From the Director, December 2020: Thinking About Community in 2021

Chris Campany

The events of 2020 have caused me to think a lot about community, and more specifically the interrelatedness, fragility and resilience of the systems and things that make, and can unmake, a community. This leads to consideration of what a community is and what community means. I frame a lot of my thinking about community around the works of author, farmer, and academic Wendell Berry, the works of whom I began reading in the early 1990's when I was commuting back and forth to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.


I was a recent graduate and a new public servant at the time with an established interest in environmental issues, sustainable development, and the health and survival of communities. What struck me about Berry's writing was how he tied place and community together. In 1968 he wrote, "A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves." This definition still rings true to me, but the events of this year have underscored that community is not something to be assumed. It takes work to hold it together, and care and concern.

Berry's assertion that a community is a condition of knowing that a place is shared and that the people who share a place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives has never seemed as consequential as it has in 2020. From the scale of the global community to individual households, we've all had to consider how the manner in which we share a place might spread a virus, resulting in the serious illness or death of ourselves, those we love, neighbors, and strangers. Those same decisions determine the stress placed upon our healthcare system, and the people who provide healthcare. The pandemic and pandemic response have had a direct impact on housing and hunger, jobs and income, businesses and business owners. Even our individual shopping behaviors have prompted us to think through how much toilet paper and flour we really need so others don't go without.

Beyond the pandemic, we saw the climate that we share and the greenhouse gases we collectively contribute to global warming and climate change  exacerbate the massive wildland fires in the west that took lives, homes, businesses and forests. It fueled storm after storm during this historic hurricane season, some of which battered the same areas and people again and again. We saw explicit video evidence of how our government and cultural institutions treat fellow human beings differently based solely upon the color of their skin.  The killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, to name only a few on a still growing list, spurred a renewed and broader-based reckoning with the systemic racism that limits the lives and lifespans of people of color - and also a backlash against that reckoning.

I have no doubt that most everyone will be relieved to see 2020 come to an end, yet the problems of this extraordinary year will carry into the next. The last several months have given us many examples of how we, as a society, acted like a community. We recognized that we're in this together. We acted with the understanding that each of us has an influence on the possibilities of the lives of the people with whom we share this place, and we responded with care and concern. We also have examples of the opposite. My hope is that 2021 will be a year of community strengthening and, where it has broken, of community rebuilding.

Last Updated: 08 January 2021
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