Building Communities As Alternative Lifestyles
February 10, 2011 1:46 PM   Subscribe

For a long time now I've been aching to feel part of a larger community. Have you ever felt this way? How did you handle it? Have you ever built or been a part of a tight-knit social circle or community that lasted?

(For clarity's sake, when I say community I mean, ideally, between 10-30 people, although that's just what I picture in my head, not a requirement.)

I graduated from college five years ago and since then I've missed that feeling of belonging to a wider community. I still have some great friends and a loving family, but something's missing. And I don't mean a romantic partner - I've been in wonderful relationships and still longed to be part of a group. A group of people who all know each other and love and support each other and are active in each other's lives and challenge each other to be awesome. I'd much rather work on building that than aiming for 2.5 kids and a home in the suburbs.

Do you feel like you belong to a (off-line) community? How did you find/make it? What aspects do you find the most fulfilling? Have you ever tried and failed to build a community? I'm interested in any and all opinions/dreams/experiences/recommendations you might have on the subject.

And just to mention a couple of avenues I have considered - I know a lot of people turn to religious organizations for a sense of community, but I'm an agnostic/atheist. (And in general, the kind of community I'd want to be a part of would be very tolerant and open to/encouraging of alternative lifestyles.) Also, I'm interested in moving into a co-op but won't be able to logistically until next fall.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard good things about The United Church for people who want the community aspects of organized religion, but without so much emphasis on the religion aspects of organized religion. I don't have first-hand experience, though.

Checkout and similar sites for industry-related community groups. I'm a geek in a fairly tech-heavy area so it's kind of easy for me to find things like user groups, hacker spaces, various regularly-occurring Camp-style unconferences, etc. Many of the events that I'm interested in the general interest area overlap and there's familiar faces here and there that over time become easier to say hi to and chat up and such. Industry-related groups especially are geared towards networking so even if you're shy (which I am) there's a good chance people are going to come up and start talking to you because that's kind of the point.
posted by cCranium at 1:56 PM on February 10, 2011

Community theater.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:59 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out this other current thread.
posted by adamrice at 2:00 PM on February 10, 2011

Roller derby.
posted by corvine at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

People who do improv are like this.
posted by oreofuchi at 2:19 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Find out what interests you value. if you are in even a moderate-sized city then you can find enough like minded people that may already be involved in that interest or enough that you can corral into joining you. Examples include any sports activity like baseball or volleyball or cycling, history, music, comedy, movies, theater, books, singing, art, LARP'ng, photography, woodworking, dancing, urban-exploring, etc.

There are so many possibilities it is hard not to find dozens of things that you could build a community out of. Any activity can create bonds among strangers.
posted by JJ86 at 2:20 PM on February 10, 2011

It's hard to make friends when you leave college, definitely.

There have been two times since I graduated college that I have looked around and thought, "Wow, I really need some friends." Both were after I moved somewhere new. And both times I found a solid community through some kind of organization or even multiple organizations. If I liked the group and I was consistent about attending it, I was eventually part of it. It took some time and persistence, but it worked out.

The second time I actually started my own group on Meetup. I just started it in December 2009. Again, it took some persistence on my part, but eventually I attracted some like-minded people. Less than a year later, I had a new group of several friends that work really well together. We go out and do fun things all the time in addition to our Meetup events, and it's such a friendly group. It's probably made better that all of us were in the same boat this time last year- looking for new friends. But we remain friendly to newcomers as well. I think these are people I will know for a long time.

It's easy to tell other people to be persistent, but it can be really lonely to start a new group and then be the only one at the first or second or third group meeting. It can also be lonely to attend a meeting and feel kind of left out of an existing group dynamic, where it looks like everyone already knows each other really well. But persistence and consistency is key. Further, reach out on Facebook to people you've met, and have the courage to ask people to hang out beyond the organized events. It works. It really does.

I can't say that this will immediately bring you the kind of solid community family that you're talking about, because that kind of thing takes a lot of time to build, usually with people who are somewhat settled, geographically and lifestyle-wise (which is hard to find in your mid-20s, at least where I've lived). But you'll start to find new people, and those people will know people, and on and on. And then some of them will drop out and others will come in, and that's how it goes!
posted by aabbbiee at 2:24 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'd much rather work on building that than aiming for 2.5 kids and a home in the suburbs.

Having a family and connecting with my neighbours has filled far, far greater voids in my personal life than every club, society or organisational role I've ever had in my entire life, or will ever have.

A group of people who all know each other and love and support each other and are active in each other's lives and challenge each other to be awesome.

Yeah, that doesn't exist. Try 'loose collectives of individuals who revolve around wildly different views of a common goal and who, while occasionally getting something good done, actually spend most of their time in little cliques whiteanting each other and seeking personal power and glory.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:27 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's sometimes possible to have this feeling with your work associates. You're all somewhat dedicated to a common purpose, experiencing and solving shared problems. It can be a lovely thing when it works. When evaluating career and employment choices, think about whether the group working there looks like a group you'd like to be part of. This can be more important than the pay or the work itself.
posted by Corvid at 2:28 PM on February 10, 2011

I also found exactly this in roller derby.
posted by palegirl at 2:30 PM on February 10, 2011

A group of people who all know each other and love and support each other and are active in each other's lives and challenge each other to be awesome.

This is what I got from sports. Along with a rockin' bod. But mostly a great community of people. I see them often (workouts, regattas, etc) and even live with some of them as roomates. We have common interests and our sport attracts people who kind of value the same things (honesty, trust, community, friends, beer...) but have widely varying personalities and interests, which is great for making friends! It is a great way to do two good things for yourself at once - physical activity and community-building. I personally have rowing as a sport, but people find these connections in roller derby (as noted above), running, volleyball, any kind of sport. And you don't have to be good at it, just consistently show up!

Sport is really what got me out of my shell in university and I credit it greatly with helping me find a community that I love being a part of.
posted by hepta at 2:42 PM on February 10, 2011

Way back in the day, in another town in another state, I went to lunch at the same place, most days, year in, year out. The wait staff eventually called whatever table I sat at "chia", because they'd bring iced tea, and it would grow and morph and we'd take over neighboring tables and people would leave, and...

A few business ventures and a couple of really strong life-long friendships came out of that. There are two friends out of that group who could call me say "I need you to meet me at the Williston North Dakota airport with $30k in cash tomorrow" and I'd ask "what time?"

More recently, I've got a group that went hiking every Sunday morning for years. The group isn't as cohesive as it once was, but we shared each other's triumphs and tragedies, from participating in blockbuster movies, to Emmy awards, to helping move after a divorce, and even though we haven't been hiking much recently still bat email around a bunch.

And when I moved to the town I currently reside in, I decided I was never going to move again. So I got involved in town politics, specifically serving on an advisory committee. That's given me some great discussions and feelings of shared goals and challenges. And frustrations, but when I go for coffee in the morning I have something to talk to nearly everyone who lives in my town about.

I too have eschewed the 2.5 kids and the white picket fence (well, okay, my house does have one of those on one side), but, yeah, I've had enough "I wouldn't give my kids up for the world, but if I had it to do over again" conversations, and seen enough of the joy of people who are doing what they love, that I think there's plenty of fulfillment to be had outside of the confines of the stereotypical life in the 'burbs.

Which is basically the long way of saying: Consistently be willing to be the center of that group. Pick something, lunch, a regular hike, whatever, and show up. Week after week. Tell your friends. Show up when you're sick, or even when you think nobody else will. Just be the core of that group, and it will form around you.
posted by straw at 2:42 PM on February 10, 2011 [11 favorites]

After posting, also what hepta said. Cycling is my sport of choice, and has led to some other good connections.
posted by straw at 2:43 PM on February 10, 2011

I strongly recommend moving into a co-op. I've lived in one for five years, and it has been one of the most valuable, precious experiences I've ever had. You get to know people much better than you do with work friends, and generally people are kind, caring, and supportive. Not to say that problems don't crop up, but people that have made a conscious choice to enter a group-living situation are usually able to sort things out.
posted by number9dream at 2:44 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that doesn't exist. Try 'loose collectives of individuals who revolve around wildly different views of a common goal and who, while occasionally getting something good done, actually spend most of their time in little cliques whiteanting each other and seeking personal power and glory.'

Gee whiz, obiwanwasabi. You're lucky you have a family and neighborhood that ISN'T like that, but many families and neighborhoods actually are LUCKY if they fit this description.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:44 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

"A group of people who all know each other and love and support each other and are active in each other's lives and challenge each other to be awesome.

Yeah, that doesn't exist."

Yeah, no, I have that.

It IS hard in your early 20s, and it IS easier when you're geographically settled and have some stability in your life so you can become part of a community. I moved to a place I knew NO ONE, following a spousal job, and was self-employed when we got here. So I knew no one and I wasn't really meeting anyway. Things I did:

I took a ton of classes in whatever struck my fancy through local museums, community rec, the community college, etc. Met nice people, made some friends.

Joined a volunteer organization. In my case, the Junior League, a women's volunteer organization. That let me meet and really get to know a lot of other women who shared values with me (voluntarism, importance of community, etc.) but who were very diverse in all other ways. Junior League also emphasizes the social aspects of the group, which helped.

Joined a book club. A couple of women I knew from the League had seen one on Meetup and decided to give it a shot, and I finagled my way into going along, and it took about a year to settle into a stable group, but THAT is where I turned out to find my tribe. There are 8 of us and we are active in each others' lives and love and support each other and we are in fact awesome already. :) All of us are currently married, but we've been in various marital and romantic statuses; some of us have kids, some don't, and the kids range from 18 to not-yet-born; we have different levels of education and wealth; but none of that matters. We paint each others' redecorated rooms, drive each other to the doctor when anesthesia is involved, pick up each others' kids, babysit for each other, organize a cooking squad when someone has a baby/death in the family/knee surgery, cheerlead each other through challenges, and throw parties for each other when we succeed. (We were all fit to bust when one of the women made it through her final semester as a full-time college student, full-time employee at a demanding job, and full-time mom to two teenagers, finally finishing her B.A. just this winter. We had a huge party! We all felt like proud mothers because we'd picked up her kids at extracurriculars if she had to be on campus late, brought her dinner during finals, etc., and told her 8 zillion times that she was awesome and could do it.)

Anyway, there are two key things here:
1) You gotta keep getting out there, over and over and over again. Making friends is hard. You have to play the odds and keep trying. My general theory on life is that if you always say yes, the worst thing that happens is you have an excruciatingly boring Saturday and never go back to that particular activity; mostly, by always saying, "Sure! That sounds fun!" or "I'd love to help!" I meet interesting people and try interesting things. Your 20s is a great time to do this before you have too many other responsibilities. Finding the right people is largely a matter of luck.

2) One of the really key things I've found about my "group" is that they AREN'T cliquey. Some of the women in the core group are closer than others, but not in a way that EVER feels excluded. (Two of the girls have been friends since fourth grade!) But I never feel like if A & B, who are BFFs, are doing something, I couldn't invite myself along and be welcome. And they're not exclusive towards "outsiders" either; new people would generally be welcome (and have been). Everyone in the group is very generous and open with friendship, so there's none of the horrible cliqueyness or gossiping or other ugliness. (Flipside: there aren't really minor secrets; if you tell it to one person in the group and it's not a big frakkin' secret, you can basically assume everyone, and their husbands, is going to know it.)

Those would be my two pieces of advice: Just keep getting out there, and look for people who are generous and open-spirited with their friendship. Other than that, it's just a matter of luck and finding the people you click with!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:48 PM on February 10, 2011 [10 favorites]

Move to a small town; meet your neighbours. Previously
posted by kmennie at 2:52 PM on February 10, 2011

It seems that there are a bunch of us feeling the same ennui - too bad we don't all live in the same place.

I agree with what everyone else has said - and I practice what I preach. But sometimes the work of it is so overwhelming and tiring - and I'm no sure I'm getting back what I put in.

If it helps - I finally decided to find a new shrink in my new town and am spending the next year doing eveything I possibly can to find my people. Am also evaluating if this is just the wrong city for me.

Memail me if you'd like. Maybe the few of us experiencing this can form a little online enclave to share ideas, experiences, frustrations and successes. I'm not really a sharing-feelings-etc kind of girl typically, but what I've been doing isn't working.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 3:10 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just want to second volunteering. You meet a group of people who are pre-filtered for some of the qualities you want. Pick a cause that you think matters, and invest a bit of your time.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:16 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is not a huge amount out there, but secular communities do exist. And you don't have to live in them to belong. The trick is to adapt the connecting skills you used in the instant community of college to the life you find yourself in now or else to the one you will shortly create. And your other skills, too of course. If you are skilled physically, musically, etc. there are groups that want you. Political groups are always looking for members.

The big difference is that out-on-your-own friendships take time, a lot more than the ones that got created situationally in your youth. You might get discouraged if you don't realize that.

You can increase the efficiency of the endeavor if you do a candid self-assessment. Do you like meetings? Are you open to being friends with people older than you? If not, is that something you can change? How much time do you have to devote to this community? It's not a good match if the community requires more time than you have in order to be fully engaged. Are you willing to drive to get to the community? Move? Is the community you want diverse? If so, in what way? Both sexes? LGBT? Race? Age? Politics? Skilled versus unskilled? What kind of relationship mistakes have you made in the past? Was it something you need to watch out for now as you seek a community?

And here is my last tip, when you test the waters in some community and they offer you a job at your first meeting, don't say yes right away. The job might end up being something thankless that is actually pretty solitary. That gets you nowhere at all. Ask first what are all the jobs that need doing and pick one that is done on a committee or subgroup.

Good luck. You learn this you are set for life!
posted by Prayless at 3:54 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Join a food coop and work there a few hours a week. I've met some wonderful people that way.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:00 PM on February 10, 2011

Well, the one I was in broke up within the last year and I am STILL reeling/pissed off at everyone flaking out of it, so... take this with a grain of salt.

It may depend on where you live. I live in a town where most people move away after 2-3 years, so community members revolving around a particular activity tend to disappear after that. If your community revolves around a location (example: volunteer job), it is probably more likely to be stable.

Unfortunately, most people DO prefer the 2.5 kids and a spouse thing, so a lot of people either drop out of communities when moving or when having a family. It's something that those of us who aren't taking that path get frustrated with a lot: you find someone awesome and then they have a kid and would rather do time with other mommies and such.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:16 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing volunteering. I'm part of a real community here:
posted by bananafish at 7:47 PM on February 10, 2011

I have this. It's unusual, and it's hard. I was unfortunately not around for its formation (I effectively married in, although we're not married), but I can speak to some of its maintenance, what's worked, etc.

- A gathering place. This manifests in a couple of houses where people know they can drop by anytime -- they used to be left unlocked, but now have those awesome combination door locks, so people can still just come and go as they want to.
- A regular gathering with food. For about six years, we got together once a week to eat food and read aloud. This was the event the community bloomed out of. We don't do it anymore.
- A core group of people devoted to making it happen.

We found each other in our mid-twenties, on the cusp of quarter-life crises. We mostly live far away from our families of origin. Many of us went to church growing up, or had a serious craving for a community, but are atheistic/agnostic as adults. Many of us are queer. (Now, a lot of those things are still true, but more of us are in our early/mid thirties, own our homes and are stable in our careers. The first babies are arriving within the next couple of weeks.)

It is hard. People change, and that means the makeup of the group changes and fluctuates over time. Because the US society isn't built around the idea of community, people sometimes have a hard time with it and reach a point where they feel like the socially acceptable thing to do is move to the 'burbs and have 2.5 kids. A couple who I particularly felt close to up and moved far away for a job. He still visits occasionally; she has basically stopped talking to any of us. I miss them so much it hurts. And any time there is a group of people, there is drama.

The benefits, though, are real and overwhelming. We've supported each other through breakups and periods of unemployment and the diagnoses of scary illnesses. I always know where I'm going for Thanksgiving and Passover. When my partner was in a bike accident (before I met him), he had someone to call to meet him at the ER. I'm due with our first child in ten days, and I cannot imagine having decided to do this without these people. (The only other way would be if I lived close to my bio family.) They've gone out of their way to organize a baby shower, help us cook meals to freeze, find baby stuff at garage sales, make us quilts and clothing. The postpartum food delivery (and dog walking) network is already set up and running. None of these people have kids; many of them aren't planning to.

I guess my point is: They do exist. They are very unusual. This one has been developing over the past seven or eight years, some of which have been blissful and some of which have been painful.

My best advice is to take friends you already have, and start inviting them over once a week. Encourage them to bring their friends. Make a giant dinner. Be persistent about making this happen. If there are people who come back every week, there's your core group. Leave plenty of space for meaningful conversation, for people to bond, and take the time to get to know some of these folks better outside of your weekly gathering. When you meet someone interesting, invite them along. Be kind and loving. Be accepting of differences. Be very patient.
posted by linettasky at 10:07 PM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Start hosting a regular potluck. Don't get rattled by how many or few people show up on any given week/month; just keep inviting whomever.
posted by salvia at 11:38 PM on February 10, 2011

I also found this in Roller Derby.
posted by hannahlambda at 4:41 AM on February 11, 2011

You can have this in the suburbs too, you know; my parents did (and do). People are still people, even in the suburbs. Promise. Frankly I find it hard to imagine anything more soul-sucking than spending ALL my time with my family and having NO outside social outlets. I love my family, but they're a lot of work. I need more people than that. People whom I don't have to clean up after.

As for parents, I'm not hanging out with other moms because it's my idea of great joy; it's because my toddler is too young to go to playdates by himself and he needs to socialize. (In fact, maybe it's good for me because I have to hang out with people I wouldn't pick as friends on my own, necessarily, but my kid likes their kid so I meet a greater diversity of people, most of whom are perfectly nice.) I am DELIGHTED to hang out with childfree friends who get what a restriction a young child is on your activities -- and many do. But some don't. Like if we meet for lunch during the day, as a stay-at-home-mom, my kid is coming with us. It's easiest for me to go out solo on Fridays and Saturdays, when my husband is happy to stay home with the little people ... but a lot of childfree folks prefer to have "date night" on those nights. And toddlers don't understand sleeping in on the weekends, so I'm a pumpkin at 10 regardless of night of the week. If I have a newborn, the longest I can be away from home is two hours before my boobs are about to explode and I must go pump or feed (happy to formula supplement, but boobs don't stop producing just because dad's giving a formula bottle back at home!). And I have a lot more flexibility than many parents, since I'm married and have a spouse who's delighted to look after the kids so I can go out. There are lots of single parents out there, and lots of spouses who see childcare as not their problem.

My childfree friends who do get that, I hang out with all the time. Some of them just don't mind the kid and will watch him for 2 minutes so I can go pee alone (bliss!); some of them love library children (the ones you borrow and then give back as soon as they're cranky) and he's just as much a draw as I am. Either of these is fine. They'll suggest hanging out and I'll say, "How do you feel about going to the zoo and walking extremely slowly?" If that's their idea of a good time, we can spend HOURS chatting together while the toddler "races" (in tiny toddler steps) from exhibit to exhibit with very little parental attention required.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:08 AM on February 11, 2011

I want to second and also say a little bit more about living in a cooperative house.

I have lived in a coop for about four years. There are fifteen of us. We are not all alike in our interests, we came together pretty much by chance just because this house has been here. Some I consider my close friends, others are more like close neighbors, but everyone feels like family. We eat dinner together every night. You don't have to come to dinner but everyone's there at least a few nights a week. We share chores and groceries through a relatively formal system and we have a weekly meeting. We have put a lot of work into having a good group dynamic and it has paid off - we make decisions together with little conflict, and when there is conflict we always work it out.

So I have these people who are around at all hours of the day. If I want a chat or a snack or a buddy to watch a movie with, someone is always there. When my car ran out of gas on the highway I knew who to call. When I was sick and did nothing but work and sleep for a week, there was always dinner and a warm hug waiting for me at home. Seriously, this is it. It can exist.

People form new co-ops all the time. You can find a list of them at, the website for intentional communities. Good luck! Memail me if you want more details on how to get one up and running.
posted by mai at 1:53 PM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I joined a kickball league for "young professionals," i.e. for people who are out of college but still immature enough to want to drink and have fun on weeknights. It's been a lot of fun. I look forward to going, even when it's raining or 20 degrees out. I've met a lot of people around my age with similar lifestyles who live in my town.
posted by kidsleepy at 6:48 AM on February 14, 2011

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