This is the first part in a two-part series of blog posts recapping and going deeper into the presentation giving by Anna Mock and Britany Sproul at the Education Empowerment Hub Conference in Layton, Utah, May 2022. This first part is given by Anna Mock.
What is a community and why do we need it? The answers to those questions are almost one and the same. What is community? Community is meaningful connection with other people. It is a shared purpose, shared goal, shared concerns, shared fears, shared solutions, and shared joys. You can have all those things by yourself – and you do! You, by yourself, have a purpose, a goal, concerns, solutions, and fears. But eventually, and this is very different and personal for everyone – you may not want to do everything alone. A long time ago Aristotle said that man was a “political animal.” You can derive a number of meanings out of that – some of which are not very flattering! – but most people understand that "political" means needing associations with one another. Do you remember the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks? Where he is stranded on an island and starts talking to Wilson, the volleyball? Yeah, well he needed social interaction to survive, emotionally and mentally. It didn’t matter who (or what) it was, he needed someone to connect to, to talk to, to relate to, to share his burdens and joys with. There is just this inner need that all people have on some level, sometimes big and sometimes small, to connect and relate and share with other people.
image from: https://www.wionews.com/entertainment/hollywood/news-woah-tom-hanks-volleyball-in-oscar-nominated-cast-away-sold-for-an-unbelievable-sum-428464
Let’s talk about connection for a moment. A few minutes ago I said that Community is “meaningful connection” with other people. Well, have you ever been in a “meaningless” connection? My kids used to play rec soccer with our city. I would drop and pick the kids up from practice and sit and watch their games multiple times a week. I talked to some of the other moms on the field, but besides our kids chasing each other and picking flowers on the soccer field, we didn’t have much to connect about. And after I became their soccer coaches for a few seasons, I felt the connection was even less because I didn’t even get a chance to make meaningless small talk with anyone anymore. I was too busy coaching the games. We were all together at least twice a week. We all had the same purpose and the same goal, but the connection meant nothing. (I’m not saying you can’t connect with people at sporting events, I’m just saying I didn’t connect very well with anyone.) I had the same experience when I used to send my kids to 4H after school classes. I would drop them off, pick them up, and that was it. I didn’t have a part in it at all. There was no connection for me in that situation. Johann Hari has written extensively on the topic of connection and loneliness. He said that “Loneliness isn't the physical absence of other people. It's the sense that you're not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”
Sharing what matters.
Does sharing what matters make the connection meaningful? A shared purpose, a shared goal, shared concerns, shared fears, shared solutions, and shared joys? I think so! For the remainder of this presentation I would like you to keep the following three key elements in mind:
Needs vs Shoulds
So back to soccer. I signed my kids up for soccer because someone told me they needed organized sports. Fine. I signed my kids up for the 4H afterschool programs because someone told me my kids needed social interaction or else they would turn out backwards. Fine. Societal pressure told me what I needed, but society was wrong. What I actually needed was time with just myself and all my little people and to figure out what homeschooling was going to look like for me. I needed to find my own groove without feeling like I wasn’t keeping up with someone else, or that I was doing it wrong somehow. After I did find my groove (3 years later!), my needs started to change and I needed to do something about it.
Before we go on, it's important to keep in mind is that homeschoolers are a different breed of human being, right? We have purposefully and willfully exited the mainstream flow of popular culture and popular expectations. I have noticed that the longer I homeschool, the wider the gap between my interests, hopes, desires and the general public-school mom’s interests, hopes, and desires becomes. This is NOT because there is something wrong with public school parents and kids NOR is there anything wrong with homeschool parents and kids. This is not an US v THEM type of thing. This is just an acknowledgement that there is indeed a divide between the two cultures that can sometimes be hard to bridge. So because we have chosen to go off the beaten path, sometimes the things that fill regular, mainstream people’s needs, don’t fill ours. At all. The good news is this means we have the opportunity to seek out and create our own solutions.
To understand the first social need I discovered in myself, you need to know something very personal about me. I am afraid of bears. And mountain lions. But mostly bears.
However, I also love to go hiking. Those two things don’t mesh terribly well. I tried to start a hiking group with the other young moms in my neighborhood but nobody wanted to go. For a year I took my kids out by myself, and sometimes it was a little terrifying. Then finally I got on a local homeschooling Facebook group and I posted something like, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! THE BEARS ARE GOING TO EAT MY CHILDREN!” (That got a lot of attention.) Now - 5 or so years later - Hit the Trail, Homeschoolers has almost 1000 members from all over the state. I never have to go hiking alone. I have made so many good friends and met so many wonderful women. Our hiking community doesn’t require much out of anyone - you don’t HAVE to go hiking if you don’t want to. (I fully encourage Facebook lurkers.) But those who do commit, invest their time, and come hiking with me help me fulfill my need - of not getting eaten by a bear - and help create a loose, comfortable, stress free community of like minded friends. Because we are homeschoolers we automatically have quite a lot in common, even if we are individually very different, and we have things to talk about. It is a very fulfilling place for me to be.
Just a few families from Hit the Trail, Homeschoolers on a trail off the Nebo Loop
As for needs of my children? Need #1: I wanted my kids to have friends outside our family. Need #2: I wanted them to be involved in some sort of musical ensemble – something where they could feel the sense of being a little part of something big, powerful, and moving. And need #3: I wanted my kids, when they turned 12 and up, to start progressively getting more and more academic instruction outside the home. The next step, was to find those communities and those resources.
Let's move on to my second key element: Personal Investment. Here comes the connection – all that meaningful stuff we’re going to share with each other.
When you are looking for community, be prepared to be a part of the community. Community ties don’t magically appear, you have to build them. You will need to forge that connection. If the group/co-op/etc. you are joining fills your needs, jump in and get involved! Find a job to do. Find a role to play. The more you invest yourself in the community, the more you will get out of it. If you are building your own community from the ground up, involve people in meaningful ways! Everyone needs to get involved at a level they are comfortable with. I read the other day that people don’t want to just feel like common bricklayers; they want to feel like they are building a cathedral. The meaning there is that meaningless work just for the sake of work doesn’t fill anyone’s needs. But a group, working together, to create something magnificent, is a community. This is the concept of synergy and the idea that my one plus your one is going to make a beautiful three!
When I say “personal investment” what I mean is that the organization or group or co-op or whatever is filling your need, is so beneficial to you, that you are willing to do what it takes to keep it going. Have any of you heard of Millennial Choirs and Orchestras. They are the largest musical organization in the world. They also have locales in Davis County and Utah County. They have choir ensembles for kids starting at 4 years old up to 18 years old, and a grand chorus for adults, plus a symphony orchestra. It’s huge. If you are a part of MCO, you know that it takes A LOT of commitment from the parents of youth participants. We are required to volunteer at least twice during the semester at the rehearsals, as well as backstage at at least one performance. It can be stressful and time consuming. But they refuse to hire a professional staff to coordinate and direct all the ensembles. They explain to all the new parents that families who are involved with MCO find connection and friendship and commitment. They are trying to create an MCO family.
It’s kind of like Sam and Frodo. They were friends before, right? I mean, I guess Sam was the gardener, but they seemed to be on pretty good terms. But after they went through the furnace of fiery doom together? Yeah, nothing was going to break those bonds. That’s what it’s like backstage at an MCO concert. A furnace of fiery doom. I suppose I'm exaggerating a little. But you throw 12 moms together who love the MCO music, love the experience for their children, love the message and purpose of MCO, and then hand them a stapled packet of concert logistics – supposedly written in English – and tell them to make it happen with 180 screaming kids running around in circles? We joke that you show up for dress rehearsal on Thursday, and then after the last show on Saturday, you’re basically blood sisters and have no secrets anymore. The truth is because I love what MCO does for my children, I am willing to invest in its future. I am willing to make sure it happens. MCO knows this. It’s really easy to drop your kids off at rehearsal, show up an hour or so later, and then watch a concert at the end of the semester (kind of like rec. soccer). That takes no parental involvement. It takes no commitment. It creates no community. MCO wants to create a community. They want you to see and stay. So, they make you come and serve.
I know of two moms who felt the commitment was just too much. And they quit. And that is perfectly fine! If MCO wasn’t filling their needs, then the commitment was way too much to expect. They deserve to find something else that will better meet their needs. Maybe it filled a hole in their lives for a while, but then as their needs morphed, they needed to adapt to find something better for them. But for those of us who do find that MCO still fills a need in our lives, it is a beautiful community to be a part of. I love volunteering with MCO. I love the women I meet there. I love the entire experience. It is worth it to me. It makes me feel like I am part of something bigger – like a cathedral.
It's almost midnight Saturday night, but we're still smiling!
I am also part of a commonwealth for 12–18-year-olds that meets in south Provo. We meet just once a week and have about 40 families. Because of our size I am required to mentor a class and serve on a committee. Our commonwealth fills so many needs in our family that I willingly and happily volunteer A LOT of my time and mental energy to keeping this thing going. And because I am invested, because I jumped in and became part of the team, I am now part of the team! These women and I share so very much together. I feel fulfilled intellectually and socially being a part of that circle. I feel like I have purpose in the organization, and I feel like I have immense support not just as a mentor at the commonwealth, but also as a regular homeschool mom. My KIDS love the community they have there. They are thriving in that environment.
The America's Foundations class with State Rep. Jefferson Burton at Aspire Scholar Academy - 2022
Aspire Scholar Academy has a culture about it that meshes very nicely with my own family culture. Are we all the same? No, of course not! But we share many of the same purposes, goals, concerns, fears, solutions, and joys. Our connection there is extremely meaningful to all our lives. But that doesn’t mean that all the families that try out ASA fall in love with it. I have a friend who proudly proclaims, “ASA for LIFE!” But I have another friend who tried it for a year, and decided they wouldn’t be coming back.
When you think you have found a community that will fill your needs, jump in and get involved. Invest yourself in it. But if it doesn’t end up working, go find something else. That’s a really important point to remember. This is your life. You get to decide where to spend your time. Shop around! Look at all your options - and if you don’t find one you like, create your own!
When I was finally ready to join a homeschooling group it was early February so I signed us up to go to three different homeschool Valentine’s Day parties. The first two groups were nice, but they didn't have feel I was looking for. I didn't expect to become instant best friends with anyone, but I was hoping I would see the potential for friendship for myself and my children. The third group looked promising and I decided we would try them out for a while. Five years later, some of those families are still our very best friends!
While most groups are beneficial for many, not all groups are the right fit for everyone. And that’s totally fine. But when it is you and your family having a hard time finding a place, it can become really discouraging. What if you are trying to find a place to share what matters most to you and make those meaningful connections, but it just isn’t working out?
Well, my suggestion is to not give up. Community, like most worthwhile relationships, takes time to develop. There are so many groups of all kinds out there. Sometimes it just takes a while to find them. Sometimes the timing isn't quite right yet. Talk to everyone you know. Talk to people you don't know. Try a group. Try another. And if what you need really doesn’t exist yet, create it! If you have a homeschool need that isn’t being filled, chances are there are other homeschoolers just like you out there looking for the the community you are ready to build.
This workshop breakout presentation write-up will be continued in a following blog post wherein Britany will explore a simple, natural progression of how to build your own community if you are having trouble finding one the meets your needs.