Saturday, 1 December 2007

A Sense of Community


It is, I believe, some complex and deep need to belong that compels many of us to migrate, like moths to the light, into small towns such as Todos Santos and Comox, where we think we can soothe this hurt. I was reminded of this by a wide-eyed visitor to Todos Santos at a recent gallery opening who used the words to describe the attraction of the place. The phrase resonated with me as I am as guilty as anyone of using it in the past to describe my attraction to TS. If you dig beneath the obvious, though, just what do we mean by the phrase, and does it exist here?

There have been many learned studies about the term “sense of community”. One of the most established is by McMillan and Chavis. They suggest that there are four elements necessary for a true sense of community:

Membership – including some sense of boundaries, and a feeling of identification
Influence -Influence works both ways: members need to feel that they have some influence in the group, and some influence by the group on its members is needed for group cohesion.
Integration and fulfillment of needs - Members feel rewarded in some way for their participation.
Shared emotional connection - The "definitive element for true community", it includes shared history and shared participation (or at least identification with the history).

It’s not hard to evoke the illusion of a sense of community when you come to a small town. There aren’t many people there, and, certainly in a vacation town like TS, there’s a need to mix, to socialize with almost anyone. In a larger place like Comox / Courtenay, the herds of uprooted and often purposeless retirees that make their way to “Paradise Valley” need to make new roots. So we all mix, see the same people, feel good that we “belong”. Superficially, there’s that sense we craved.

Really, though, we’re only talking about the first item. We are now an “in-sider”, rather than an insignificant outsider. Viewed at the macro level, however, the only thing linking people is that they came here. In the very beginning, when TS was tiny and being here as a Gringo/a was odd, I am sure some sense of “making history” would have also have led to a general sense of a shared emotional connection.

As a whole, though, neither TS nor Comox promulgates the middle two characteristics of a “sense of community”. I’m not even sure there is such thing as the Todos Santos community, other than in the most geographic sense of the word. We can’t even agree, for example, on whether it includes the local Mexicans as a separate group or groups, or we are or should be an idealized homogenous bucolic whole.

That is not to say that within these superficial geographic clumps there aren’t groups that do provide some true sense of community to their “members”. Within Todos Santos, for example, life revolves around tight circles such as the Dog Rescue Pack, the Cat Rescue Clowder, the Entertain the Migrant Children Clan, the Wine Bar Devotees, the Dharma-ites, The In-Crowd, The “Shut Up Franks” Regulars. These circles intersect, to varying degrees. Some, such as the informal Dog Rescue Pack, do, I suspect, provide to some all elements of a “sense of community”.

Micro communities have their own issues. It’s a small, small world. The price can be a restriction of world view to one where homogeneity rules, and the outside world doesn’t really exist other than as an exemplar of aberrant behavior. You also have to believe in the cause. Faking it till you make it doesn’t really cut it.

After the initial glow wore off, we decided naively that the secret to a fulfilling life in Todos Santos would be to surf the boundaries between the micro-groups, not falling into the welcoming folds. While it’s true that this avoids the deadly embrace of exclusivity, it requires you to be distant from everything. Even, maybe, to deny your own opinions – which I can’t do.

So is there true community in these places? I’m still looking and hoping.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regards. On a sense of community; don't hold your breath. The eliteism flourishes with the different crowds. Don't mean to be negative, but anyone relocating to Todos Santos should not expect a totally open arm crowd. The ex-pats brought everything with 'em and so it is. Its all about positioning. To relocate there, be ready to be on your own or set your sights down a little. I have seen non locals who seem quite lonley in Shangri la. OK, that does not mean its a bad place. Truthfully, I am lonley here in the states and plan to relocate in TS. We are not talking about an either or situation- just a better situation in TS. I do expect a better life there, just not as good as I could imagine. That wouild be unrealistic. K.