Many communities may say they have community spirit but Wyoming, Ohio may just have more:
In Wyoming, it seems, the homes are a little bit bigger, the students are a little bit smarter and now even the water tastes better.
This city of 8,428 people, which rests on 2.87 square miles of land in the Mill Creek valley, is lovely and charming. The people are affluent and well-educated and happy to tell you how great Wyoming is…
After providing some details about the mostly volunteer fire department, groups in the town that help the community, and the general civic engagement of the residents, a sociologist offers an explanation:
“In sociology, it’s what is called a virtuous cycle. The more people volunteer the more people volunteer,” said Jeff Timberlake, associate professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati.
Timberlake said for good things and for bad, a momentum can happen. When people organize in a way to help their community, it becomes easier for the next person to join.
“It is never just a fluke, when there is something sustained like this. It happens on purpose.”…
“Once a place has a tradition of volunteering, or a tradition of anything, really, it becomes ingrained,” Timberlake said.
That, he says, is a powerful social force. People want to belong, he said. And if you are the only person not helping your community, you can feel left out. That, he says, is a powerful social force.
“Soon enough, people ask themselves, ‘What does it mean to live here?’ ” Timberlake said. “In a place like Wyoming, it sounds like they know the answer.”
Another way we might describe this is to suggest that volunteerism is built into the character of the community. As Timberlake suggests, this character doesn’t simply happen: residents and local groups continually have to engage in the community. This community spirit could disappear rather quickly if the community, or enough residents, chose this. Then, you might be left with a more common split of community duties: 80% do little and 20% or less do most of the heavily lifting. By sustaining a culture where volunteerism and engagement is expected, the character of this community can continue.
It is not uncommon for community leaders to suggest that their community is active and engaged. I’m always a little skeptical when I hear this for two reasons:
(1) It makes the community look better so there is some self-interest here. What politician or leader wants to openly admit that people in their community don’t care? Even in the suburbs, a place where critics say few people know their neighbors or want to get involved in larger issues beyond their homes, it is a badge of honor to say that this particular suburb is a real community. There is also often an implicit comparison here between communities: with a leader saying that their town is really marked by volunteerism and a community spirit, the implication is often that other surrounding towns don’t offer the same.
(2) Few people have objective measures of community spirit or volunteerism. I wonder if leaders tend to think about what range of people are involved in the community: is it the same people all the time or are there different faces? Even then, could anyone say with certainty what percent of the adults in the community are truly engaged? Or even better, could you compare one town’s community spirit to the next town’s? There are ways you could get at this (perhaps start with Census data and look at the percentage of residents who have lived in the community more than five years) but I would guess few communities have this kind of evidence to back up their claims.
I don’t doubt that some communities have higher levels of engagement than others but getting at this in all its complexity certainly would require more evidence and work.