Thursday, 2 December 2010

Getting a sense of community in the snow

The weather has brought more than a knee deep torrent of snow, freezing the icy hills of Leeds into an impassable blockade. It has also brought about a sense of community which tends to vanish as fast as the snow vanished under the heat from the sun. But while it lasts, hopefully we will be able to rediscover the joys of community.

I’ve been thinking about community thanks to events like TEDxLeeds and the launch of the Leeds Community News Hub. Hopefully this blog will draw together some key learning points into something demonstrable.

On a basic level, the snow actually brings people out. Bizarrely the bad weather forces us out of the comfort of our cars and onto the streets. Most people on my street have been walking to work, or at least to the bus stop. Rather than rushing past they’ve been stopping to chat.

While one foolish driver attempted to get up one of the steepest roads in my area, first one, then two then three and four people went over to help push the back of the car. The car got up the hill, but it was a sense of community that helped get the vehicle up over the hill and onto the top road.

Community can be defined as people coming together for a common purpose or for a shared interest. I’ve also heard comment that communities are not created. They are sometimes latent, but rarely can you force a death metal music fan to enjoy watching the X-factor.

I think communications professionals miss the point about latent communities. They sometimes hit on a community in need of a social glue and mistake it for creating a new community that hasn’t existed before.

On my street, I’ve always tried to keep my driveway clear – mainly so I can get my two wheel drive cars out if there was an emergency. Last year I got some comments from neighbours saying I should keep up the good work, and one negative comment that I was wasting my time and causing more ice to form. The area near my cars cleared sooner and the other half of the cul de sac turned into a skating rink.

This year I did the same. I noted that many of the 4x4 vehicles able to drive on the snow used my ‘cleared’ area as it was less slippy. Unfortunately the warm tyres create ice tracks which are nigh on impossible to shift – but shift it slowly I do.

Now a couple of days ago, a few of my neighbours were out clearing the space out of their drives. We engaged in conversation and discussed the weather, the airport, the struggles of other locals on the roads and general chit chat.

Today that escalated. Far from just clearing the drives, we moved on to the main bit of the cul de sac. There were more of us and we had a common purpose – clearing the snow.

We’d created a community. We’d also created momentum and were picking up on the latent potential of the cul de sac. More people came out to help. One person joked to a twenty something girl that she’d have to bring her shovel out when she came back. Amazingly she took the joke to heart and came out to help. One of the men with a 4x4 took up the shovel and snow plough despite not needing to. In no time at all, the cul de sac was cleared.

Further down, the hill section of our road had been cleared and now just a narrow strip of road is still clarried with snow.

Once a community becomes successful and an aim seems achievable, you can draw in people to the community- much like a blackhole draws in material around it because of its gravity. The caveat is that those who might join in the community must have a latent interest in joining the group.

And what of the one person who made the negative comment? Well they’re enjoying the benefits of the community, but is one person I’ve yet to see with shovel, snow plough or brush in hand - proving that you can’t force people to join a community.

To recap:
Community can be defined as people coming together for a common purpose or for a shared interest.
• Communities are not created
• Some communities are latent and need some way of bring people together
• Some potential community members may not be active
• Creating achievable aims for a community can invigorate it and create a movement and gravitational pull for potential new members
• You cannot force someone into joining a community

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