By: Mat Goldberg
What is a community? What does it mean that I never imagined being a part of a community of people facing homelessness? In leaving my internship this Wednesday with the Artifacts Cooperative, a collective of artists affiliated with the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a homeless day center, I realized we had become a family. It was not always this way. At first, I was a stranger, met with a welcoming smile and a quiet voice of distrust. I was seen as an authority; not a friend. And me, I entered the doors of the IRC holding on to the iron sculpted handles shaped as spoons, with a questioning look, asking why. Nevertheless, I was excited and eager to make a difference. I remember the moments artists called me Mr. Mat or sir and would wait for my direction. Or the times I scheduled a meeting and all the seats were empty, but mine. Regardless of the challenges, I committed to being a constant and warm presence and strived to build relationships. Now almost two years later it felt hard to leave. I remember Sandra Luckey, an Artifacts artist’s words as I was saying my goodbyes “There are no shut doors and no noses in the air. We are free.” Together we had created a space, a community, free of judgment, for everyone to be seen, heard, and respected.
This experience has encouraged me to think a lot about the ideas of community. What changed from my first day to today? How did we create this community? How do we build community in the future? Liz Seymour, the Executive Director at the IRC introduced me to Scott Peck’s work and his four stages of community: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and true community.
- Pseudocommunity – An environment of fakeness. Members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid all disagreement.
- Chaos – Conflict. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to reconcile them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle.
- Emptiness – The way through chaos to true community is through emptiness. It is the hardest and crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. It calls for vulnerability and ownership of our own biases, prejudices, and expectations.
- True Community – True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires sacrifice and understanding.
Through my work with Artifacts I have been a part and seen our group progress through the stages of community. I did not realize this evolution until I was faced with emptying my own perceptions. It was in a moment of conflict when an artist raised his voice at me and said “You all must think we’re dumb, while you drive around in your fancy car with your college education.” His word stung. He saw through my effort of wearing bland t-shirts and loose fitted jeans. There were just some things I had little control over. So, he saw my privilege. What mattered more was that I realized my privilege wasn’t something I could deny or hide. This recognition signified my growing understanding of true community. I learned to appreciate the diversity of a community and acknowledge we each had unique strengths, roles, and stories.
In this process of empting myself and taking time to truly listen to the artists’ words and thoughts I learned the importance of dignity and respect. “We are not homeless, we are people” was the common phrase spoken. I realized in my effort to advance Artifacts forward I sometimes pronounced my idea without fostering collective ideas and decisions and unknowingly stunned voices and expression. These mistakes fueled my passion and my willingness to learn from the artists. I began to enter our meetings with white paper to take notes and jot ideas together rather than come and distribute set-agendas and plans. And what was amazing was the same person who yelled at me weeks before was now teaching me. “You see those doors. I helped design them. We chose spoons because were scooping out the bad and only leaving the good.” I smiled. I now understood.
As I stood readying to leave my last meeting. I was proud to call myself a member of this community. Becky, an Artifacts artist erupts with a smile “We are family. And you what I have your cell and email and I am not going to let you forget it.” This was no longer a weekly service site, this was a gathering of friends and family.
Why did I never image this could be a part community? This question and my experiences at the IRChas led me to believe there is a fundamental origin to community that Peck does not identify and discuss and that is the invisible community. I believe the invisible community is the stage of unawareness, a point of denying the potential communities that exist around us. I lived in a stage of unawareness. Living in Alamance County with 11% of people facing homelessness, I treated these numbers as statistics indicating a social issue, rather than listening and realizing these are members of my community. Until we are able to see the invisible communities we are unable to engage in the process of building a community and will continue to perpetuate a divided approach to solutions. The IRC has awakened me to reimagine community and to appreciate all the voices in room and to ultimately desegregate myself from the problem and solution and to just connect.
I still am uncertain of the definition, of what a community means. Nonetheless, I now understand that we all should take greater concern to broaden our definition and recognize the neighbors and people living besides us are a part of this. Community is more than people of shared values, religion, appearance, etc., it is a collaboration and sense of shared responsibility among all people.