Civic Engagement and My Broader Scope of Community

Jacob Nash

Along with food, water, air, and shelter, I would say that community is a human necessity. Just like breathing, being in a community is something many of us take for granted. We interact with people daily; we talk to them, argue with them, and partake in activities with them. These interactions are typical, banal even, but could you imagine life without them? Humans need to belong, and that need manifests in the form of the people we spend time with. The communities we are a part of help define us and round us out as human beings. We provide insights and perspectives for other community members, just as they do the same for us. As the saying goes, “No man is an island.” We rely on others to complete us and we would all be shells of ourselves without community.

A community begins with a group of individuals with similar interests or backgrounds. However, a group does not share common values the way a community does. Communities are defined by their unifying trait, whether it be a common ethnicity, religion, hobby, career, location, etc. Groups are usually joined, but you can be part of a community without needing to join. A collective of people who live in the same neighborhood in Worcester is an example of such a community. Communities are viewed as having more value than groups, and that value is the feeling of belonging one has while in a community. One can form bonds with people in a group, however, the bonds formed by a community are often more personal and meaningful. Communities try to make sure everyone in their group feels like they belong and when that goal is achieved, the members can develop a newfound acceptance for each other and themselves. If you do not feel like you belong in a community, you might just be in a group. Communities and groups tend to be wrapped up in one another, so look for shared values and a sense of belonging to tell them apart.

Even with these differences made clear, it may still be difficult to know a community when you see one. The contours of a community are set by its members; they attempt to determine how others perceive their community, though they are not always successful. One way to understand how a community operates is to recognize how its members participate within the community’s parameters. A community of football fans will discuss football, and many members might even play the sport. Similarly, a community of people sharing a common religion will tend to spread their beliefs. Communities can often contain their own smaller communities within them, such as multiple college clubs forming under the umbrella community of the college itself. The reach of communities can be as far as states or even countries, but anything exceeding the tight-knit togetherness of a community becomes a group.

Another aspect of communities that muddles exact definition is how they are equally capable of dividing people as they are uniting them. Communities are formed on the basis of people agreeing with each others’ values, but people can have opinions and interests that clash with each other. If left unchecked, communities have the potential to turn toxic from disagreements or miscommunications. The people in a toxic community would be unable to benefit from all of the usual positives; there would be no sense of belonging, no togetherness and no acceptance. Alternatively, there can be communities built on negative traits or values, which actively exclude or attack others with opposing values. Sometimes you need to keep certain people out of a community, but people who qualify for a certain community may be unfairly excluded. Community leaders, or those who represent a certain community, have a lot of influence and can greatly affect how their community is perceived. Generally all members of a community should be treated as equals, but there can be some people who contribute more to the community than others. These people take both credit and blame for the respective successes and failures of the community. The choices made by community members can either build the community up or tear it down.

Personally speaking, I have been in many groups and communities, and the main difference is how comfortable I feel in them. Groups can feel awkward when the people in them do not know each other well. I joined a group of people who play Dungeons & Dragons. We met online, using the messaging platform Discord to talk to each other while playing. I did not know any of these people, so I mainly kept to myself unless it was my turn. Once I got to know everyone over a few months this little group started to transform into a community. I began to learn more about these people and their interests, and they learned about mine. Dungeons & Dragons was fun to talk and hear stories about, but what cemented it as a favorite hobby was how fun it was to play with the rest of the group. Everyone was as passionate as I was when it came to telling unforgettable stories through the simple act of rolling dice. There were unfortunately a few people that the group had to kick out due to toxicity, but the people who are still in the group are some of my best friends. This community, as well as Dungeons & Dragons being an overall incredible creative outlet, kept me coming back every week. We were brought together by a common interest, and we now have each other’s backs. If that is not a community, I do not know what is.

Other than that, there are a few other communities I belong to. My home of Marshfield, Massachusetts, my years as a student at Worcester State University, and my interest in writing and communication all provide me with communities I can belong in. Another community I would like to work with more often, the John J. Binienda Center for Civic Engagement, has to do with my interest in community service and civic education. I got involved with community service programs in high school, and that involvement led me to CLEWS, which stands for the Community Leadership Experience at Worcester State. CLEWS is a program offered by the Binienda Center, which is dedicated to “preparing students for effective democratic and economic participation that promotes healthy communities, global economic vitality, and social and political well-being” (Binienda Center). I would like to continue working with the Binienda Center because I find civic education and engagement very important for young adults like myself. Education is a problem in our country; students are seldom taught how to use the loads of information they are expected to remember for their exams. On top of that, I do not think students are encouraged to engage with their communities. The Binienda Center seeks to both educate and engage students at Worcester State University to promote growth and well-being. My involvement in CLEWS has greatly impacted my sense of community. I have been able to see what members can do for their community and how members collaborate to achieve goals that would be difficult for an individual to accomplish. I and other members of CLEWS shared a Thanksgiving meal with a group of women who would struggle to afford it otherwise. When I saw that my actions made a difference in these people’s lives, I knew I was supporting my Worcester community.

There are many other communities at local, national, and international levels that aim to help people learn about their community and take part in it. An example of a Worcester-based civic education and engagement group is the Worcester Youth Center. Worcester Youth Center endeavors to change the lives of youth from ages 14-24 by “seeking resources, collaborations and opportunities that help young people to realize their full potential, sharpen skills and enable them to become vital, responsible, and contributing members of society”. There are also organizations similar to the Binienda Center found in other Worcester colleges. Holy Cross has the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute has a program that provides STEM classes to low-income students, although this program is less formalized than other organizations that strictly focus on civic education and engagement. All of these organizations are concerned with the social and emotional health of youth in the Worcester area. The multiple communities in Worcester help as many of the city’s residents as possible.

Similarly, other civic education and engagement organizations operate on higher scales. One of these organizations is Campus Compact, which operates on the national level. Campus Compact is a “national coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education”, and the organization aims to prepare students for lives of engaged citizenship. Like the Binienda Center, Campus Compact focuses on campus-based civic engagement, but it does this throughout multiple campuses instead of just Worcester State University. On an even higher scale is World Learning, which is an international organization. World Learning “cultivates emerging leaders and engaged youth, provides civic education and skills building, connects activists across borders, strengthens the internal performance of civil society organizations, and provides sub-grants to local groups to take direct action”. As an organization at the top of the chain, World Learning can aid smaller groups below it. World Learning aims to support as many people as possible, and it does so by recruiting from diverse communities and addressing the needs of minority groups. Although, a smaller organization would most likely be able to deal with issues in the local communities quicker than World Learning. Each organization, from local groups to national and international groups, has its own advantages, and they are all working to aid students in learning about and engaging with their community.

Even though no two people are exactly alike, we are all able to find communities that can help us belong. Unlike simple groups, the communities we become part of, or are born into, give us common values to share and bonds to develop. The right communities can make us feel included when we are lonely, even by doing so on a national or international scale. Communities can have varying sizes and locations, but each one should make its members feel included and secure. At their very best, communities can be collections of people who want to make positive changes in the world. The Binienda Center, Worcester Youth Center, Campus Compact, and World Learning all exist in order to help with civic education and engagement. You could be part of most or all of these organizations if you really wanted to be.

Writing this has inspired me to think bigger about helping my community and about communities as a whole. Assisting those in need through community service is something I would like to continue doing, and there are multiple communities that give me the ability to accomplish this goal. 

The opinions presented in this article are of the speaker and not necessarily agreed upon by the New Worcester Spy.

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