What Does Community Mean?

The Burlington City & Lake program is filled with questions that don’t have easy answers. Over time, students have come to welcome these open-ended questions, and inquiry itself feels more and more comfortable. But how about a multi-week unit that is built around a concept that itself doesn’t have a clear definition?

Since early March, we have been exploring community. With each community partner, each assignment, and each lived experience, our definition of this complex concept has evolved. We’ve given it space to breathe, and we’ve reflected about how each perspective we encounter shifts our sense of what it means. At this point, I think everyone would agree that our definition of “community” is actually less clear than when we started–but our understanding of this concept is far richer.

Before the start of this unit if you were to ask me what community meant my response would have been very limited. It would probably have been something along the lines of “a human settlement that has a lot of connections.” I had never really thought about it, so I had never given myself time to think out of the box more on what community really is. I cannot emphasize enough just how broad the definition can be. Melody Brook, an Abenaki educator, believes that pretty much everything is a community, from the trees and nature around you to the stars in the sky. She believes everything is connected, which in a way is true. I just really found a lot of the ideas she had to offer quite fascinating. I think because of this unit the word community now has a much deeper meaning to me. Now that I know all it has to offer I’m seeing I belong in waaaay more communities than I thought I did prior to this unit…and I am very glad that that happened because in a way realizing about all these different communities gives me more of a sense of belonging and over all just makes me happier.

  • Sam
Corrine Yonce shares stories about the power of art to build community.

In the hundreds of photographs displayed in the photo exhibit in the ONE Center, we see people coming together outside and using the environment to be together. I really enjoyed the photo exhibit because it has pictures of everything, mostly mundane things but it shows how people come together to do these things… We don’t always realize how much of an impact our communities have on us until we need them and they are there for us and that is one of the really important aspects of community.

  • Zaley  
Photo credit: Meghan Humphrey. Tattoo artist: Unknown.

I’ve learned a lot about our community in the ONE center, and the needs of the Old North End. It’s given me insight on what a community needs to thrive in the modern age. Through meeting with AALV, VAL, Robin’s Nest, and the Family room, I’ve learned how education and childcare go hand in hand, and are key to communities. Without child care, parents can’t go to work, or go to college classes or ELL classes. Early education received from places like Robin’s Nest help kids grow, which is key to a thriving community. Not only having kids, but educated youth help the world move forward. Burlington has a large refugee population, and families from different countries, and AALV is here to help them. But in many other rural towns in other states, a non-profit like AALV wouldn’t be necessary. This made me realize that each community’s needs are unique, therefore what a community needs to thrive is unique to each community. For Burlington to thrive, we need to make sure that everyone is included in the future, regardless of where they come from.

  • Logan
Connecting (and laughing!) with blind contour drawings

Google defines community as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Does this fully encompass all aspects of community? Should communities strive to be more than just groups of people with something in common? What would the world look like if all communities were also support systems?

BCL does a really good job of building community by forming relationships with strangers. We meet with a new community partner, sometimes two or three, every day. Although they are not strangers to the teachers, they generally are to the students, and so we are meeting and building relationships with new people as part of our curriculum. Without this willingness to meet new people and form these connections, we would miss out on lots of the skills and insights we have gained from this outreach. Within our BCL community these partners have helped us with our inquiry projects, and are constantly referenced during group discussions.

  • Maggie
IMG_1129 (3)
Historian Sam Ford helps us explore the changing nature of “community” on the Waterfront.
Primary sources bring Burlington’s industrial history to life–and open up questions about its future.
Burlington Harbormaster, Erin Moreau, challenges us to envision the future of Perkins Pier, asking “How do we design with different members of our community in mind?”

Throughout our time learning about community, my understanding of community has changed. Meeting with Naturalist, Alicia Daniel, taught me that the members in a community can be very diverse. A community is not limited to just humans but animals play an important role in a thriving community as well… Being in a community such as Burlington and having such a strong wildlife presents means that we need to be kind to our wildlife neighbors as well as our human neighbors. For a community to thrive, all members of the community need to coexist peacefully.

  • Ruby


Is Burlington as a whole a community, considering how different everyone’s lives are? (college students, young professionals, seniors, those living in poverty, those living in wealth, etc.) How can people from all walks of life have shared experiences in Burlington? Do opportunities for these exist?

Can BHS, considering its size, invest in shared experience and community? It seems sometimes the only successful community building experiences are sparse and often unplanned. Is there a way planned community building can become more frequent and effective?

  • Abby
Community + Solid Ice = Once-in-a-Lifetime Group Photo!

Melody Brook, an Abenaki partner, was kind enough to share a little about her culture and beliefs. In her belief system, there are 6 worlds and you exist in one but when you die your soul moves on to a different world–however in the new world you may exist as a being (a “person”) that is not human. This belief system creates a broader sense of community for her people. This challenged many traditional ideas about what our community is, and for me opened my eyes to a new worldview.

  • Chloe
On the same day that we studied the history and future of “community” on the Waterfront, artist Corrine Yonce gave us a glimpse of the fleeting present: a truly ephemeral pop-up art space, built in one week and torn down the next.

Researching the Charter for Compassion’s Five Ways to Build Empathy in Our Communities taught me that a community needs empathy to thrive. By nature, humans are social beings who thrive in community and rely on each other. Empathy plays a key role in a thriving community. Empathy is the ability to recognize and identify with feelings we see in another person. What happens when we lose this sense of empathy? We are living in an age where we are connected more than ever through phones yet many people feel more alone than ever. Where is the empathy that would create wellness in unwell communities?

In the BCL community, I think we have a great deal of empathy. We see each other five days a week  and two to three days a week spend our entire school days together. Through this time we have built relationships with each other and truly care about our fellow BCL members. We are empathetic towards each other.

Still, I am left with many questions: No matter what, there will always be one person who will be unhappy about something. Is there a direct correlation between happiness and thriving?

Are people born without empathy? If so, Can empathy be taught/ learned?

  • Silas


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