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Gippslandia writer, Shelley Banders shares that a sense of community only emerged once she left Melbourne and settled her family into the South Gippsland town they now call home.

Jul 1, 2023

Words: Shelley Banders
Images: Nicky Cawood

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Community. It is definitely one of ‘those’ words. It gets thrown around perhaps a little too often, especially at eye-rolling capacities by organisations or in idealistic terms by brands hoping to bind a random set of people together for profit. Join our online community* and get 10% off your next purchase!

(*No guarantee of any authentic sense of human togetherness)

Misused and misunderstood, what is community anyway? And where does it emerge?

For me, a sense of community only emerged once I left Melbourne. Perhaps there were too many overlapping social circles in the city and I fell through the gaps of meaningfully belonging to any one of them in particular.

“I genuinely believe that this kind of social cohesion will be our strongest tool for resilience going forward...”

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Shelley Banders at the Fish Creek Tea Cosy Festival (18-26th May 2024) photographed by Nicky Cawood in Gippslandia #31.
Shelley Banders at the Fish Creek Tea Cosy Festival (18-26th May 2024) photographed by Nicky Cawood in Gippslandia #31.

When my partner and I moved to Gippsland, community was revealed to us through two significant spaces: a tiny public hall in the township of Strzelecki where we lived, and a café in Korumburra where we worked. Both were meeting places, both were public offerings and both were made possible by groups of people who were willing and generous in spirit.

We could see it when people showed up to things and did the work, when offers for meals were extended, when phone numbers were exchanged or when opportunities to help were identified. It was in the details – the remembering of names, the smile on the street, the wave to the passing car – and in conversation – listening and being heard, even when opinions were not unanimous. With all of my ‘big city ways’, this was a humbling experience.

These initial connections were our entry points; they acted as beacons across the uncharted lands in which we found ourselves. These spaces only existed because locals made a choice to sustain them, to serve their township. This effort made by relative strangers gave us our bearings and enamoured our decision to live regionally. As pioneering 20th century Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky put it, “Through others we become ourselves.”

During February’s storm that tore through South Gippsland, we had food because our next-door neighbour Steve chucked a generator lead over the fence for our fridge. Our friend Nicky spent a night on our couch because she ran out of fuel while passing through town and even petrol stations were without power. As the days went on, locals with backup power opened their homes for those without so that people could shower. The local timber yard set up a free tea and coffee station. I could have cried at this quiet gesture alone.

I genuinely believe that this kind of social cohesion will be our strongest tool for resilience going forward – for making collective decisions, solving problems effectively, preserving the environment and caring for the vulnerable.

The question I find myself asking often is: How can I be of service to my community?

Someone who speaks with much wisdom on this topic is Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer of over 60 years, Hugh Mackay. He says this of community, “The deepest sense of life’s meaning and purpose arises from our interdependence and, in turn, our willingness to relate to others and respond to their needs.”

I try to live by this.

In fact, I've been called a ‘serial volunteer’ and, while I don't see myself as nearly comparable to the devoted committee members keeping community organisations running, my volunteer commitments – spanning from conservation to peacekeeping – do sometimes leave me feeling stretched beyond my natural capacity. But, it helps me feel useful and it gets me out of my head and into my hands. I want to model to my children what healthy participation looks like and plant forests for a lifetime beyond my own. I am hopeful for their future. Whether turning sausages with Rotary, restoring koala habitat at Wilsons Prom, or sharing stories here in Gippslandia, I hope these actions can act as beacons for anyone else who might be looking for their version of community.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 31

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