Wednesday, September 26, 2012

(Re)Defining Community

What is a community?  Is it defined by geography, demography, or socio-economics?  Does a community have defined boundaries or is it more organic?  Are there subsets of a community within a larger community?  Can an individual be a part of several communities simultaneously and can these boundaries merge?  Are communities just a figment of our imaginations that are cobbled together for the sake of convenience?

Professionally, and as of late personally, these are questions I ask myself.  My background is in urban planning, community development, and social work.  Through these experiences I've seen a lot.  I've spent close to twenty years working in what I think of as various geographically defined communities- poverty stricken inner city, even poorer rural, and middle class suburbs.  They have typically been defined by governmental entities- city, country, state, and  the U.S. Postal Service. Some of these places are designated "planned" communities while others have expanded or contracted more organically. Sometimes they were ethnically homogeneous and more often than not they been socio-economically they same.  For whatever reason, whether it be circumstance, choice, or a lack there of, these groups of people have come together to form a community.

In Tirana the U.S. Embassy is its own form of a community -- or as I like to say, we are a fishbowl inside of a fishbowl.  We are all here by chance, luck of the draw, or perhaps by choice.  We are temporary residents in a country that is foreign to us.  We are visitors but not permanent residents. Logic might dictate that because of this, we would naturally form our own cohesive community.  I'm not sure this is the case.  Socio-economically we are all essentially the same.  When we work at the Embassy we are all on Uncle Sam's payroll so none of us are going to become rich toiling away in the trenches of Albania.   

But this is where our similarities end. Age-wise we are a more diverse group; some of us may have entered the workforce while our coworkers were still in diapers.  There are Marines here who are young enough to be my children and recently there was another employee who could be my grandfather.  Only half of us are actual government employees, a handful of us are spouses who have managed to secure some form of employment inside the Embassy walls (I count myself as a part of this category), and the rest of us are along for the ride.  We are married, divorced, and single.  Our spouses may be American by birth or foreign born.  We may be childless by choice or not; we may have a single child or a houseful of children.  Our children may be two legged, four legged, or perhaps have no legs at all.  Our religious and political views are probably as varied as the states we call home.  We have varied interests, hobbies, and experiences.  When you look below the surface and beyond the diplomatic plates that grace our cars, we are truly a diverse group.

Because of this, I'm not sure that it makes sense, or is even possible, to assume that we will all merge into a single cohesive community.  Is this good or bad?  I don't know.  But then again, how do you define a community?

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