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‘Community’ still alive and well for Americans

Editor’s note: This column first ran in the December 24-31, 2001, issue of the Mississippi Business Journal.

This past month I have been doing a lot of thinking about the term “community” and what it means.

A few years ago I made a speech to a civic club in Greenwood on the seven characteristics of highly effective communities. By the way, the seven characteristics are passionate leadership, a written mission statement, community spirit, the basics covered, active marketing, business involvement and outsiders are welcome. After I made what I thought was an inspiring, motivating talk on the subject an old man approached me and raised his right index finger.

“Hardwick,” he said in a gravel voice. “I listened to what you had to say and I agree with you, but I think you might want to redefine community.”

“Oh, really,” I replied, wondering where this conversation was going to go.

“I’m a retired Baptist minister. All those things you said apply to a church. Think about it,” he said with a grin and walked away.

At that instant it hit me like a slap in the face. I had been talking about “community” in terms of a town, a neighborhood or a place. Even though I really knew that a community is actually a collection of people with a common interest, I had limited my perspective on the subject.

In many rural areas the community is based primarily on geography. Just about everybody in the area knows everybody else and they have a common interest based on place. In less rural areas, communities tend to be more a function of socioeconomic interests. For example, there might be the arts community, the business community and the country club community. These days we associate with a variety of communities based less on geography and more on interest. Nationally, the terrorist acts of September 11 have reinforced the community of Americans.

If national events did not get me to thinking of community, then certainly something in my own family did so. Recently, I have been interviewing my mother about her life. Her story is worth telling. She was a single mother who managed to raise two children against a mountain of odds. During a conversation about her childhood, she told me that her first memory was when she was two years old and her family moved into their new house.

I asked her how her father, a poor farmer in southern Rankin County with a wife and eight kids, could afford a new house. She looked at me like I didn’t understand and then told me that the relatives and the neighbors built it.

She said that in the early 1930s in rural Mississippi that’s how the community responded to someone who had a need. Everybody pitched in. She went on to tell me how neighbors would build a barn for someone when it was needed. Talk about community.

In reality, not much has really changed. Just look at how “the community” responds when a tornado — or a terrorist — causes damage.

Community is still alive and well.

As a footnote, I have a suggestion for a Christmas present. Sit down with your parents, grandparents or older relatives and interview them about their lives. Ask them how national and world events affected them and their communities. Dig deep into their memories. Plan your questions and be sure to record the conversation.

Our parents and grandparents lived in the century that saw tremendous change. They have stories to tell. The result will be an oral history that will be a treasure for your children and others. Wouldn’t that be a nice present?


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