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Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,

that will be the sort of gauze through which

he or she sees all the world afterwards.

-Wallace Stegner

Country music icon Ernest Tubb once said “Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.” I would add: know your neighbors, or your colleagues, or your congressperson, or the place where you live, as these are vibrant gateways to building stronger connections to create community.

The roots of early democracy-in this country and elsewhere-were nurtured by relationships of people to one another and to the places they lived. Participation in decisions about “the commons” were informed by those living and working around us and the places we called home.

Increasingly, community can often be less about our connections to our neighbors and to particular places, and is defined by our identities or professions, linking us with people in other neighborhoods, cities or countries. Both are valuable ways to think about community, which is still an essential building block for affecting change from the local to the global.

Communities create possibilities for action through the networks of support they weave. Communities are crucibles that contribute to forming who we are and how we relate to the other people and places we encounter in our lives. Understanding the impact our community history has had on our perspective is critical as we create and participate in new communities at work, at home, or on-line-which in turn continue to inform our experience.

Our initial interaction with community or place serves as “a sort of gauze through which we see all the world afterwards”-as Wallace Stegner puts it-and though the communities in which we find ourselves can shift over the course of our lives, our roles at work, in our families and in our neighborhoods are often shaped by these first forays in civic life.

It is why programs such as Early Start and the work of creating healthy neighborhoods and school environments for children are so vital. And it is why we must continue to work tirelessly to create sustainable communities for all where there are options for economic prosperity, equal opportunity, and access to a clean environment.

In his book Community and the Politics of Place, former Missoula mayor Daniel Kemmis argues that the erosion of our communities and public discourse are directly related to the disappearance of our “sense of place”: while on-line communities and communities of identity are vibrant and meaningful, they cannot replace the shaping and promise found in those places we live, work, and play. Paying attention to cultivating those relationships-with our colleagues, our neighbors, and the places that we value-is what creates community, and inspires action for positive change.

August 2013