Reflections on Community from our Springtide Ambassadors

 In Voices of Young People

[A note on the artwork: Lily, 15, who offers some written reflections on community in the post below, also wanted to contribute an original work of art to this exploration of community.] 

Recently, Springtide reached out to members of the Springtide Ambassadors Program (SAP), a group of young people that directly impacts Springtide’s the research efforts through participation in a 15-month online cohort. We asked them to explore the topic of community, including their own definition of it and the ways community has showed up in their lives. We received a variety of responses, some commenting on finding community in unlikely places while others spoke to some of the struggles of living in community. Eager to share their reflections, below are some excerpts from their long responses.  

Elyse, 15, told us a story about a recent event she hosted to build and discuss community in her neighborhood. “At 5:30 every Friday I go to my neighbor’s house. For two hours we talk, laugh, and dive deep into conversations. I’ve learned more from her than I possibly could have expected when I first went to her house 4 years ago. We do more than just talking though, we plan ways to give back to our neighborhood. Food drives, picking up trash, donating old coats, whatever we can do. Today we are planning a barbecue for everyone in the neighborhood. We’re expecting over 30 people to be there in my small backyard. 

Okay,” she goes on. I must admit it’s not just a barbecue, we’re going to survey our neighbors about how we can make our community stronger and more unified, basically, what can we do to help. They’ll be here in an hour,” Elyse reflects. “I better read over the questions one more time 

  • What do you like about our neighborhood? 
    What could be better? 
  • In what ways do you think young people can contribute to the betterment of this community? 

I think these are pretty good questions, hopefully, the neighbors agree.

We’ll come back to Elyse’s community-building barbeque, but first want to highlight what Peyton, 15, thinks about community. He reflected on the role of community outside of the home: A community acts as a second home where you are able to express your true self without fear of judgement. The people involved should want to see you succeed and should want to bring you up instead of tearing you down. . . . Communities contribute to our identity when we actively participate with the people involved, whether that happens through meetings, sport practices, or even just talking with one another.  

Peyton brings up a good point: community is not restricted only to the people we find ourselves “nearby” because of circumstanceWith technology, community can be cultivated in new and innovative ways. TikTok trends, artist fan bases, religious gatheringsgaming sessions—these all have the capacity to be spaces where real community is defined and created. In fact, this virtual facet of community has been especially relied on, and especially tested, in the last year, when our technological bonds were some of the most vivid, frequent, or safe ways to connectBut this commitment to online community didn’t start with the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, young people told us their technological connections were being part of their everyday life. 

Lily, 15, thinks about the theme of community as living into relationships very seriously. When prompted, she shared an honest reflection about the experience of living in community, not just the ways we might define itGrateful for the various communities in her life, Lily wrote that every single human is complex and has different needs and interests. For me, being a serious dancer and equally serious student, my schedule is often chaotic and filled to the brim with rehearsals, tests, performances, and never-ending assignments. Although I love to dance and learn, the people I have met and the communities that have been built, I cherish deeply. They are truly what has carried me through the tougher days, especially during these turbulent and uncertain times. By surrounding myself with likeminded people who have similar goals as me, I am constantly inspired by them, and there is never a lack of energy or feeling of purpose.” You can this sense of interconnection and shared energy in her artwork for this blog post.  

On the days when life is toughest for young people (where every new day of the past year might very well have felt like it was the toughest day), community plays an integral role in building up the individual to a point where they can authentically express themselves to the world. Just as Lily said, community enlivens, it uplifts, and it encourages. When community is practiced authentically, it allows young people to flourish with the support of trusted people, that is, both trusted adults and peers.  

Another member of SAP, Oscar, 19, expands these themes, discussing the ways community deepens when there’s more than simply a connection over shared interests or activities. Oscar wrote that “communities are a shared identity, yes, but that identity is not meant to be set in stone, not meant to be a mold every member must conform to. On the contrary, the identity of a community derives from the people in it. Everyone contributes to the identity of the group by being themselves, by exposing their interests, dreams, even fears and flaws.” This insight is spot-on from Springtide’s sociological perspective and lens. Oscar is helpfully naming the ways we don’t just show up to a pre-set community, but we build and shape it by our very presence.   

Because community is something young people want to co-create rather than passively receive, building a healthy community requires transparency, trust, and authenticity. Without these qualities, young people will always find something lacking in the communities in which they participate. Oscar is right in describing this necessary factor of community, even if a simple sense of “shared interests” was good enough for other communities or past generations. Young people have proved and continue to prove that they take community seriously and that they are deeply invested in the lives of the people around them. 

If we return to Elyse’s story, we can see this commitment to community in action. She planned a neighborhood gathering in order to get to know—and better serve and work to improve—the place they all lived together. Her barbeque was a success. Looking around as people mingled, she shares this conversation she had with her sister:  

 “All day people have been saying that they’ve never even met people who live a block away from them. How is that at all unified?”  

“Look around! People have been talking, laughing, and getting to know each other for two hours. They were strangers before, and now they’re talking like old friends. Community isn’t about knowing every single person within a five-mile radius, it’s about having enough in common, and caring enough about other people to understand even if you don’t know them.”   

The fact that young people are so desperate for meaningful interactions with their peers serves as a reminder that trusted adults don’t just need to be present to young people, but help young people build bonds of friendship with peers and other adults in their lives. You have the capabilities to create spaces in which young people can gather and be themselves, sharing their wide expanse of interests and building connections where they did not exist before.

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