As someone involved in both community service organizations and my local neighbourhood, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between these two realms. I recently came across John McKnight’s discussion of the tensions between community services and capacity building. He states that “[paid] service is not care” as it can only be a “freely given commitment from the heart of one person to another”. McKnight argues that within the context of the United States, the extent to which neighbours care for one another has diminished and that citizens have become increasingly reliant on services. This, in turn, has eroded our overall social and personal well-being. These ideas are very similar to those of Robert Putnam.
This point of view left me feeling uncomfortable. While on one hand, I agree with these notions and see capacity building among citizens and neighbours as vital, I can also see a role for community services. In particular, there are three themes related to my personal context that keep coming to mind. As you will see, the comments in this post end more with questions than answers. I invite you to contribute comments that provide examples of positive experiences with community organizations, that generate discussion, or that help us answer some of the questions I pose below.
First, I appreciate the role that community organizations play in my society. There are times when the needs of my neighbours or myself are beyond what I can meet. If community centres, public health care, schools, libraries, social organizations, and so on were to disappear tomorrow, my community would be worse off. The key question is how to best integrate these organizations into the community and vice versa. How can we imagine these organizations not as service providers, but as supporters of community? How can community members feel ownership over these organizations? How do we avoid building this as a ‘service industry’ and instead find ways to decrease competition for turf and funding between community organizations, while still providing financial support to those who work in these contexts?
Second, I work in a profession that I believe is inherently tied to community and to caring. I see this as complementary and connected to what I do as a community volunteer, as a family member, and in my neighbourhood. As an educator, I provide a service. More importantly, this is part of the role I play in society – one that indeed ‘comes from the heart’. Schools have a long and complicated relationship with communities. However, I see their future as one being increasingly tied to community, not in conflict with it. I wonder how we can further enhance this role? I wonder how communities can feel increasing ownership over schools?
Tied to my role as an educator is striking the balance between being engaged in paid employment and taking the time to support my neighbours and family in other ways. I am a parent, living with another parent and two children. Both my partner and myself are engaged in paid employment outside of the home. There are times when we have each backed off from our employment so that we can be more present with our children and serve different roles within our community and neighbourhood. This approach has been incredibly rewarding. However, at times, it has also been frustrating. We both enjoy our employment immensely, and both of us are engaged in work that we see as being vital to community building. Our places of employment have also contributed to a greater sense of community both for our children and ourselves. I have also been aware that backing off from paid employment has been a luxury – one that not everyone can afford. When working outside of the home, we have also relied on services, including childcare. Our relationship to these services was not one of negative value for our community. In fact, our involvement in community organizations and services has been what has often facilitated a deeper connection to other people in our community.
I would like to suggest that the relationship between neighbourhood-based caring and community-based services not be a dichotomous one. Instead, I would like to continue to focus on a discussion of how we can best strike balance. How can we reframe ‘services’ as part of our broader social organization so that they are deeply integrated into our communities? How can we facilitate services that are mutually supported by and support the building of community? How can these exist in partnership with capacity building in our neighbourhood communities?