On Community

and its discontents.

My curiosity about “community” as a concept comes from a very selfish place: Whenever anyone would say that they were interested in “building community” with me, I would internally bristle. It felt like friendship with requirements, with a set of terms. It felt like signing up for a club, like I’d be tasked with duties. Of course all friendships are exchanges—“community,” though, made me feel like I was about to be presented a contract: all the expectations of working in a collective or cooperative, without any of the clear boundaries.

Basically, I’m not much of a joiner, but I come when called. Yet I use the word myself, because it’s an easy concept to lean on, even when its limits are only implied rather than explicitly stated.

As I believe in the refrain “solidarity not charity,” I prefer the idea “solidarity not community.” You don’t have to be “in community” with me for me to care about and act for your needs, wants, rights. We don’t have to speak the same language or have similar politics or like any of the same food. I care because we’re humans; I care because I want to work from a place of love. (I also extend this care and solidarity to non-human animals, but we can talk about that another day.) Because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t giving cynicism a radical sheen (always a possibility), I started reading.

That internal bristling I felt upon hearing the word has to do with how its use has changed over time. Where it once referred to “the commons,” to “common people”—this was the way it was used when community gardens sprang up in the ’70s, to emphasize collective ownership distinct from the state, according to Sarah Lamble in Keywords for Radicals—it has come to signify a feel-good kind of factionalism.

What happens when one community’s valid needs come into conflict with another’s, as is inevitable but not fully recognized in the way the word is tossed around? How are the boundaries drawn? More important, why are boundaries drawn? Lamble writes:

Tensions between inclusion and exclusion, sameness and difference, persist in part because the very notion of “community” is predicated on the establishment of an inside/outside boundary. Establishing the “we” of community inevitably generates a corresponding “they” or “other.” For this reason, many activists remain wary of appeals to community and highlight how seemingly benign efforts to forge collective identities can simultaneously reinforce marginalization and exclusion. 

This was what I saw when I read Rae Gomes’s op-ed in Civil Eats, “Why Those Community Fridges Won’t Solve Hunger.” The title is, by design, a bit bombastic: There is no one thing that’s going to “solve hunger”—we know that, and it would be ridiculous to assume that the people setting up these fridges as a response to the pandemic (I realize many pre-date this) believe they’re actively solving an ongoing problem created by (and profitable to) capitalism itself. 

What Gomes covers is how “community” can be invoked to virtue-wash gentrifying actions by those not engaged in food justice movements. She talks to Crown Heights resident Stephanie Esquivel, who has found her landlord to be negligent yet newer folks in the building were able to receive approval for one of these fridges to be plugged in using its power:

She was annoyed to see that the newer tenants in one of the renovated units had such reliable access to the landlord, when she couldn’t get him to attend to longstanding repairs. The building also had a rodent problem, and there hadn’t been any extermination for going on 10 years; she worried that the plan to install the “outdoor food pantry with fresh food” in the heat of the summer could make it worse. 

Gomes continues to put the so-called “community” fridges into a charity context that represents hunger policy failure from local to federal levels. “These fridges are a symbol of a system built on distributing food deemed waste without asking the recipients if that’s what they want,” she writes.

Who is the community here? Whose needs are being met? Who’s being consulted, and who’s tending to food safety?

She also acknowledges that right now, being critical of any project that seeks to provide people with food at a time of incredible unemployment, pandemic, and uncertainty can seem in bad faith. But these questions need to be asked, especially in places so deeply gentrified as Brooklyn, where people can swoop in, say “community,” and place this particular fridge a few feet from where a 25-year-old man was shot and killed in early May. Instead of seeing local violence and hunger as intertwined, postings of the fridge have ignored the nearby memorial.

Erin Skidmore, Good Food Systems Director at Access of West Michigan, also recently wrote of the necessity of creating long-term strategy out of emergency solutions that prioritizes what local residents need and want in a way that echoes Gomes’s op-ed:

This is how the emergency food system in the U.S. has operated – by nature, as a system it has been transactional, reactive, disempowering, racist, and paternalistic. Instead of building a system that is inclusive of those most affected by poverty, many non-profit food organizations have been founded and led by white people, coming into a neighborhood with perceived solutions instead of working within a community to grow a local food system based on assets. This perpetuates a white savior mentality that is birthed out of colonialism and capitalism, and positions nonprofits as power holders.

But I would argue that the lack of clarity on the word “community” has allowed it to be used to justify anything, including white savior responses to crisis. In Skidmore’s and Gomes’s pieces, its use has a halo without clearly defining who is included and excluded, which becomes further complicated in gentrifying areas. Of course it means people in a local geographic zone, but that also includes the gentrifiers in the renovated apartments as well as long-term residents who can’t get the landlord on the phone. There are implications about who’s included, always; why not make them explicit?

This word, because of that halo of goodness, tends to shut down discussion once invoked. How dare anyone question something done for the community? (That’s why Driscoll’s Berries, which benefits from notoriously poor working conditions, tells you in this tweet that they’re “improving the communities in which we operate”—the word virtue-washes and virtue-signals.)

The most extensive work on “community” as a concept that I’ve read is Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community. She uses Derrida’s idea of supplementarity to show how, though community is often framed in opposition to capitalism, it “functions in complicity with ‘society,’ enabling capitalism and the liberal state.” This allows for that virtue-washing; as Joseph writes: 

Deployments of community, both verbal invocations and practices, are conditioned by a larger discourse of community, a pervasive way of thinking and doing community that would seem to answer all the important questions before they have even been asked, that sets the terms in which we might ask questions, and that shapes what we can see and do and even who we are.

You can say “community”—much like you can say “political”—and, within certain milieus, that will spark to mind social-justice-oriented parameters without any work being done to define those parameters. It’s easy to see how it could be misused when ill-defined, and this is the point of tension reported in Gomes’s op-ed and how who is included is obscured in Skidmore’s.

In her book Anarchism and Its Aspirations, Cindy Millstein looks at how homogenous affinity groups would butt up against the broader population:

The most fundamental level of decision making in a demonstration is the affinity group. Here, we come together as friends or because of a common identity, or a combination of the two. We share something in particular; indeed, this common identity is often reflected in the name we choose for our groups. We may not always agree with each other, but there is a fair amount of homogeneity precisely because we’ve consciously chosen to come together for a specific reason—usually having little to do with mere geography. This sense of a shared identity allows for the smooth functioning of a consensus decision-making process, since we start from a place of commonality. In an affinity group, almost by definition, our unity needs to take precedence over our diversity, or our supposed affinity breaks down altogether.

Compare this to what could be the most fundamental level of decision making in a society: a neighborhood or town. Now, geography plays a much larger role. Out of historic, economic, cultural, religious, and other reasons, we may find ourselves living side by side with a wide range of individuals and their various identities. Most of these people are not our friends per se. Still, the very diversity we encounter is the life of a vibrant city itself. The accidents and/or numerous personal decisions that have brought us together frequently create a fair amount of heterogeneity precisely because we haven’t all chosen to come together for a specific reason.

Affinity groups, of course, must decide their needs and wants for themselves, and we need a restructured world in which those who have the most knowledge and the least power lead struggles for justice.

But too often, especially in food contexts, the word “community” is invoked as a catch-all, a means of virtue-washing capitalist or charity-based endeavors. If the word is used in a public space, it is important to draw out who is meant and who is included.

What is the point of a “we” without recognizing who “they” are in ever-shifting contexts, without attempting to expand “we” until it is “all” while always recognizing difference? As Millstein says, “the very diversity we encounter is the life of a vibrant city itself,” and while it’s perhaps my own personal tendencies that make me wary of defining myself as part of a specific group, I always want to make sure I ask myself and others, who do we mean when we say “community”? What are we building, who are “they” and why, and what is expected of those who belong?

Tomorrow, discussion for paid subscribers on the limits and potentials of community. On Wednesday, the cooking supplement will feature a zucchini recipe from Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will be with Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co. We’ll be talking spices, supply chains, food systems, and more.

As a reminder, I’m writing a book!!! So really, this newsletter will be pretty much all I’m writing aside from my Tenderly posts.

What’s exciting is that this here newsletter was featured in a TASTE piece on food newsletters and got a mention in this outstanding Tejal Rao piece on chefs at the Times.

Also: Register for this talk I’m moderating with FoodLab Detroit, “Earth is Power: Redefining Eco-Friendly Practices”!

I devoured Iulian Ciocan’s Before Brezhnev Died last weekend. It’s an extremely funny and touching look at life in Moldova at the end of Brezhnev’s life as head of the USSR, with elements of autofiction but is really an interlocking short story collection. I’d love to write a full review (and have more Moldovan literature on its way), if any editors are reading.

While I’m waiting on 10,000 new books to arrive, I think it’s time to go back to Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and also maybe Eileen Myles’s Not Me? A little poetry? These are what I’m feeling like.