What makes ‘community’?

Dr Belinda Burns, Director of Communications and Engagement

In recent years, the term ‘community’ has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, perhaps as antidote to a world in which technology and social media has led to an increase in solitary engagement with screens and devices. A cynic might argue the word has become hackneyed through over-use in utterance of a vague yearning for something we have lost. However, there is value in contemplating the ascendancy of the word, its usage, as shorthand for all that is good about a place or institution.

Strictly defined as ‘a group of people living in the same place or having the same particular characteristic in common’, ‘community’ also carries subjective associations to human connection, a sense of belonging, or shared responsibility. We hanker—particularly those of us who are mature enough to remember pre-digital times—for the simple connection of being in a group, feeling part of something beyond the family nucleus. Indeed, as Hugh Mackay argues in his book, The Art of Belonging (2014), something has been lost, and many would like it back—that easy, spontaneous interaction with friends and neighbours, strangers whose faces are familiar through regular chance encounter, on the street or at the local coffee shop (the modern iteration of the village square).

Of course, busy-ness is also to blame. For how can spontaneity happen when every hour, every minute is preordained? If social media is the death of boredom, then busy-ness is the death of spontaneity, and it’s ironic yet worthwhile in these times to schedule periods of nothing, if only to preserve the beautiful possibility of the randomness. Once upon a time, the weekend quarantined this space. Shops closed at midday and the rest of the weekend acquired a different feel—a more languid atmosphere where time palpably slowed in concert with cricket on the radio, the sounds of sprinklers, lawn mowers, kids playing down the street.

With its associations to tribal, village lives lived in connection and positive, pre-industrialised interdependence, ‘community’ is part of this halcyon picture. The word is hard to define absolutely because it means different things to different people. At its core though, ‘community’ is about the collective, in contrast to the individual. It is also about commonality—individuals bound by something shared, be it place or purpose or both. The word is also vulnerable to misappropriation, applied to engender a sense of warmth to a location or brand in order to make it seem more welcoming or dynamic. However, genuine community will exhibit the intangible, hard-to-quantify attributes of authentic human connection forged through a common purpose of benefit to the collective. Or, as Mackay states: ‘a ‘good life’ is not lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust, and within an environment of mutual respect’ (2014).

For parents, schools are a natural place to find ‘community’. Primary schools, in particular, model ‘community’, with most families living in close proximity to the school and united in wishing to keep their children safe and happy, and to provide them with the best education possible. It is a simple equation and, from experience, the bonds evolve quite organically. Although some parents are able to contribute more time and energy than others due to work and other commitments, everyone is bonded nonetheless by a unanimous desire to raise happy, healthy children with bright prospects for the future.

Girls Grammar, as an institution devoted to the highest educational outcomes for girls, also models strong attributes of ‘community’. The School’s purpose is unwavering and has been since 1875. How many organisations can credit such longevity not only in existence (and locality), but also in purpose? It is a purpose that remains as critical now as it was then (in the municipality of Brisbane where girls were only educated to the age of 11 or 12) and that requires a full and devoted community of dedicated teaching and professional staff and supportive parents, alongside strength in leadership, vision and intent.

The universe of Girls Grammar orbits around its charges, 1400 or so girls, aged 11 to 17, all with different talents, dreams and personalities. The job of not only educating, but also building character, resilience, integrity, self-knowledge and drive among this group of girls and young women is, for our educators and student care staff at the School, a privilege; neither is it a task taken lightly or performed without the greatest of effort, care and expertise. The community of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, encompassing everyone from the Principal through to our teachers, our wonderful parents and their support groups, the professional staff and the girls themselves, is connected inextricably by this noblest of causes. It makes us strong. It makes us determined. It also makes us happy; for being a part of a community, knowing that we are part of an institution focused on a higher purpose—in this case, the education of tomorrow’s generation of women—does this.

Writer Orson Scott Card famously stated, ‘Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.’ Being a part of the Girls Grammar community defines who we are and why we are still here, 144 years and 22 000 girls later, educating our girls to be intelligent, fearless contributors to society.



Mackay, H. (2014). The Art of Belonging, Sydney: Pan Macmillan.