What is community: Interview with Sharon Cawood

Sharon Cawood is currently an Area Director for N2 Publishing, a national company serving over 800 communities in 49 states – Turning Neighborhoods Into Communities. She’s experienced in business start-up operations – site research and development, forecasting, budget development, and marketing strategy development.  She has also worked in business development – including marketing and sales in the fields of human resources, technology based services, and small business as well as helping organizations in areas of troubleshooting and disaster recovery.  Cawood graduated with a B.S. from Tusculum College in Organizational Management and an M.A. in Human Resource Development.

NP: The word “community” has many definitions, from society, to an area of people, neighborhood or association and so forth. Given your experience with N2 Publishing and serving local neighborhoods how would you define community? How is it changing?

Cawood: The word “community” has multiple meanings and is continuing to evolve. Growing up, I considered the area where I lived, which was mostly a farming part of Knoxville, TN, to be my community. We didn’t live in a subdivision so my community was much broader. With the move of many families to subdivisions, communities in one sense have diminished in size. The downstream effect was attitudes changed with respect to the community one might belong to.

Many factors play into why. Mom and dad often work outside the home and the subdivisions become bedroom communities – the population leaves in the morning and returns in the evening.  In such a case, you don’t find people sitting on their front porches. In fact, few homes have a front porch large enough to accommodate a couple of chairs. And, you don’t see your neighbors unless you happen to drive by when they are getting the mail. We became more isolated behind our doors. If we ventured outside, we were probably in the back yard hidden from their neighbors. And if we did see then we simply waved as we got into our cars.

I think this is just one reason social media has taken off so well. People are hungry for friends and relationships. If you live in a large city like New York you may have only a handful of real friends you can hang out with and perhaps feel safe with. Many have no family around. Even living in a high-rise building, you probably only know a few of the residents and may never socialize with any of them.

I think the “friend me” frenzy on Facebook and Twitter and other social media over time will mellow out.  I’ve already seen some folks getting tired of constant posting and interruptions and have reduced their interaction with their social media friends.

We are still figuring all that out. It’s just like the telephone – when everyone starting installing home phones, I’m sure there was a lot of chatter going on with constant catching up with your friends and family. Facebook and social media are much like that right now.

NP: In your experience how do you see the affects of technology and lifestyles on “community?” Are we becoming a nation of “lifestyle” communities? And is there an isolation that’s occurring among those communities you are familiar with?

Cawood: As far as technology goes with social media and everyone having a phone on them 24/7, we do tend to talk and share more with family and friends. However, if you think about it, this may not be more than our grandparents did with their families and friends. Remember, they would come in from the fields and talk over dinner. They spent all day together out in the fields and barns. They were together a lot more than we are together with our families and our communities.

People do seem to gravitate toward those who have similar interests and behaviors. Look at the private groups on Facebook alone. You could probably find just about any group you are seeking out there.

I don’t see most communities becoming more isolated as people seem to belong to several different groups. Much like having lots of different interests and not all of the interests related.  I may belong to a Facebook group that loves to try out new restaurants and another group that is all about home schooling or horses.  Do I really consider these groups, communities?  Some are, but not all. Am I really a member if I don’t interact with everyone? I think you can make your communities and you may have many different levels of communities.

NP: Do you anticipate there will be other expressions of what might be considered a community in the future?

Cawood:  I think there will always be a need for a community type relationship. We are human. Most of us don’t really want to be isolated and live alone. We need interactions with other humans. I talked with a senior caregiver the other day and he was sharing with me how many seniors he sees who really just need interaction with other people. They are lonely.  I think there will always be a mix of social communities, geographically defined communities, family communities, religious communities, university communities, etc.

We are much more mobile now than a generation or two ago. We move and change careers more often. I see people who hold on to those relations via social media when they are forced to geographically move. They stay connected with their “old” communities even if they cannot be there to run around with them.

We have snowbirds that have communities where they live in the North and in the South. With social media and the phone they can keep the communications open all year around.

Social activities seem to be more important now than ever. Since we don’t say hi to our neighbors and talk across the fence, social events are our only opportunities to sit and talk with each other.

I think in summary the traditional characteristics of community are being redefined and transformed by technology and online communities, the increasing diversity of lifestyles, the economy and the growing separation between classes, personal and professional working habits, military and corporate communities and transportation and mobility among other factors. We are experiencing dynamic changes in the very nature of community and how we relate to each other as human beings.