Pricing the Priceless: What is Community Worth?

What exactly is community? And how do you develop or engage it? These are the questions a colleague and I were trying to answer the other day as he considered how to appropriately teach his upcoming class titled “Community Engagement”. He is not new to the task of dropping graduate students into local community centers and telling them to collaboratively design a technology-based workspace with those already invested in the space. However there comes a time in the life of an academic when you wonder if your theoretical understanding of the most fundamental concepts are in fact accurate.

Now perhaps you – like many – are rolling your eyes right now, thinking sure, those academics, they can sit around in their historic brick buildings furiously publishing paper after paper on ‘Problems With the World’ while the rest of us are out here looking those problems in the eye. And to be fair I was on your side. Until. Until two key questions were asked that made me realize we might need answers to these questions we can stand on – because otherwise ‘We the People’ get caught up in the doing of the day-to-day. We lose sight of the defining characteristics of the concepts we think we value.

Which is why we need to pause and consider the answers to these 2 questions…

  1. What communities are you a part of?
  2. What defines those communities, or more importantly, what about them is valuable?

We are entering the age of Quantifiable Value. If something cannot be explicitly translated into it’s monetary net worth it likely will not be around for very long. Untamed ecosystems? Green space and fresh air in downtowns? Public spaces and events that do not turn a profit? Art? People must now defend these things with quantitative values that demonstrate their worth to society or at least its worth compared to the Walgreens that could take its place. By “people” I actually mean “the people who innately value them enough to fight for them”. They are the ones who measure value not in dollars but in beauty, nature, and human connection. They are the ones baking cookies for fundraisers, hosting support groups in their home, and spending their Saturdays pulling weeds in public spaces.

They are not the norm. The bulk of us are investing less in communities and more in ourselves –with our money, our time, our energy, and our actions. Have drifted from the communities we might have been a part of. Once you are no longer embedded in a social fabric that offers support for no cost other than support in return, it can be hard to know how much community is really worth. Is it worth getting off my couch, leaving my house, and going out of my comfort zone? Is it worth a tax increase?

It is hard to know, unless we have a sense of What is community and what is it worth?


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