When Community Becomes ‘Unessential’

Posted on April 28, 2020
By Paul Born
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Community gardens were just declared essential in our city. Gardens were opened as a food security measure, noting that many low-income people rely on gardens to save money on food. The next big challenge, and this will be announced in the next few weeks, is how to manage a community garden without community.

I am not yet struggling with physical distancing, well not in the short term, as it is necessary. Though I do miss terribly the lunches and dinners with family and friends, and going to concerts, movies and ball games. Our book club met virtually for the second time since the COVID lockdown – it was good – well okay. Mostly, book club is about community, 7 men who eat a burger and a salad while we talk about our lives and oh yes there is a book to discuss but we wander into each other’s lives and we build community amongst us. That did not happen online. Maybe it will – but I am unsure. To clarify our book club name is, “Burgers, Beers, Bros and oh Yeah Books”.

What happens when community is declared unessential? Most of us comply. The extreme introverts celebrate. As COVID-19 spreads we know the physical act of community is not good for us, and so for those most vulnerable in society, we give up physical community to overcome a threat to all of us.

And then… we just cannot do it anymore. Some broke down after just one week. We are hardwired to connect. But we want to stay safe. So, we start to get creative. Individual acts of caring emerge as we buy groceries for our neighbours and call those shut in. But our children are going stir crazy and so we make up games by posting pictures in our windows and then encourage others to do the same leading us to walk with our children to find them. We are delighted by the neighbours that join us.

Some people sing to their neighbours and then post this on social media where we listen and imagine that we were there on the balcony beside them and clap with those neighbours to congratulate this act of community building.

We sneak out for walks, secretly hoping to meet a neighbour for a COVID-19 visit -  6 feet apart. Our family has our own creative way to have dinners together. Our adult children (one at a time with the partner they are living with) enter our sunroom from the outside. We place food for them. We visit with them on the other side of the glass. When we are all done, we pick up dishes with dish gloves and wash. On Saturday my youngest son said he wished he could hug us. I got a little tear in my eye.

How long can we postpone the physical act of community? I know the simple answer is, “as long as it takes.” But that is just a few more weeks, right? Some say the first step out of physical distancing is that we will be allowed to select 2-3 households to interact with for awhile – as long as each one of those households commits to physical distancing from everyone else. Others say we will be tested daily before we enter a workplace getting an instant response (assuming such a test will exist) and should we pass we can work together. The economy desperately requires us to open stores and restaurants. Will that be next as we learn to eat our veggie burger with a mask?

I am an eternal optimist. I desperately want to believe that the online communities we have formed and the virtual dinners we hold are enough. I want to believe we can do this physical distancing thing as long as it will take. I want to believe that our emotional and social well-being will be okay – we can heal. But I am not so sure.

I really want us to declare community essential. I want us to invest in community and find new ways of engaging together. Could we spend a little less on saving the economy and a little more on saving ourselves? I want a store to open that will allow the 5 people I most want to hug to be in the same room together – each wearing a “safety suit” so we can hug each other. Then sit together - a beverage tucked into the safety suits we are wearing with a straw – and we can visit and laugh together for an hour - safely. I know an absurd image – but oh I would pay for that just about now.

If we were to declare community essential, we would find ways to connect safely. We would learn to do so. We would have the emails of all our neighbours. There would be a block captain. We would all be trained on how to engage safely. We would have access to a database of “assets” neighbours have and the gifts they are willing to share. One neighbour would swing by your porch with a guitar and sing you a song from 20 feet away, another would come to mow your lawn because you are too elderly to do it yourself. We would learn to barter freshly baked bread for a favourite bean casserole. We would learn to drop off produce from our garden safely.  We would buy a set of community “big rolling balls” that would be COVID-19 safe. Climb in and play soccer and other games inside these bubbles. I know another absurd imagine.

Maybe this will all just go away and things will go back to normal. How many of us hope for this? How many of you really believe going back to normal is possible? Even if we find a vaccine for the virus how long will it take for us to trust each other? What happens if the vaccine only sort of works? What happens when there is a virus mutation the vaccine did not affect?

How long can we go without physical community and still be safe?


Stay tuned for part two - Your thoughts are welcome. How do we make community essential?

Take your Learning Further


Paul is the co founder of Tamarack. Author of the best-selling book Deepening Community – Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2019.

Community Engagement, Paul Born, Community Building, Cities Deepening Community, COVID-19

Paul Born

By Paul Born

Paul is a large-scale community change facilitator. He is the author of four books including, Deepening Community and Community Conversations, two Canadian best sellers. He is the Co-founder of Tamarack and for 20 years was the CEO/Co-CEO. Paul continues at Tamarack as a coach and trainer providing coaching and training to communities interested in achieving population level change. On Sabbatical until October 2022.

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