Group Identity and Community Spirit
The sense of belonging is a fundamental human need and thus a strong driver for forming groups. One of the early challenges for any young group is to start forming its own identity and shared community spirit. The process of getting integrated in a group and the transition from I to we is something that needs time; but it also needs understanding of what is going on in people and how the collective can facilitate this process. Creating a common identity is a task that requires creativity, clarity, vision and strong will.
From ancient times in most cultures the collective identity was defined by opposition to “others” (us against them); indicating that social cohesion generated by an external menace is an old and strong paradigm. Likewise, ecovillages have earlier been known for a kind of “counter culture”, which has actually not been the intention, but a result of representing something unfamiliar. This paradigm needs to be overcome in order to create proactive, open and inclusive conditions where collective identity is defined by inner familiarity. Familiarity does not mean uniformity; in healthy communities individuals thrive in their uniqueness.
To use a biological analogy: the identity of a group is similar to identity of a living cell. Inside the cell there are many organelles performing specific individual functions while, collectively, performing a larger joint function, depending on the organ or tissue to which the cell belongs. The cell is defined by its membrane through which it gets energy, nutrients and communicates with other cells.
For a group, the core identity is ordinarily framed in vision, mission and aims, which express the essence of its functions. Ideally, vision, mission and aims are defined early in the process of group creation, and revisited periodically to see whether they still reflect the core identity of the group. Clear identity attracts new members, as they recognise the group to be authentic, trustworthy; and they easily see where they would fit and how their function would support the function of the whole. Unclear identity forces the group to draw an artificial, mechanistic line between those that are in and those that are out; functions of “organelles” remain undefined too. Groups with unclear identity tend to have difficulties to attract new and to keep existing members, with frictions, confusions and conflicts frequently occurring.
How will new people join? What kind of people will be attracted to a specific project and why? How many can the group accept and at what rate? These questions arise in every group project and finding good answers is not easy. A good dose of realism helps.
Groups with clear identity will be aware of their actual strengths and weaknesses, possibilities and limitations. They will not create an idealised, unreal image, thus attracting newcomers who are in the clouds: with too high expectations both in terms of material needs (diet, housing, work, health-care etc.), and more subtle, psychological and social needs. These subtle needs are usually more hidden and hard to detect at first. Newcomers can bring the risk of stress to a group once their possible strong behavioural patterns, dependencies, mental and emotional peculiarities become evident. It is naive to assume that any problem can be dealt with and solved, or that any person can join at any time.
As shown in the previous chapter each individual brings to the group some personal “baggage”: experiences, emotions, talents, habits, whims, problems etc.
This does not only influence the group as a whole, it influences individual lives of other members, especially if the group is small (under 20 members).
Nevertheless, there is something healing about communities. No wonder they often attract people who actually need healing. If the group does not pay nesesary attention to this, a psychologically demanding individual can bring a lot of disruption. It is not the function of the community to deal with deep psychological wounds and to invest time and energy to this goal unless it is internally stable enough and the explicit intention of the group is actually to be therapeutic. Young groups will need to recognise pain and suffering, acknowledge it, but still refuse a psychologically unstable new member to avoid the risk of this member exhausting the energy of the group.
On the other hand, being overly protective and conservative can harm the group and deprive it of the necessary, healthy turnover of people and energy, to the point of suffocating it. Note that cell membranes are permeable indeed, but they are also very selective.
In group projects where people mostly just work together, the procedure to accept new members can be relatively simple. But in more close communities it is wise to give attention to creating a detailed procedure for new members. As an example, such a procedure can define a trial period in which the group can get to know the new member, and the member can get to know the group (its culture, agreements etc.). In this period it is easy for the member to step out and for the group to break the membership agreement if strong reasons come up on either side. In a trial period the new member can be asked to observe, ask questions, and find a way to integrate in the group. After a certain period the member gets the right to participate in the decision making process by expressing thoughts, views, opinions. Voting rights can be gained after another period when the group and the new member get to know and align to each other further. Tutorship of a senior member can be of help in this process. Such a gradual, step-by-step entry procedure gives a sense of safety to both the new member and the community. It also prevents a close community from becoming too closed. Ideally, the same procedure should apply equally to all candidates, including relatives of existing members.
This leads to rights and responsibilities in the group. The new member tend to gladly accept both rights and responsibilities and commit to them if they are – again – clear and well formulated, balancing contributions and rewards. Commitments to the group should be valid for a defined period of time after which they can be changed or discontinued.
Of the more structural elements group projects generally need inclusive decision making processes that value both the responsibilities and the freedom of all members.
In all situations clarity and transparency foster long-lasting, authentic trust. This applies to both individual relationships (trusting each other) and the group as a whole (trusting the community). Effective and consistent feedback systems can do magic in the group, building trust, authenticity and accountability.
In groups temptation can quickly arise within individuals to abuse their power. That is why rank, roles and archetypes are another aspect to be conscious of. No matter our average height, there will always be the tallest and the shortest in the group. In the same way there will always be the most talkative and the shyest. It is impossible to avoid this, but it helps to be aware of it and use it in service of supporting both individuals and the group in their maturing. Maturing brings a very useful characteristic for community life: the ability not to take things too personally.