agreement with the person blocking it to reach a decision.

A final feature that I would like to stress is that a community spontaneously develops a form of fraternity. This is probably related to the fact that members are united by the same vision and values. It is undoubtedly also the result of the intrinsically open nature of a community and the acceptance of difference that forces one to look at the other first as “another self” as proposed by Aristotle , after a moment. The word fraternity is interesting in many ways and especially because it is found as well in the pediment of all our French public monuments with the republican motto as in religious texts with notably the dark affair of Cain and Abel. We must also read with interest the book of Jean-Pierre Mignard “Guardian of our brothers” which is the bridge between the two. If the word fraternity is scary, we can use instead the English word “care” or “take care”. I think what ultimately makes the essence of a community is the ability of its members to care for each other. To take care is to be attentive, attentive, available, open and without prejudices. Everyone can not love everyone and it is not so much feeling that inclination to be in a state of availability, without forcing and without being in withdrawal. This is obviously very difficult and it is probably in many cases an ideal. However, it echoes the attitude of our ancestors who first organized these primitive communities precisely to take care of the youngest and their mothers to ensure the future of the group. At Ouishare, for example, even if we are sometimes a little drunk, we are incredibly available for each other and we are finally very attentive. This attitude is facilitated by reflexes and a kind of professional deformity, but the level of attention to others and thoughtfulness is very palpable and quite unique.

A community is a “safe space” where vulnerability nourishes benevolence.

It seems to me that this ability to take care of the other is particularly strong in a community because there are first and foremost exceptional conditions to create a sense of trust. Because we are welcomed with a minimum of judgment and because individualities are cultivated, the community can quickly become a “safespace” where we feel safe. One becomes convinced that the other is benevolent and fundamentally positive towards us. I believe that this feeling is reinforced by the fact that in the communities (the real ones!) The members give up implicitly to want to change the other one or to want to cure it. Finally, and even if there is an implicit pressure of the group to conformism, one accepts quickly enough to look at the other as it is and not as it should or could be, not out of disinterest but on the contrary by respect. And in this “safe-space”, everyone can, in his own way, express forms of vulnerability and thus open to the benevolence and attention of others. Which in turn may feel called to more confidence and letting go because it seems to me that it is, except in psychopaths, a natural inclination of humans. And so creates a virtuous circle that amplifies trust, which itself broadens the “safe-space” that allows more vulnerability to express and so on. By vulnerability I mean the state in which one is able to lower some of the barriers and social masks and finally accept implicitly, the possibility of being hurt by the other. Obviously it’s not that easy every day, but to experience it with Ouishare makes it possible to have absolutely exceptional working conditions and interpersonal relationships that are difficult to do without. This ability of communities to profoundly transform human relationships has even made some writers, such as the American psychologist Scott Peck in The Different Drum, written 30 years ago, to be true spaces of psycho-spiritual growth.

Communities are therefore both archaic and at the same time highly evolved forms of human organizations. They have shaped our history for millennia and are actualizing at the beginning of the 21st century in modes of socio-economic organization particularly resilient because they first appeal to the human thickness of their members before anything else . This does not mean that there is no method or approach for incubating and sustaining communities. It is about understanding the place of the informal, protocols of cooperation, critical size, distributed leadership or unifying objectives. But it is illusory to think that a catalog of good practices alone is enough to light up this kind of sacred fire which nevertheless resolves a certain number of evils of the current enterprises. I say this without dogmatism, and I understand very well that the community system is not adapted to all cultures and organizations. Nevertheless, it is an extremely profound paradigm shift for homo-economicus that we are still conditioned by 200 years of race for productivity, performance and profit. Those who start the adventure do not always suspect the challenges they will have to operate.


A version of this post was previously published on OuiShare and is republished here with permission from the author.

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