Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice (1998) was a revolution in my professional life. I had been working with groups and networks and local communities – that there might be communities that grew up around an aspect of human life was a revelation. Of course – only relationships sustained over time can develop and hold a practice!
Going back to Wenger recently, I was struck by the way I hadn’t really heard that. My attention had gone instead to the practices of the practice. The doable, describable stuff. The things a consultant can put into a report and get paid for.
But I see now that it’s the commitment to a shared enterprise that provides the social force for forming and maintaining the relationships within which practices develop. Whatever articulations of practice might be assembled by or in the midst of a community are interesting, but the relationships around the enterprise are primary. The repertoire of practice is the visible, tangible sign of the life of those relationships, not the life itself.
This is clearer to me now settled here in Riddells Creek, committed to the enterprise of living here. I am looking around for people who share that enterprise, people like Greg, at the head of this post.
Greg lives half a kilometre away, where the bitumen turns to dirt, the other end of BarrmBirrm, the place I look after. Like me, Greg walks through BarrmBirrm and notices things, and nudges things in what seems like a helpful direction. He’s a practical guy too, a 4WDer. He told me about the 4WD club that cleared out mechanical debris in the early days of the rescue BarrmBirrm from being ‘just bush’. I realised again there is network of care around BarrmBirrm, that might become a community of practice.
Then there’s the town itself. We have been meeting recently to make ‘a Climate Action Plan’.
I’m glad for the Shire’s sponsoring that effort, even though the idea of a plan seems to me almost entirely ill-directed, the future being inherently unstable and emergent from our efforts as residents. Agency is as likely set back by ‘a plan’ as it is advanced by it, though it’s true that is in our hands.
The workshops gave us interested residents a reason to gather in one place, and meet others who want to ‘do something.’ It won’t be enough, a plan. We need ongoing conversations, and I’m pleased that instead of complaining, I’ve set to running some of those, ones I wanted to put more time into myself.
I have been paid professionally to facilitate communities of practice, but it’s only living here in a small valley of the Macedon Ranges, a resident, that I’ve come to appreciate how ‘community’ is something felt and lived. The shared enterprise is primary; a wild diversity of resources contribute to the practice, but these…
‘… gain their coherence not in and of themselves as specific activities, symbols, or artifacts, but from the fact that they belong to the practice of a community pursuing an enterprise.’ (p 82)
This is a good thing to come to now, and I would have wished for it earlier, but you gotta be thankful whenever such things finally settle in!