What is Community?

Community.  It's an overused, misunderstood, idealistic idea.  I use it all the time in my orientation tours for groups at the farm, mentioning "the community" as if it's a concrete group of people.  Or on social media, thanking "the community" for its support of our plant sales and farm stands.  We talk about it as part of our organizational values, emphasizing that everyone is included and welcome in the work we do.  Back when I first starting organic farming at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon, I was doing interviews with staff and surveys of Community Supported Agriculture members for an independent study in school, and asked the owners what they thought about "community".  For all the talk of inclusiveness and outreach toward consumers in this food movement, what they said really stuck with me: "If people talk about the community, it really is the group of us working."  Small farms do so much work to try to include customers and families to feel "part of the farm," but the real connections come from working hard together.  

On Saturday, a new community started to form as the youth farmer crew started their first day of work.  Most arrived early and huddled near the tool shed, labelling their cubbies and making nervous small talk.  A few friendly words exchanged among strangers.  Step one.

The morning stretching circle, which we do every day with this crew, doubled as a name game.  Choose a stretch, say your name with an apt adjective that starts with the same letter (eg, Mindful Michaela, Jubilant Jen), then repeat everyone else's names and adjectives that came in the circle before you.  They start to move together, see each person individually, laugh at some of the adjectives, ask one another to repeat their names when they can't remember.  They break the ice, start to get know each other.  Step two.

After going over the day's schedule, they break off into groups for farm tours.  One or two crew leaders adopt each group, and they wander around, pointing out key places and projects, cracking jokes and offering insider advice.  The most important thing is that they're alone, without any adult staff.  Their peers are the leaders, as it will be much of the summer.  While we shape and direct the crew, the youth inevitably create their own culture here.  Step three.

And the time comes for the tie that binds: hard work.  Ted breaks off to work with an environmental studies class from the university, and Jen and I lead the entire youth crew to the potato field.  Over a dozen beds are prepped to plant today.  We go over potato anatomy, transplanting processes, and proper form to prevent injury.  Crew leaders team up with new members to lay out seed potatoes in the trenches, and the rest start digging them in.  I'm so impressed by how considerate and attentive they are together, offering to help each other, checking in to make sure everything's in order, giving each other constructive feedback.  Their bodies are moving to accomplish a big task as a team.  Step four.

We talk so infrequently about our values, goals, and culture.  It just is how it is, and it happens to be so vibrant partly by chance-- by the luck of attracting positive, energetic people that want to spend time here.  So on the youth farmers' first day, we take a while to step back and intentionally envision the community we want as a crew.  The exercise could easily become cheesy if overdone, but Jen sets an authentic yet lighthearted tone, and the crew gets it.  When else in our lives do any of us get to talk directly about the kind of community we want to create? 

Step five.  They list words that they identify with the community they want here: Hard Work, Respect, Communication, Flexibility, and on and on.  The list fills the white board to the corners when we're done.  They pair up with people they don't know to create statements that incorporate those words and describe the community they envision here.  They choose their top ten words, then their top three.  When they share back, only a few words are mentioned more than once, casting a wide net over values that they all agree to strive toward this summer.  Then in new pairs, they create individual and group goals.  Making new friends, learning how to garden, eating good food, working really hard.  It's powerful, to hear them all stated publicly.  They've set their intentions, and no one is alone.

In activities specifically tailored toward youth development, these types of exercises aren't uncommon.  But in the "real world," we so rarely talk about our shared values or goals.  They might become apparent over time, working or living with people who you gradually realize are like-minded in one way or another.  You see respect in how people clean up after themselves in a shared space, and fun in cooking meals with friends.  You feel compassion when someone makes eye contact, and dedication when you're not the only one staying late to finish a project.  But so often we skip sharing the intentionality that can set the entire tone of a workplace, living space, or season on a farm.  Even if the crew pushes it aside for now, in favor of socializing and working up their planting muscle memory, this community conversation is something we'll return to throughout the summer.  Something to piece us all together.