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Cecile Andrews -- Simplicity as Community

Taken from the December 1997 introduction to the
New Dream Conversation of the Month 

Simplicity as Community

"When the stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle together because you love one another? " What will you answer? " We all dwell together to make money from each other," or "This is a community"?

--T.S. Eliot

Community is central to the vision of Voluntary Simplicity because our lack of community is both a cause and an effect of our extreme consumerism. People feel lonely so they go to the malls to be around people. Or, they go home to an empty house and turn on the TV for the sound of a human voice. (In 1950, only 10% of households consisted of just one person, but by 1994, 24% of households had only one person.)

With community, on the other hand, people not only fill the emptiness that drives them to consume, they can begin to save money and preserve resources by sharing, bartering, or purchasing things together.

So, as we urge people to reduce their extreme consumerism, it's not enough to just point out the problems. We have to offer them alternatives to lives of shopping and television. One of the alternatives is a life lived in community.

But what is community?

When I was just out of college, I worked with the American Friends Service Committee in North Carolina, living and working in a poor, African-American community. I was stunned to discover the experience of community that existed there. I had read Paul Goodman's book, Growing Up Absurd, and when he said that middle-class Americans grow up without experiencing community, I didn't know what he was talking about. But there in that poor, black neighborhood, I discovered what he meant.

During the hot summer nights, people sat out on their porches, chatting and watching the kids play in the streets. Because it was a poor neighborhood, the houses were small and close together, so as you sat out during the evening, you could call to your neighbor and talk about the day's events.

And there were no secrets in that community. You could hear couples fighting through the thin walls, you could hear doors slammed in anger. So there was no pretending, no putting on a false image. People knew who you were. People might gossip, but you were recognized and accepted.

How different that was from my sterile suburban upbringing where the houses were far apart, there were no front porches, and people escaped to their back patios to hide from their neighbors. There was no corner grocery store to walk to, there weren't even any sidewalks beckoning you to walk. You could only drive to the anonymity of the shopping mall, where you filled your sense of emptiness with a new sweater or new pair of shoes.

But why do I tell you this?

I tell this experience because we are at a crucial time in terms of the development of community. The experts and authorities are beginning to study it! They are developing their definitions and analyses. They're telling us what's wrong and what we should be doing.

But the Simplicity movement is a people's movement. The definitions and analyses must come from people's authentic, lived experiences. One of the reasons we are a nation of consumers is because the experts and authorities have taken over so many aspects of our lives. We do what we're told, even though the orders are subtle, expressed in the flashing colors of advertising. We are easily manipulated because we are passive observers of life.

We must keep the simplicity movement a movement of the people, and the definition of community must come from us.

So in my work helping people form simplicity circles (a small-group, egalitarian, participatory, form of learning)- my focus is giving people the opportunity to develop their own ideas, values, and visions by studying the lessons of their own experience.

One of the reasons simplicity circles are so popular is that people are able to begin to satisfy their need for community. People not only experience community, they are defining it and learning to build it in the rest of their lives. As they experience the delight of talking with kindred spirits about matters of substance, they can move beyond the "weather-restaurants-movies" conversations. The simplicity circles revolve around questions that are answered from people's real life experience.

One of the simplicity circle questions is: "When in your life have you experienced community? What was the core of the experience?" From the telling of these life stories, people begin to define community for themselves.

From people's stories we move to an analysis of our society. We ask "What in today's society keeps us from experiencing community?" The next step is to take action - each participant states what concrete action to build community that he or she will take that week. The next week the circle begins with a discussion of the actions. Some people succeed in their intentions, some people fail. But they all learn as they trade stories and ideas and practical suggestions.

This, then, is how I would like to approach this on-line discussion of "Simplicity as community."

1. Begin with your own experience. Describe a time in your life when you experienced community. What was the core of that experience? Feeling accepted? Feeling free to be authentic? Shared values?

2. Then, say a few words about what is blocking you from experiencing community today. Is it television, the car, air-conditioning? What is it for you?

3. And finally, what can you do (or are you doing) to increase community in your life, both on a personal level and a societal level. Society, of course, has many levels -- it might be your neighborhood, your city, the country, or the world.

All the levels are important. We need policies that increase community - things like shorter work hours, new designs for neighborhoods, or maybe a limit on television advertising or broadcast hours. But we can't neglect the personal level, because if we don't experience community ourselves, we will never know what it really is, and once again the authorities and experts will take control and define community the way it best serves them.

Most of all, we must nurture the voice of the people. Simplicity and community cannot be defined by the experts - we must do it ourselves.

We invite your response. Some of you will choose to ignore this approach, but I would encourage people to look to their own experience. No more second-hand ideas!

-- Cecile Andrews

For more information on Simplicity Circles you can read Cecile's book. For simplicity circles near you, consult the Simple Living Network’s State-by-State Study Group page at http://www.simpleliving.net/

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