What Makes a Community & an Ideal Society?

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What does the word community mean? The answer can vary, even according to the dictionary. Dictionary.com uses a variety of factors to define what community means, ranging from a group of people who share a common locality and government to those who share common interests or characteristics.

Various philosophers have attempted to define the “ideal” society, though it’s still widely believed that such a concept has yet to be achieved. It is possible, however, to focus on the positive attributes and social qualities that are believed to pave the way toward the proverbial “ideal community.”

What Does Community Mean to You?

What does community mean to you? Upon reflection, you may realize that this is a question that requires more reflection than you’d have thought. “Community” can mean different things to different people and can range from a small, tight-knit group to the population of a large geographical area.

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When you think of your community, do you think of:

  • Your family?
  • Your neighborhood?
  • Your friends?
  • Certain social or religious groups you belong to?
  • Your city, state, or country?

Needless to say, community’s meaning can vary greatly depending upon who you ask. For example, if you live in a large city, you may think of your community as a group of friends who share your interests. On the other hand, if you live in a small town, you may think of your community as your family, friends, or the whole town itself. Depending on the various ways you define the term, you might find yourself part of several communities all at once.

What Makes an Ideal Society?

That is the question — and one that’s been debated by countless philosophers throughout history. Over time, countless great thinkers have come up with a variety of theories. But, in the same way the term “community” fluctuates today, those great thinkers of yore all have their own thoughts on what makes an ideal society.

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Confucius: Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and teacher who is considered the father of Eastern thought to this day. His works concentrated heavily on societal ideals such as ren, which encompasses the ideals of goodness, benevolence, and love. He also advocated for one of the earliest versions of the so-called “Golden Rule” — “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

Plato: In Plato’s famous work The Republic, he provides a detailed account of his ideal society. While some of his ideas seem odd or even shocking to readers today, some scholars believe that parts of the work may not have been intended to be taken literally. The essence of his theory describes a society where each person is assigned a role aligned with their unique attributes. To this end, the society in question can function smoothly as a single organism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rousseau was the author of a 1762 book called The Social Contract, which introduced a concept important to many of the philosophers who followed him. That concept was the social contract — or the notion that in order to maintain social order, individuals must consent to the rule of a government.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century writer and philosopher who insisted that women should have the same rights as men. Long before feminism was considered a virtue, Wollstonecraft boldly proclaimed that the long-held belief that women were inferior to men was nonsense.

Examples of Community Leaders

So, what qualities must a successful leader have in order to foster a strong sense of community? While, arguably, it’s near-impossible to point to any truly ideal societies, there have certainly been leaders who’ve inspired communities and planted the seeds for lasting change — a kind of change that points toward both a better society and more supportive communities.

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Some of the qualities that history-making, community-focused leaders share include the following:

  • Self-Awareness: Being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses is important for any type of leader. Knowing one’s limits can help one delegate more effectively.
  • Empathy: Recognizing how the community perceives them as well as what individuals, and the community at large, are going through and feeling makes a leader stand out. Empathy allows one to understand different viewpoints and, moreover, effect change that benefits all, especially those that don’t traditionally have a say.
  • Honesty & Integrity: In order to be an effective leader, one must be trustworthy. Being honest is important, but integrity — a measure of honesty over time — is even more essential.
  • Willingness to Learn: We all make mistakes. As such, even the best community leaders aren’t right 100 percent of the time. To this end, being adaptable, flexible and open to learning from one’s mistakes is essential. Often, this means listening to the perspectives of others — including those who may have different backgrounds or identities than you and, therefore, a different view of obstacles, values and more.
  • Dedication: Even if they are an elected official, a community leader has likely volunteered for their role — and that requires dedication. Being passionate and committed not only helps a leader create real change, but it helps them inspire and rally others, too.

While history has certainly seen its fair share of leaders, here are a few truly inspiring change-makers:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.: A Black Baptist minister and activist, Martin Luther King Jr. became one of the most visible leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement. In addition to leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King participated in and led marches for Black folks’ right to vote, desegregation, and labor rights.
  • Nelson Mandela: As the first Black head of state to be elected in a democratic election, former South African President Nelson Mandela made history in many ways. Most notably, Mandela is known for being an anti-apartheid revolutionary.
  • Harvey Milk: An American politician, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in United States’ history. A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was an LGBTQ+ rights icon.
  • Marsha P. Johnson: American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen Marsha P. Johnson is best known for advocating for queer rights and playing an instrumental role in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Known as the “mayor of Christopher Street” by New York City’s Greenwich Village community, Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and, alongside Sylvia Rivera, co-founded radical activist group S.T.A.R.
  • Stacey Abrams: Lawyer, author, and politician Stacey Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives for a decade before running for governor in 2018, making her the first Black woman to run for the position on a major party ticket. When Abrams lost the race, she founded Fair Fight Action to address voter suppression. In championing voters’ rights, Abrams has been credited with boosting voter turnout in Georgia in 2020, thus impacting the presidential election as well as Georgia’s two Senate races — and making history through community organizing.

What Makes a Community Successful?

Due to the countless number of philosophers who have tackled the question of what a perfect society looks like, it’s no surprise that they didn’t all agree. That said, there are a few key components that many of them seem to have in common.

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The key values that tend to make a community successful include:

  • Freedom of Opinion & Expression: Each member of a healthy community should feel free to express their ideas or opinions without the fear of being punished or censored for those beliefs.
  • Common Goals & Values: While this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in a community shares the exact same religious or political beliefs, positive communities are usually developed around a common goal. For instance, Americans all share the core values of the “American Dream,” even though they may come from very diverse backgrounds.
  • Clear Rules & Laws: It’s important that each member of a community knows what’s expected of them within the context of said community.
  • Fairness: The rules and laws should be applied equally to all members of the community.
  • Shared Heritage & Traditions: Communities are generally strengthened by shared traditions. This could encompass anything from a weekly religious gathering to an annual small-town parade.
  • Community Interaction: Interaction helps members of a community develop the type of emotional bonds that make them a strong unit. The closer the members of a community are, the more likely they are to be able to accomplish shared goals.
  • Strong Community Leadership: It’s important for a community to have strong leaders whose values align with their own. Ideally, the values and outlook of a community leader should encompass those of as many different people in the community as possible. Examples of community leaders could include a town’s elected officials, a religious leader, the head of a local volunteer organization, the president of the P.T.A., or the CEO of a business.

Importance of Community

As you can see, being a part of a community is an important part of the human experience. As the poet John Donne once famously said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

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Being a part of a community has several vital benefits to each individual member. Communities can help us seek out and interpret our own core values while learning from one another and growing. While we may or may not realize it, who we are and what we believe in as people will be largely shaped by the communities we align ourselves with.

This is why it’s so important for young people to seek out communities that help them shape the people they want to become. For adults, communities are equally important in helping one grow, find purpose, and more. As we get older, a strong sense of community with those around us can help fend off loneliness and provide support or mutual aid.

Take a moment to examine the communities that intersect with your own life, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do they align with your own values?
  • Are they helping you grow as a person?
  • What goals do you feel with other members of the group?
  • Are there other communities you might also consider joining to help you grow towards your own individual goals?