The Imagined Community

Light the first light of evening, as in a room

In which we rest and for small reason, think

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

Wallace Stevens

We are resting in a room, it is evening, we put a light on, not a big deal or revelation, we have all been in such a room, as natural as can be, except the world is imagined as 'the ultimate good.' If there ever was an opening for entering the domains of public good, there it is!

What I am especially interested in are the unlikely connections that are yet to be made between our public and private persona, between philanthropy and community broadly defined and the way we think and live our individual, family, professional and public lives. That we often do not find those connections is part of the unfinished journey. And I do believe we are all on a journey that is a kind of paradox of instincts. On the one hand we cherish our private lives, and on the other we are drawn to public ones. The same thing that motivates us, that propels us down the path to community is also what holds us back, what cautions us to not proceed at all. This dichotomy is what makes it so hard to build and sustain communities, and why motivated leadership is so important. It is these twin themes, self and the broader world, as they weave in and out of our life that endlessly fascinate, challenge and satisfy.

In search of community let's start at home. I am luckier than most Americans and have lived in the same house for 37 years. My sense of place is rich in memory and experience. It runs very deep, this sense of neighborhood. For many years, as an-early-in-the-office person, I would drive through the streets at 6am, and notice who had a light on and who did not, who was stirring and who had their shades drawn. I am also a walker and, like all walkers, conduct inspections noticing the incremental changes in houses and yards as they pass through various stages of repair, and disrepair. I know many of my neighbors but even those I have not met I know in these other ways— what kind of car they drive, the way they take care of it, the way their kids dress and act, whether they seem happy or sad. I once remarked to my wife that I probably know more about people we have never met than some of our relatives. I am conditioned and responsive, as anyone would be after 37 years, to the goings on of my neighborhood. It in turn provides me with a sense of place in a world where that is hard to find. These connections nurture, inform and define each other and in the process satisfy a need within us. This neighborhood, which I love, serves up a kind of background music to my life, comfortable and familiar.

This is a neighborhood, comforting and valuable; it does not, however, by itself necessarily represent solidarity, or a true community of interest that is committed to action.

Think about the many connections that are part of your life— colleagues at work, your basketball team, your son's league, your Alumni Association, your band, the group you ride the bus with each morning, your bridge friends, your reading club, your church or temple, and maybe a chat room or two. Some of these we choose, others are there by chance, and others go with the territory, i.e. your daughter wants to play soccer, so soccer league it is. Most of these are small, passing through, walk-by experiences, what Richard Florida calls 'weak ties', but some become communities that indeed interest us a great deal. Over time they create the feeling of "what a small world this is." My colleague Susan was in South Africa recently and was by happenstance invited to dinner at a house with people she did not know. There, totally out the blue, she realized her hosts were talking about TPI with no idea there was any connection with her at all. That kind of thing happens often, especially as we get older, and it makes us feel part of a greater whole and instantly turns strangers into people with whom we feel a connection.

What is your first memory of something that looked and smelled like community in a broader sense? Mine you will never guess! It was in 1952 when Rocky Marciano became Heavyweight Champion of the World and, since he grew up in my town, the whole "community" came out to Main Street to celebrate. We gathered around the newspaper office listening to loudspeakers broadcasting the blow-by blow of the fight. It was thrilling, especially for a young boy to see all kinds of people from every part of the city mad with excitement and joy, and I felt very much a part. We love these kinds of experiences. Think of First Night in Boston and in other cities, with 1,000,000 people celebrating, being nice to each other, the streets suddenly safe, and how good it all feels. Community experiences like these make life rich and full.

However, as good as these experiences are, as satisfying and as important as they are to instilling a sense of place, these examples are not true solidarities. They lack the one key ingredient, that of action.

Imagine a new wave of communities of solidarity, galvanized, and organized, around critical social issues. Imagine a citizenry committed and engaged who nurture, and advocate for those communities. This is the 'imagined community.’