Silhouettes of people standing on a mirrored surface during golden hour | Mario Purisic / Unsplash


10 Big Ideas on the Meaning of Community

UCLA celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and as part of the festivities, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture is holding a series of conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening through December 3, Victoria Marks, professor of choreography and associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, moderates a discussion in which interdisciplinary experts take on big questions. On Tuesday, November 26, they’ll attempt to answer “What is citizenship?” Each talk is open to the public, free with RSVP. Can’t attend? We’ll be sharing weekly highlights.


On Tuesday, November 19, three members of the UCLA community — Jennifer Ferro, president of KCRW; Kevin Kane, arts education and community arts scholar; and Ananya Roy, social justice scholar — responded to the question, “What is community?”  Here are ten things we learned along the way.

1. Community isn’t something you create on your own. Victoria Marks began the evening with a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Alone,” which repeats the phrase, “Nobody, but nobody / Can make it out here alone." In a twist on that idea, Jennifer Ferro said, "One of the things that KCRW does that I think is really powerful is allow people to be part of a community when they're completely by themselves." Someone can be alone in the shower or in their car, listening to their radio, and feel connected to a broader cultural community.

After the Watts Uprising, these community members banded together in the pursuit of a common goal. | Lost LA

2. There are some communities that we are born into, but there are others we choose. Ferro quoted author Bill Bishop, who said, "It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.” She talked about feeling out of place as a UCLA undergrad until she became one of the editors of a feminist magazine and found a community of people who shared her values.

3. There are different engagement levels in communities. Ferro outlined a hierarchy based on the depth of a person’s commitment and involvement:

Entry-level: You quietly identify with a particular group.

Mid-level: You publicly identify with the group and let other people know that you’re part of this community. (For example, you wear the group’s t-shirt.)

High-level: You not only belong to the community, but you also take action on behalf of the community. (Example: You serve on jury duty because it's your responsibility to the community.)

Candida Vazquez has led the Legalize Street Vending campaign’s 10-year fight to give vendors rights as small business owners. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown legalized street vending in the state and Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize it in the city. | City Rising

4. Community isn’t always a good thing. Ferro raised the topic of belonging to a community, and asked, “So if I belong and you don’t, does that mean you could ultimately become less human to me?” Kevin Kane weighed in on that as well, when he discussed the circle as a symbol of community — “There’s no beginning, there’s no end. Everyone can be seen. There’s an opportunity for everyone to lead and to follow.” While the idea of a community circle is important, it doesn’t always feel inclusive. He said, “Not everyone can get in once the hands are held. Not everyone can join unless we open hands and let people join us. So it can also be a kind of wall unless we're conscious and careful of that."

After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. | City Rising

5. Community is often made through struggle. Ananya Roy spoke about women living in poverty in Kolkata, India, who used the local trains to commute into the city where they worked as maids. She said, “It is on these trains that women, some of the poorest women I will ever know, engaged in political action with a creativity and fierceness that is unmatched. Every day thousands of poor women travel ticketless on the trains to and from Kolkata and are militant in their refusal to buy tickets.” The women insist they are entitled to ticketless travel as a way to feed their children and nourish their families. The women are from many different villages and do not know each other, but on the trains, they come together as a community.

6. Communities can demand that society as a whole do better. Roy referred to Harney and Moten’s book “The Undercommons” as an “extraordinary manifesto,” and said, “’The Undercommons’ reminds us that the building of community requires a dismantling of systems of oppression. In particular, the building of community requires a refusal to make peace with violence.” By banding together, people have a stronger voice to use for change. Roy offered the example of tenant unions demanding the decommodification of housing or unions insisting on the cancellation of student debt.

When society fails to step in, individuals must take over to create community and become models for change. | Broken Bread

7. Being in “solidarity” with a community involves taking real risk. Roy said, “I urge us to use the term community with great caution, and I urge us to use the term solidarity with even greater caution.” She described an interview Amy Goodman did with Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, about traveling to rural Brazil to stage a play in which actors and peasants staged a rebellion against their landlords with fake rifles. Roy said, “After the play was over, peasants came up to Boal and said, ‘Why don't you now join us in taking up real rifles in a real mobilization against the landlords who are oppressing us?’” At that moment, Boal realized that solidarity means taking the same risks as those that you want to be in solidarity with — and he wasn’t able to do it.

A photographer and editor of the influential La Raza magazine, Raul Ruiz was often at the frontlines of tense-filled situations, capturing crucial events with a Chicano perspective. | Artbound

Story continues below

8. Communities offer acceptance. Kevin Kane quoted a scholar named Anthony Cohen, who said, “The community is the great promise of belonging.” Kane talked about how, growing up in Philadelphia, the arts community was the first place he felt like he belonged somewhere — and the first place he felt physically safe outside his home.

9. Building communities requires you to show up.  Roy said that when she first arrived in Los Angeles four years ago, “I realized that one of the ways in which one builds community in L.A. is by showing up, by actually driving or taking public transportation.” She said it’s about showing up repeatedly, through “meticulous, diligent practice.”

Community members in Peru have been preserving the cultural heritage of the Q’eswachaka bridge, the last living legacy of Inca architecture, by using ancestral techniques, creativity and solidarity. Four communities come together to collect the Q’oya grasses needed to weave the massive ropes used in the renovation of this bridge every year. | Big Cities

10. Like it or not, social media is now part of our communities.  Roy said, “I think it's impossible for us to talk about community or movements or collective action in the here and now without thinking about social media.” She said that while companies like Facebook are “purveyors of techno-capitalism” in a way that has wreaked devastation on communities in places like the Bay area, social media has been a democratizing force in places like India and the Middle East. She said, “Social media brings certain enclosures and exclusions, really difficult ones, but also is a key space now in community-making.”

Top Image: Silhouettes of people standing on a mirrored surface during golden hour | Mario Purisic / Unsplash 

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading