Building Community Spirit

What makes a community worth belonging to? In this day-and-age is it mostly bricks and mortar, or is there something greater, more substantial? New Orleans is reminding us of the answer. Ever since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, various discussions have occurred about how to revive areas like New Orleans. We’ve seen a steady stream of forums, white papers, lengthy reports, and statements. Last week we learned that plans are being put in place to rebuild the entire city, including the heavily damaged ninth ward. The focus of these efforts has often been on the concrete – literally, bricks and mortar.

But just yesterday came a new report on rebuilding New Orleans, one that went beyond bricks and mortar and highlighted the need to tend to the community’s spirit. As reported in the New York Timesthe plan lays out how New Orleans can restore its pool of creative talent and regenerate its arts and cultural traditions – all in an effort to resuscitate its heart.

Listen to what Wynton Marsalis, co-chairman of the cultural committee (of the Mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission) said to the New York Times in an interview about the report. “What gives you the will to survive? That will has to do with your soul and your spirit. That’s what culture is.”

In every community I have ever worked, the robustness of a community’s spirit has helped to determine its ability to move forward; for people to maintain or deepen their civic faith in one another; for people to persevere; for growth ultimately to occur.

And yet, we often don’t pay much attention to community spirit; and, when we do, we often fall back on old reflexes and a thin conception of what community spirit means. Consider, for instance:

  • How often do we substitute holding episodic celebrations for the hard work that engenders true community spirit?
  • How often do we hang banners with empty slogans from street signs – all in the hopes that people will “feel better” about their community?
  • How often do well-intentioned people hold pep-rally like press conferences where pledges and promises are made to make people believe that something important is happening?

These and other similar reflexes often promote more false hope than anything else. Over time, they diminish community spirit; they dash real hope; and they corrode the body politic.

Community spirit is not something to be relegated to the margins of our civic lives. Nor is it some theory to be expounded upon in academic papers, or an outcome to be delivered by public relations experts. Instead, community spirit must be both real and authentic. Authentic community spirit is vital because it reflects the true sense of connection people have to one another. It is the belief that there are issues, challenges, and opportunities that can only be met when we act together. It is a desire to know what exists beyond oneself – how others think, what they do, what they need – how we can live and act together.

Bricks and mortar can give us places to eat, meet and play – all vital to a community; but alone they cannot create the spirit that must fill those places in order for there actually to be a functioning community. For that we need citizens and leaders alike to find what gives them the will not just to survive, but to thrive and to take steps together to forge an authentic community spirit.