Community Engagement · Community Informatics · Reflections


“Mawwage. Mawwage is what bwings us together today.” –The Princess Bride

Humans are social creatures and we come into social relationships in a variety of ways, marriage being one example. People marry for many reasons — perhaps to formally recognize an emotional bond, or as a calculated way to bring together two disparate social networks to advance a larger aim such as building a financial and political dynasty. For my wife and I, we certainly felt a strong emotional bond, but I can assure you we had no aspirations of creating social capital that we could exchange for a dynasty through a union of Wolske and Sloan families. And while the emotional bond was and remains an important seed for our union, our marriage is built on something much deeper — a strong sense that the two have become one. We are two parts of a single entity whose value is in our day-to-day experience together. Twenty five years into our marriage, the authenticity of our life together stands more important to me than my identity as an individual, even though I am both. I see this very much analogous to the parts of my body which can certainly be recognized individually, but which do not have a true identity separate from the authenticity of the whole, my body. A limb severed is no longer a functional individual in its original sense. The rich life my wife and I have built together and the products of that life — the memories, the sons, the small urban farm, the remodeled house, the friends — are a result of our growing together into a single entity made up of two parts. The value of becoming a single entity is in the use we get personally from that union, not in the exchange opportunities available if we were to capitalize on a commodification of that union.

As a youth in southwest Michigan, I would sometimes go on wander trips. The rule was that once I found a road I had never been on before, I needed to take it. Sometime later on during the drive, I would need to begin finding my way back home, but without asking for directions. I discovered a lot just wandering around the lower western part of the state. Sometimes I would stop at interesting places and have delightful chats with people I’d meet there. And every once in a while they’d find out I was a Wolske, and they’d ask whether I was the son of the sawmiller, the son of the farmer, or the son of the mechanic? (The whole Wolske clan lived within 1 mile of each other.) I came to realize that whether I valued it or not, I was marked as a Wolske and gained authenticity through that identification. It was above my identity as an individual. A few years later I was helping my family by trying out a new way to file taxes using computers the Michigan Statue University extension services was testing. I found out that year that we made just over the poverty line. But I never had considered us poor. The value of the Wolske community within which we lived provided us with many of the social and material resources we needed to live a healthy, happy life. Historically, both sides of my family immigrated from Russia where, as Germans, they had settled back in the late 1700’s and where they lived much as the Amish live today in the U.S. This sense of authentic community as priority over our individual identity has deep roots.

School and later work took me away physically from that community. Our culture discourages that sense of community, instead prizing individual identity and freedom to choose amongst multiple communities based on which one will serve us best. Community becomes another place where we consume — we belong to it as long as we feel we get something out of it personally. And it is a thing we commodify for exchange value. This especially came to the fore with Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone that made much of the idea of social capital. Today I have heard colleagues question the initiative and drive of economically poor communities when they do not choose to commodify their very strong community ties so as to use the social capital in exchange for other resources.  I reflect on this personally as a challenge to my own history and whether we were making bad choices by valuing the use we got out of the strong Wolske family ties instead of leveraging those to build financial resources that would stand independent of our remaining within that community.

Interestingly, it is precisely people with lower incomes, lower education, who are racial and ethnic minorities, etc. — those marginalized and thereby kept from becoming more integrated into broader society — that have the strongest, most intense ties within smaller geographic areas, and who most use those strong ties as a reliable hub for needed resources. And it is typically colleagues who are integrated into the larger society because they have a higher income, have greater education, and odds on are white that then associate the strong social ties and prioritization of use-value of community with lower incomes and education and call for a move towards exchange-value community. Rather, systems of exclusion, including historic institutional racism, classism, and other such axes, influence far more income and education. The strong social ties and use-value of community is a central resource to be preserved to support the marginalized. A call to disrupt the community to instead model community after that of the privileged would be to further weaken the position of the oppressed groups.

Tuesday morning our class, Community Engagement, met for the first time. In preparation, we read 10 different papers and chapters each looking at the term community. An annotated list of those can be found below.

In one chapter, Tony Blackshaw traces his historical understanding of our changing approach to community. Over the millennia, the human race has moved from prioritizing authenticity of community, and later social class, over individual identity to prioritizing our freedom to develop identity through movement between social classes and later communities, thereby de-prioritizing the authenticity of those communities in lieu of our individualism. That is, we go from having a community consciousness — we are who we are because of our community — to having a consciousness of communities — we have opportunities to leverage voluntary associations with different communities to develop the identity we desire.

During our discussion, someone asked whether this is a natural evolution that always occurs, and whether choosing an alternative to consciousness of communities is automatically a step backwards and a slap in the face of progress. The Amish came to mind as an example which we subsequently discussed. They have a tradition called Rumspringa, in which some Amish youth at around 16 explore individual freedoms in an expanded way. In some cases, they even pursue “worldly” activities like buying a car, going to movies, wearing non-Amish clothing, etc. Using Blackshaw’s lens, they experiment with consciousness of communities before committing to community consciousness. For those who eventually elect the latter, they then knowingly commit to putting the authenticity of the Amish community in front of their individual identities. This doesn’t mean they don’t continue to experiment with innovations. Rather, after a period of exploration with new technologies, the Amish elect to meet as a community and critically consider whether that technology is strengthening their community, is in line with their core values, and is useful in achieving their group goals, or whether it is overvaluing the individual and worldly values.

Is it evolutionary to move from a prioritization of the authenticity of group over the freedom of individual identity?

Robert Chaskin highlights several ways in which we use community. There is the social basis of community in which we gain an identity from a community and a sense of belonging. I remain part of the Wolske community even though I am now relocated physically. I also identify, albeit more loosely, with the German-American community, especially those who came from the Volga and Volhinia regions of Russia. And I strongly identify with the Christian community, especially progressive evangelicals like Sojourners and Red Letter Christians. There is also a place and space-based sense of community. I am part of the old Southwood subdivision neighborhood. I have associates who live in the area north of University. By identifying community with these places, we recognize certain spatial but also socio-economic relationships. My neighborhood is mixed racially, economically, and by age. Most started living here as young families, although a growing number are now empty-nesters who chose to remain in their “starter” homes. The north of University community, on the other hand, is primarily African-American, with higher percentages of low-income households. Space-based sense of community goes a bit further, bringing together the place and social aspects. So we can talk about the Twin City Bible Church community to which I belong as both a place (actually now two places) but also a social space given meaning by the people who elect to regularly make use of that place. Third, Chaskin highlights community as a political unit. By coming together as a community, we can certainly pool our resources to gain a greater lobbying voice, such as with the senior community and the AARP. But community can also be a group that participates together in community inquiry to bring about social change, both to address immediate issues but also to build knowledge power. That is, by asking questions, investigating ideas, acting on those ideas to create solutions, and then discussing and reflecting on the process, we add to community knowledge which gives us greater power to ask better questions, perform deeper investigations, and create stronger solutions. We as a community gain power over our situation by working as a single unit with individual parts.

Aldo Leopold concludes his wonderful book Sand County Almanac, with the chapter called “Land Ethic”. In it, he strongly argues that we need to expand our understanding of community beyond just the human to include the more-than-human. That is, rather than limiting the authenticity of community to just the human component, we need to recognize the parts of the community also include the surrounding biome, the ecosystems that have adapted to the particular environment of our place. As humans, we are one part of that biome just as our limb is one part of our body. We’re only beginning to discover ways in which our own gut bacteria influence our minds. Research is still needed to determine if this is just an early developmental issue, or whether what we eat throughout life and who we are with and therefore share bacteria with also influence our minds. It is but one example, though, of how we are far more influenced by our broader ecosystem than we often like to credit.

In my profession, one way I describe my work is as a community informatics specialist. That is, I look at information and society at the level of the community. This is an example of appropriating the term community to create a sub-specialization. Other examples include those who do community planning, or work in community health, or who are community organizers. But we also use community as an orienting device. And so community might be used to describe a place in which we work and live. It might also be the people within a place on whose behalf we intervene to bring about change. But more deeply, it may be an orienting device for those with whom we identify and participate to do life together and to bring about social change. Each of us create cognitive maps to decide who is and who isn’t part of these communities. Sometimes our cognitive maps align, but many times they don’t.

Today I think about community and mourn what I’ve lost by not having a community with whom I prioritize the authenticity of the group over my own personal identity. Other than my union with Angie, I don’t feel such a strong tie to any specific community that I simply can’t imagine life apart from it. Or, as do the Amish, to whom I would cede decisional control over what technologies I use, or how I behave.

That being said, especially over the last two years as Angie and I have expanded our union with our immediate property through development of our small urban farm, I am feeling a much strong sense of community with our biome. And as we’ve continued to build stronger relationships with our neighbors, in part through our community free-pick corner of our yard and the conversations that have resulted, I am finding it harder to imagine ever moving, even to another part of town.

We are interdependent with the others around us, both human and more-than-human. When the authenticity of the community is put first, we recognize and work to strengthen that interdependence to everyone’s mutual benefit. But it requires a countercultural willingness to give up some personal identity. There are many intentional communities that serve as models for this that I admire from afar and wonder what keeps me from more actively pursuing. I don’t think this is a romanticizing over an unattainable utopian life — a wishing for greener grasses on the other side of the fence. And part of the caution comes because I also am aware of cases where creation of community has been so exclusionary as to lead towards fundamentalism and cultism, resulting in a severe and dangerous inbreeding of ideas. But while I am sad to not be further along in finding this ideal form of community, I celebrate the ways, small and large, that Angie and I have been able to be a part of and even lead the building of communities that at least reach in some part towards this ideal. As such, instead of seeing community as an orienting device describing a starting place, perhaps we should see community as the outcome goal for our work with constituencies of people.

But beyond my own understanding of an ideal community, I also have appreciated the opportunity to read more broadly on community from the works of sociologies, community practice, community health, community organizers and others. It is helping me to realize the deeper importance of, and expand my ability to have, dialog with others to understand their own senses of, and goals for, community. The term is used to describe many different concepts and goals, and when unconsidered, can leave people working at odds that can defeat collaborations as one word — community — is perhaps used to mean very different things.


  • Community

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Community’ in the encyclopedia of informal education,

  • Community Engagement: Definitions and Organizing Concepts from the Literature

Donna Jo McCloskey, RN, PhD, (Chair), Mary Anne McDonald, DrPH, MA, Jennifer Cook, MPH, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, PhD, MSW, Stephen Updegrove, MD, MPH, Dana Sampson, MS, MBA, Sheila Gutter, PhD, Milton (Mickey) Eder, PhD (2011) Chapter 1: Community Engagement: Definitions and Organizing Concepts from the Literature, In: Principles of Community Engagement – Second Edition, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Downloaded from:

  • Individuals and Communities: No Man Is an Island

Ryan Messmore (2011) Individuals and Communities: No Man Is an Island. Available online at:

A fellow from The Heritage Foundation reflects on the need to recognize the social aspect of individuals.

  • New Technology Is Making Us More Like the Amish

Whetmore, Jamey. New Technology Is Making Us More Like the Amish. Downloaded from

  • Setting the Record Straight: What is Community? And What does it Mean Today?

Blackshaw, Tony. (2010). Setting the Record Straight: What is Community? And What does it Mean Today? In: Key Concepts in Community Studies. Sage Publications.

This chapter looks at the transformation of the use and understanding of community as a concept, from the pre-modern community through modern society to today’s use as weak ontologies.

Some have argued that community is an illusion that is understood and created by by its symbolism.

Community as an orienting device vs. community as an appropriating device. As an appropating device, it’s when community is prepended to a term (e.g. community planning, community health). Orienting works to define who you are working with. But in each case this leaves many gray areas of difficult definition. It is a way of making groups of people as an organizing mechanism.

Another way to think of community is to see pre-modern community as the only real community — community as strong ontology.

Communities today are best seen as weak ontologies. But we are committed to them because they help us define and reflect our understanding of the world.

Alternatively, community can be understood within four stages of historical consciousness: *) Community consciousness, *) Class consciousness, *) Consciousness of classes, and *) consciousness of communities.

Some communities (e.g., Amish communities, some indigenous communities, some individuals) may choose to reclaim or remain in a community consciousness as opposed to a consciousness of community.

  • The Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold (1949) The Land Ethic. In A Sand County Almanac. Chapter available online at:

In this concluding chapter of his classic A Sand County Almanac, Leopold proposes that a concept of community that includes a land ethic:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a
community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in
that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that
there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters,
plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

  • The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital and the Ghost of Social Structure: Why Community Development Can’t Win

Randy Stoecker (2004) The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital and the Ghost of Social Structure: Why Community Development Can’t Win. In Silverman, Robert Mark (ed.) Community-Based Organizations: The Intersection of Social Capital and Local Context in Contemporary Urban Society. Preprint available online at:

Problematizes social capital as an exchange-value form of community and instead champions use-value communities of resistance to address oppressive social structures.

  • Theories of Community

Chaskin, R.J. (2013). Theories of Community. In: Weil, M., Reisch, M., and Ohmer, M.L. (eds) The Handbook of Community Practice, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.

Building from a community practice perspective (which I posit is one way of thinking about the LIS profession), this chapter explores different conceptualizations of community (the social basis of community: interaction, identity, and function; community as space and place; community as political unit) and the continuity and change of community and community practice in the 21st century.

One definition of community is based on space and place as independent of the people that live in the space or place. it can thus become an exclusionary act. For geographic Wright street or University become exclusionary forces. But for communities of identity, the exclusionary forces are ones of perception and construction.

A second definition of community is as a political unit, coming together to move their agenda forward. Direct, strong democracy as opposed to representative democracy that has come to silence or even intentionally oppress voices. Does not have to be to the exclusion of representative government, but can work side-by-side with representative government, working to pool voice and influence representatives. However, participants come to the table on less-than-equal terms.

Community can be a context within which we engage, a group with whom we intervene through engagement, or a unit of identity and action with whom we participate to bring about change.

  • Understanding and Describing the Community

Section 2. Understanding and Describing the Community, from The Community Toolbox, a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas. Section downloaded from:

  • What If?

Stoecker, R. (2014) What If? AISHE-J 6(1) Downloaded from:

What if, instead, we consider an entirely different starting point for higher education civic engagement? Rather than using community members to provide an ill-fitting experiential education for our students to learn a perhaps inaccurately theorized form of civic engagement, we use higher education to support and enhance the civic engagement of community members?

  • What is Community?

Association of College Unions International. Downloaded from:

  • Who Is The Community?/What Is The Community?

Brown, P. Who Is The Community?/What Is The Community? Downloaded from:

  • Why Do Amish People Reject Electricity?

Sieber, Tina. Why Do Amish People Reject Electricity? Downloaded from

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