Crafting in Community

“Everyone wants community”

— said an older co-worker during a heated brainstorm we were having in my last job at JBG Smith. We were talking about a redevelopment site in the Washington, DC area and debating what our target audience would be looking for and how those elements would manifest in the built environment through architecture, apartment dwellings, and retail offerings.

I realized suddenly that ‘community’ wasn’t just a mid-20s, thirty-somethings desire — a term we’ve literally recreated via virtual social interactions — community is an elusive feeling of belonging that everyone is seeking at every stage in life. Some of us find it online. Many of us still are looking for it in the physical space around us. 

I had naively thought that past a certain age you somehow magically receive ‘community’ in your life and that’s that. Through family, career, hobbies, love, and general life happenings, a whole ecosystem develops around you and ta da — you’ve got community! Check, check, check.

Obviously, it’s not that simple and often not the case. Community may be a noun, but one must act in order to create, maintain, and be a part of a community. It can also come and go, both through your own actions and through events out of your control. Every time I move, I have to find, maintain, and create my various communities. It’s exhausting. But it’s worth it. 

This is why every time a developer says ‘we want community’ it’s really confusing to me. And I’ve heard it a lot from developers, architects, designers, and government officials in the past few years; perhaps they’ve always been talking about it. Community may be a noun, but it’s really the actions of individual people that create a community. You can’t have a bunch of people sitting in the same place and call that community. You can’t have a really gorgeous, but empty, gathering space and call it community. 

The opposite of community is isolation. Which is actually a trend I’ve noticed lately despite the fact that I keep hearing how much everyone wants community. Go home instead of going out, Netflix and chill, watch more HGTV, reorganize your closet, again. 

We are seeking solitude and peace inside our homes — with pizza, maybe a snuggle buddy, and our favorite entertainment. 

It’s understandable that we want to escape into our own cocoons. Our world is scary and unpredictable, but perhaps maybe not so much more than the world of our parents or the world of our grandparents or the world of our great-grandparents. And even if it is much, much worse, shouldn’t that mean we should try much, much harder to make it better — with others?

Social isolation is associated with poor health outcomes. We are social creatures and we all need some interaction with other human beings. Some of us need a lot more than others, but we all need a little bit.

Which brings me to crafting.

The practice of craft — taking dedicated time to develop a skill by hand — is often done alone. Maybe you’re practicing an instrument or refining a wood table you whipped up in your massive garage/woodshop. Maybe you’re finishing a novel on your kitchen table or perfecting the perfect bread that you made from scratch. Whatever your craft is, you probably are used to doing it alone.

Then, perhaps, you take a picture of whatever your craft product is and you put it on the internet and possibly you’ve developed a community around that craft, virtually. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you sell that craft or have otherwise figured out to commodify the process of you crafting. 

And that’s great. I do that, too.

But what if, you communed with other people and worked on a craft together? How would that change your work? How would that change what you make? 

I think there’s a lot of value in working on one’s craft alone and it’s pretty necessary for anyone seriously developing a skill. 

But I also think that casual crafting with other people — strangers and friends — can actually help us find and nurture community. It can be another way to veg out. It can be an alternative to Netflix and chill. 

And it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how young you are, or whether or not you have any actual talent in the craft you decide to try. 

It just matters that you are dedicating time, with other people, to develop a skill by hand. 

Perhaps, over time, you’ll build community. 

How do you find/nurture/create community? Let me know!