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Close to home

April 22, 2020

I’ve been binge-watching Mad Men. The gilded lives of these stylish Madison Avenue advertising types have drawn me in to the deceptively glamorous world of 1960’s New York.

Mad Men’s glamorous cast (image source; Variety)

Early in the series there are lots of office parties. This is the era when every executive had a private bar in their office, so of course, everyone drinks to excess, gets into conversations they didn’t really want to and makes unwise choices about their dance-partners.

Mad Men Christmas office party (image source; Slant)

Social events like those enjoyed by the well-dressed characters in Mad Men have long been considered a key ingredient of some corporate cultures. They’re seen as an informal way of bringing people who work together into a more bonded social relationship with one another. They’re one of many ways that companies seek to create a community of their employees around a shared set of values.

When companies accept us into their culture, they’re offering us an identity that’s attached to theirs. We feel a sense of belonging within that organisation. Being part of a group, belonging to something bigger than ourselves is a fundamental human need. And when that culture is aligned with our own values – and we have a voice in influencing its direction – it can feel just right.

For some – and in particular periods of our lives – this work community can become our primary reference group.  The bigger one’s job becomes, the more relationships it often involves.  The more space in our lives taken up by work relationships, the harder it is to develop or even maintain relationships outside the workplace.

The executives running the agencies in Mad Men seem to have almost no significant relationships outside work. That might seem like a 1960’s anachronism, yet I don’t think any of us would have to think too hard to come up with friends and associates for whom that remains the case.

But just now, confined to a small area around our homes, we are being offered an opportunity to engage with another vital community – one that has been a source of personal identity and shared culture for all of human history. It’s the community that builds around the place in which we live.

For as long as people have banded together in groups, our place-based communities have been the primary source of our practical, cultural and even spiritual needs. But the very era of globalisation in the last half century or so that gave rise to the proliferation of corporate culture has had an unintended consequence. In making us more mobile it’s reduced the strength of our connections to our place-based community.

Redressing that imbalance offers many opportunities.

To a large degree, our communities of place are natural social permacultures. While work communities have a natural tendency to self-sort into like-minded groups that can become echo chambers, our place-based communities are diverse, resilient and disinterested in a singular point of view.

Members of the Braidwood community (before physical distancing of course)
(Image source; ABC)

In Braidwood, the small town in which I live, my immediate community of place runs the gamut from farmers and agricultural workers to musicians and fashion designers; veterinary surgeons and dance teachers to bar owners and visual artists; public servants and retirees to students and the unemployed.

This place-based community is a diverse counterbalance to my work community. Bound by its shared interest in a physical place and the wellbeing of its members, it offers a complementary well of knowledge, experience and contrasting world views.

Community gardens bring people together to share labour, resources, knowledge and produce
(image source unknown).

At the moment, one of the ways that’s manifesting is in food production. Everyone seems to be sharing seedlings, worms, and tips for building wicking beds. It’s not hard to have several consecutive meals cooking with produce fresh from friends’ gardens. It’s deep localism at work, offering us something nourishing in both the literal and metaphoric sense.

When the current requirement for physical distancing ends, I’m not convinced that everyone will seek to reset things exactly the way they were. Of course, we’ll be keen to reconnect with our work communities without Zoom mediating  all of our interactions. But perhaps we’ll also wish to deepen the engagement with our local communities that this strange period in time has offered us.

In the media climate of the past few weeks it’s easy to forget the other challenges we collectively face. Locally, the aftermath of the summer fires remains a preoccupation. Globally, climate change; loss of species and the habitats required to sustain them; food, water and energy security; and extinction of cultures and languages remain extant.

In this context, the opportunity we’ve been offered to engage more meaningfully with our communities of place is a blessing. Our connections to place ground us and enable us to see the impacts of these challenges. And our local communities are usually the groups best placed to develop locally relevant solutions.

Spending more time close to home enables us to observe what’s happening in the world around us, and places us in a community that cares about it, because it’s happening, literally, in our backyard. And while working on local solutions, our place-based communities can encourage the political will required at national and global levels to implement the polices likely to give us our best chance of a future, long after we’ve forgotten about a virus with a funny name.

– Mark McClelland