Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Makes A Community A Community?

August 4, 1997

What is a sense of community? How is it created? Why do some rural towns have a greater sense of community than others? Are rural towns losing their sense of community? Why? How can it be increased?

I asked Darryl Hobbs these questions. He is a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri. Here are some of his answers.

Some people think community is a type of joining with other people of like interests or circumstances - the banking community, art community, bowling community or the "gay or lesbian" community. These are not true communities. These groups are factions of communities.

Community feeling happens when people come together for the good of the whole. People feel they belong to a community when there is a pattern of trust, cooperation and organization that benefits everyone. This type of intense relationship and mutual trust follows the lead of local leaders who are unselfish, visionary, inclusive and skillful at negotiations and developing consensus.

They have a history of past successes in working together. It is a tradition. Looking at a town's history, you can identity a core group of leaders who started a tradition of civic responsibility. Their example educated subsequent generation of leaders on how leadership is done well. They set a pattern of community cooperation and celebration.

It is grounded in the norms and beliefs of the community. "This is what we do. We have strong ties to each other. Our local organizations work together."

Rural places have an advantage when it comes to community. There is a greater density of relationships. People know one another and relate to each other in multiple settings and roles. They aren't segregated into interest or age groups. Community activities affect everyone. This is the great potential strength of rural communities. The whole is better than the sum of its parts.

This sense of community is a real resource. You can literally bank on it. The more you have of it, the better children do in school. As to rural development, it has more monetary consequences than natural resources, location of the interstate, community intrastructure or even the education of the populace.

This sense of community trust and willingness to interact and cooperate in solving community wide problems doesn't belong to any one person. It is embodied within the community. If you don't use it, you'll lose it. The more you use it, the more you have I

People learn civic responsibility in their families, churches and schools. Working with others to do good for the community creates good feelings. There is positive reinforcement for constructive behavior. People migrating from cities often are looking for the feeling of belonging to a community. The inclusive friendliness is a powerful attraction of rural communities.

The towns that don't have it have their leadership fractionated into separate groups. An example of this would be a town with five churches each going their separate ways versus a town with five churches who collaborate on projects.

Children feel it when they sense that the community is proud of them and their school. They can learn civic responsibility at school and collaborate on projects for community betterment. Schools can be a centerpiece in cultivating a sense of community.

What forces detract from community? Hobbs offers these views:

- An increase in rural commuting. Many people live in small towns and commute to other places for medical services, entertainment, supplies, shopping, work etc. Bedroom communities don't organize themselves around problems and goals. Geographic isolation helps keep community spirit alive.

- The private world of television. Many people attribute the decline of "neighboring" and community spirit to the arrival of television. Electronic neighbors replace real ones.

- A reliance on national media instead of local media. People are more familiar and better informed about the White House than about their local court house. They borrow problems from elsewhere and assume these problems are going on in their own back yard. Young people grow up not knowing their place, their local history, their local economy or local issues.

Leadership development programs fill a key role by informing local leadership. Local leaders keep up-to-date on what is happening and affecting them in their own backyard - socially, economically and politically.

- An avoidance of controversy and conflict. Rural people tend to put a constant restraint on their willingness to take risks. They have to weigh carefully what they say and do. Communities do better when there is an open and free discussion of ideas and problems. Fearful communities don't let a controversy surface. But when it does, people take sides with a vengeance.

- Prejudice and intolerance. Rural people can be quite judgmental of each other. The best communities are inclusive and help everyone participate and to feel a part of community life. The leadership core is inclusive and welcomes new people and new ideas. Issues and problems become everyone's responsibility.

- Differences in economic status. Economic hard times and disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" tear away at the fabric of community life. Excessive competition with each other creates an unwillingness to join on common issues.

Community spirit and responsibility are what makes rural communities special. How does your community stack up?