By Mikole Levran
I was recently told by a new acquaintance that I’m a community builder: I pinpoint people’s strengths, then build on them, helping to mold them in a way that will better relationships among others; I create spaces where people can be their true selves and feel accepted by all.
When they said this to me, I found myself confused. I had just met this person a week prior and already they were telling me something I have never heard before — but something I soon realized I have been doing all my life.
Different scenes from my past played in my head of community building — working at a summer camp, teaching group initiative classes, studying community development in college, living in cooperative housing, engaging with fellow students leaders on college campuses. A strong sense of community had always been integral to my life — I had grown up in the Jewish bubble of West Bloomfield, Michigan, with generally the same people my entire life. It all made sense, yet not once had I been called a “community builder” and definitely not by a stranger.
On March 4, I had left one of my strongest communities: My home of 25 years. I said my goodbyes, driving down the roads I knew with my eyes closed, eating my favorite meals (more than once) and waving to my favorite tree on my front lawn. I found myself feeling pretty decent about my first big move, knowing I would someday be back to this little suburb of mine.
“It all made sense, yet not once had I been called a ‘community builder’ and definitely not by a stranger. ”
I arrived to my new city of Baltimore later that day with my mom and car, still feeling good; my new job was going to start in a couple of days, but my housing situation was nonexistent, and the roads threateningly all seemed to be one-ways — It will all work out… eventually, I told myself.
I started my job with an open mind, ready to learn. As an outdoor and farm educator for an outdoor education campus and retreat center, I was excited to explore new woods, and a farm with greenhouses and a pasture of goats and chickens. I would teach the customary classes, add some personal flare to existing programs and create some new curricula.
The first event I facilitated happened in mid March: A coworker and I taught a pickling course to a corporate group. At first our guests had a hard time believing in the simplicity of fermentation, but as we explained the process, their faces lit up with excitement. Soon they were adding spices and garlic cloves, cutting their cucumbers into all sorts of shapes and even making extra jars for their family members, despite some personal vendettas against pickles. By the end of the night people walked away with a new skill, exclaiming how easy it was! For those few hours, we had created a community around pickles, and people were overjoyed.
That was my first time pickling cucumbers and the first of many classes I would teach at my new job. Not a bad start. I was astonished at how easy the process of pickling cabbage and cucumbers was and immediately began thinking about how I might experiment with other products.
After teaching that class, I was feeling good about my new job and my first big move. I felt welcomed by my new team members as we hung out with some adorable goats in the beautiful rolling hills of northern Maryland.
But still, some uneasiness lingered. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but soon, it hit me.
“For those few hours, we had created a community around pickles, and people were overjoyed.”
I was finally experiencing what many of my friends had been through when they first moved away from home post-college. But my nerves were not about the job — my work routine was actually the most comforting. For someone who “builds community,” it was the social aspect of moving that eventually brought me to tears. It was thinking about whether I could still fulfill that defining piece of me in a strange place among faces I didn’t recognize.
Did I even want to create community here? The question sounded a bit ridiculous because my usual answer is, “Of course!,” but for some reason, this time I was stumbling for those words.
You know when the saying “you only live once” started to become a thing, and everyone was always saying, “Just say YES?” Well, I hated that. Why do I have to say “yes” to something when I really don’t want to? Do I have to say “yes” to building community everywhere I go simply because I am seen as a community builder?
I think it’s interesting that in order to feel welcomed to a new place we are encouraged to go out and explore and be social right away. What if that is the exact opposite of how a person works? What would happen if this time I started to build my community a couple months after arriving in a new place? How many times do I have to say “yes” to attending events and meeting new people before I can say “no?”
As my feelings fermented, I realized moving is a big deal, and for those who say it’s not, they probably haven’t experienced a community as deeply rooted as mine.
I’m sure I’ll create another community in Baltimore — it’s my nature. But like those pickles, I just need time.
Mikole Levran works as an outdoor and farm educator just outside Baltimore at Pearlstone Center, where she loves exploring the woods and getting nibbled by baby goats.