Reflecting on communities, enabling the communal

Dagmar Narusson, Daniel Kotsjuba, Jan Teevet and Taavi Hallimäe

Published on 31.12.2023

Dagmar Narusson has a PhD in sociology, she is also a research fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies at the University of Tartu. As a communication coach, promoter and educator of the recovery mindset and experiential expertise in the field of mental health, she combines the principles and values of community development, Open Dialogue, coaching, and the diversity of human and natural life in her work. She is the author of Avatud Dialoog (2022), Õunatee ja hämarus (2021) and Lootuse hoidjale (2020).

Daniel Kotsjuba is a designer, lecturer and head of the Social Design MA programme at the Estonian Academy of Arts. For five years he worked for the Public Sector Innovation Team in the Estonian Government Office, promoting collaboration-based public governance that relies on design methods. He has been in charge of various design projects in the Estonian public sector, provided design-related training and fostered networking activities.

Jan Teevet is a director, conceptualiser and dramatist, and with Oliver Issak, founder and artist of the Institute of Meetings and Non-Meetings. In 2018, he graduated from the Theatre Department of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre with a degree in directing, after which he co-founded the Paide Theatre with his team, managing it until the end of 2022. Since September 2023, Teevet has been studying social design at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Teevet also works as a brand dramaturge and designs narratives for various social campaigns.

Taavi Hallimäe is a cultural critic, lecturer and editor-in-chief of Leida. He works as a visiting lecturer in the Faculty of Design at the Estonian Academy or Arts and is a doctoral student at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture. His doctoral dissertation is titled Critical Objects of Late Soviet Design. In 2023, he had his own column Disainistik in the cultural weekly Sirp, where he wrote about the connections between design and art, politics, modern culture and cultural theory.

Local communities and their unique ways of operating tend to go under the radar in today’s networked world. At the same time, belonging to a community has a direct impact on our daily lives. We are who we are because we are part of different communities. Three practitioners who work with Estonian communities, yet approach them through different methods, share their experiences on how to address communities, which parties are involved in community work, and how to empower communal activities. A discussion between Dagmar Narusson, Daniel Kotsjuba and Jan Teevet took place, with Taavi Hallimäe asking the questions.

Taavi Hallimäe: Where does a community begin and where does it end? How should we define community?

Dagmar Narusson: While studying, reflecting upon and being part of communities – because we approach communities not only theoretically, but we are also always part of communities ourselves, thus knowing by experience when there is a community and when there is not/what it means to be in a community – I have come to realise that in a functioning community relations between people are always mutual. A relationship, activity or contribution can never only be one-sided in a community, it must be reciprocal. A relationship is not about us communicating or talking. A relationship means that we are involved.

The word ‘community’ is an umbrella term, relatively void of meaning. Community developers are cautious of using this word because it might bring confusion. It is better to talk about a specific type of community. When it comes to the typology of communities, the most common is neighbourhood or location-based community. There is also increasing talk of community anchors, which are organisations with a public function and mission that have buildings or places that cannot be separated from their location. For example, Tartu would not be Tartu without the University of Tartu. Museums and other cultural institutions, as well as hospitals and schools, which can act as anchors for the local community, can have a similar status. It is never evident that a community emerges, but when the anchor turns its face towards the community and preserves, creates and develops – either in the sphere of health, education or memory – then a community may develop in connection to the anchor.

Communities can also be founded on culture, ethnicity, values or activities that bring people together. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, and representatives of other professions communicate within their fields with the aim to share experiences and knowledge that results from their work. Self-initiated communities, however; for example, climate activists, often come together with the aim of preventing something. They can be both global and local, and they also want to provide their members with the most valuable information. Communities offering reciprocal support unite people; for example, cancer patients, who need longer-term support. These people need others who are in a similar situation and who can share their knowledge and experiences. Temporary communities are the most short-lived and include people who are temporarily in a difficult situation; for example, war refugees or LGBT people who have decided to come out. In these situations, people have to prepare themselves for something they are not prepared for. It can be a short-lived, but very intense experience. Later, a member of a temporary community may move on to a community of support.

TH: This is a good overview of the different types of communities. Designers and design researchers have referred to design as the glue that unites different topics, issues and people. The designer tries to bring the different parties together in a joint activity. Daniel, how well in your opinion is the designer’s toolbox equipped to work with different communities?

Daniel Kotsjuba: This is a very good question and also one of the reasons why we are having this discussion. Last year, I was involved in a project aimed at single parents in Viljandi. As part of this, it emerged that parents raising children alone would like to belong to some kind of community. From the examples described by Dagmar, this would fall under the category of a community of support. Single parents want to hear and share stories with others in a similar situation. At the same time, they do not necessarily want to belong to a community of single parents, but rather to a parenting community. A typical question asked by a designer in this case would be – what kind of problem are we solving, as there is a mindset behind this strongly oriented towards transformation. Should we provide some kind of service which could help bring people together? We did not want to force a solution from the top down, but to create a basis for the community to come together by themselves. This requires a completely different approach and way of thinking. The more you interfere as a designer, the less agency the community will have to continue on its own.

The anchor for this project was the local Perepesa community centre, which operates in several Estonian municipalities. Perepesa, which is more or less service-based, offers parents knowledge and help in raising their children in the form of various courses. We realised quite quickly that if we organise our work around a local anchor, we will not be assuming a position of power. When we presented our plans to the locals in Viljandi, we did not say that people from Tallinn are coming to do something, but that it’s their own Perepesa that wants to create changes for them. As our intervention could only be short-term, the role of the community anchor was very important. Our question was how to create agency internally in the community so that they would start to organise themselves. The tools we used are not the classical tools of a designer. We had to constantly scale down our part in the process.

TH: One topic that arises here is the need to approach the designer’s role more critically. Jan, you have studied theatre directing, and when it comes to directors, it is often talked about how controlling the directors are, or how much guidance they give to the actors. If some directors lead with a steady hand, then others give almost free hands to the actors and artists. You used to run Paide Theatre, which had a direct link to the local residents of Paide. Here lies, at first glance, a surprising, but at the same time, very important concordance between you as a director and as a current master’s student of social design. What kind of director are you on the societal level?

Jan Teevet: (Laughs.) I’ll go further back to answer. On the one hand, it seems that the umbrella term ‘community’, which despite its awesome sound is so general that it doesn’t really mean anything, became at some point a wildly popular hit term. Without referring to any studies, I claim that during the last ten years the term ‘community’ has been thoroughly overused and exploited. ‘Community’ has become a buzzword that seems suitable to name or define any group of people who might never use this term to refer to themselves. It also appears that as an adjective complement, ‘community’ lends a noble halo to any event, development plan, work of art, and so on, when it has been added to the title.

A community, as well as a play, is held together by a shared imagery or understanding that we are in some kind of a relationship that has a past, present, and future. This imagery is changing and transient, as all communities are inherently temporal and temporary. Although the temporariness may last for a very long time. For example, in the case of the University of Tartu, it has lasted for hundreds of years, even though the imagery and the imaginers change.

When we went to Paide, we presumed that we would be faced with a small town of 8,000 inhabitants, where everyone forms one happy community, greets their neighbours from behind the low thuja hedge, shares the morning news and offers fresh carrots straight from the ground.

In reality, however, getting a sense of the community from the inside out is very difficult. When you ask someone which or how many communities they are a part of, it is difficult to answer. Belonging to a community is so common that it is almost impossible to acknowledge it. But how can we bring this sense of belonging and the imagery of the community forward, to bring it to light? I have the feeling that staging a play as well as developing a community requires the creation of some kind of structural situations where the shared elements would become perceptible and the meanings attached to the concept of community could grow.

TH: You introduced the concept of imagery that might unite a community. Can this shared image bring together people with different values and to what extent? How diverse should and could a community be?

DN: On the one hand, the more diverse a community is, the healthier it is. Homogeneous communities are rather encapsulated, which is why they react most painfully to change. What unites people in a community can be something completely pragmatic. Cormac Russell, one of the advocates of community development, outlines seven areas of everyday life that communities deal with. These are health, welfare, hobby education, security, locally grown and produced food, local economy (i.e., monetary and non-monetary exchanges), and the preservation of the local environment. A community might not even acknowledge that it’s providing hobby education for children as it creates opportunities for as many children as possible to play football in the evenings. Against the backdrop of major crises, we need communities more than ever and according to Russell, the aforementioned seven areas that communities intuitively deal with must grow stronger than state-run systems. The reason our societies are in crisis is because they are based on services. Services do not make life worth living. Communities aren’t just nice, they’re indispensable. They are the answer to crises, they are the answer to the future society.

We cannot consider communities through the prism of neoliberalism. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, we cannot assess or draw conclusions on communities through structures characteristic to the state and services. A community develops at the speed of trust, it’s a work that goes on for generations. Each community is unique because it consists of unique people. On the other hand, we cannot find in any community the characteristics we are searching for. We have to nurture what is actually being done that is of value in the community. Why do we think that it’s better to have twenty active members in a community instead of ten? Because in reality these ten people can already create enormous value.

TH: Daniel, you have worked in the public sector which holds the position of power that Dagmar is talking about. What is your experience of it?

DK: I agree that we are too service-oriented in our thinking. I also think that the public sector should not try to do everything. Currently, the public sector in Estonia is going through changes, and there are so-called intermediate parties emerging that help to reflect upon the role of the public sector. These changes are only just beginning, though the number of people who are transforming the public sector from the inside out is growing rapidly. Currently, people have to find very quick solutions to various problems, which is why they often go along a familiar or well-trodden path (e.g., using regulations, services). However, the toolbox for reaching solutions is much more versatile. It works especially well at the local government level, where the contact with citizens is much more direct. It seems to me, though, that the officials also need guidance and designers could be the ones providing that intelligence. The public servants could have an awareness of different tools and ways of thinking. All in all, it is our common good. The designer can provide a structured process of how to get from a problem to a solution, switching in the meantime from solution-based thinking to process-based thinking. In the context of our topic, this means creating the ground for solving problems.

TH: Jan, what was the problem you tried to solve at Paide Theatre?

JT: We didn’t go to Paide with any aim to change Paide, but at the same time going there was an act of transformation in itself. Before arriving in Paide, we were given the impression that all the residents of Paide were waiting for us. When we got there, it turned out that in reality it was 5 people out of 10,000 who were waiting for us. (Laughs.) The very first question – what the hell are we going to do here – was frightening and inspiring at the same time. Quite a classic combination.

But we went there to build a theatre, not a community. We did not go there to put Paide on the (cultural) map of Estonia. We were in a privileged position because we didn’t have a set deadline. While Daniel had a specific task with a specific time frame to perform in Viljandi, then we had the opportunity to observe and get to know the town and its inhabitants at a fairly natural pace. We had time to experience the high and low points of the residents of Paide, to navigate this imagery that holds the town together. Sometimes communities stay together thanks to very banal ideas – the imagery of Paide is held together by the town of Türi and the acknowledgement that Paide is not like Türi. Of course, that’s not all there is, but this was an unexpectedly significant part in the community’s narrative.

Right from the start, we proclaimed that community plays a very important part for Paide Theatre, even if at the time, we didn’t quite understand what we meant by that. We had a fairly authentic desire to be a part of the community. But we soon discovered that community was not perceived as a present phenomenon, but rather as something that had once been. Community was a phenomenon of the past that fell apart at some obscure moment in time and of which now only scraps and memories remained.

Community is like sand that slips through your fingers. Even though the locals perceived that they had a common goal, they lacked the understanding of who, how, when and with what means they should start moving towards it. Of course, in a way we remained strangers until the end, guests who occupy your living room for slightly too long. It might be even more precise to say that we became local strangers, familiar aliens – similar to the late 80s, when many Estonian families had a Finn who came by every once in a while and provided a helping hand. A few years after arriving in Paide, we finally realised, and were thus able to formulate the idea, that all we are capable of is to help members of a potential community to find each other, to bring forward the already existing community and to create the imagery of possible future scenarios. That is when the PAIDE 3000 series of actions, subtitled TheUtopia of One Small Town, was born.

DN: I was happy to hear that what Paide Theatre actually did was to create a space where people could meet. The experience of other countries shows that culture or creative work sets a very good ground for different people to meet. The creative atmosphere that is formed helps to bring about shifts in existing frameworks and spaces, including mental spaces. As much as I followed your activities, this was also the impression I got.

JT: It was clear to us from the start that we cannot make all of Estonia visit the theatre in Paide. Thus, Paide Theatre existed on two levels for us. One level was the actual events taking place in Paide. The other level was what was happening in the heads of people who never made it to Paide nor to Paide Theatre. It was important that Paide Theatre would also exist on the level of imagination.

DN: I also followed Paide Theatre’s activities from a far. Nonetheless, your work touched me and I felt like I was emotionally involved. Sometimes it’s enough to observe from a distance, and you still get the necessary touch. Community is the freest formation of all. In a family, you cannot choose the degree of closeness, the same applies to the workplace, even in the case of remote work. Community on the other hand is so free that at one point you can participate in certain activities, and at other moments you can step aside. You can take the position of saying: I support you, but at the moment I cannot or don’t want to contribute. Community offers this kind of freedom.

At the same time, life within a community is not easy-breezy. Tensions and conflicts are part of it. On the one hand, it is very nice when communities last our whole lifetime, bringing together very different people, but on the other hand, it creates a field of tension. Dealing with this tension without pulling away is a great challenge.

DK: Jan, I picked up two keywords from what you said that also characterise the public sector. One of them is lack of resources and the other fear of failure. Fear is something that makes us decide on the safe route. At the same time, in the case of limited resources, we should try to empower the administration and other parties involved. Can we even interfere from the outside? How can we support or help the community?

DN: This is a very good question. What are the ways in which we can support agency? In community development, the current topic of the day is the A-B-C-D approach, which is an acronym for Asset-Based-Community-Development. This approach focuses on the assets that already exist in a community, trying to reflect them to its members. The community has to come to terms with what it’s like, but also to understand that it’s okay to be that way. They have to realise that they are alright, the only question is what could be added to enhance things even further. On the practical side, however, this can be complicated to achieve because the community might start to think that they have a problem.

JT: Our approach with Paide Theatre was the contrary. We wanted to project a utopia of some kind, a possible ideal, mostly to the outside. At the same time, we were aware that this ideal was merely constructed imagery, the purpose of which was to empower the community from the outside, to bring it into the consciousness of the rest of Estonia. We wanted this community to have an echo from the outside that would allow them to perceive new possibilities. When you go around a community claiming that everything is possible, it doesn’t sound very convincing. However, if you create an image from the outside that these things are already happening in Paide, the local residents will also start to take note.

TH: I have a feeling that communities were perhaps formed more organically at some earlier point in time. People weren’t knowledgeable of how they came about because they were formed through daily interactions, through becoming aware of oneself, the surroundings and other people. I wonder though if it’s more difficult to start communities nowadays. How come now it’s necessary for someone else to interfere or point out the assets of a community?

DN: What I’ve come to realise while talking to people is that even if something has been done organically at first and eventually it falls apart, it’s still okay because it's a bodily experience that remains. The same people can continue somewhere else with other themes and people. But the feeling remains. Or if you look at it from the perspective of public officials, it may often seem that a project is funded for three years and then it falls apart. Has this been meaningless work then? No, definitely not. People take this experience and continue somewhere else.

Actually, one can contribute to a community from birth to death – a child can draw someone a greeting card, a bedridden person can listen to the concerns of the community leader. My question is how people could realise that contributing to the community is contributing to themselves. Working with communities is in a way pure egoism. I know that I care about these people and they care about me, so I also know that in difficult times we come to each other’s aid. I don’t have to wait for the state to reach me in three days.

TH: Isn’t this specifically related to the recent history of Estonia? Jumping headfirst into the neoliberal market economy led to a situation where we could all depend only on ourselves. It’s very nice that we are all individuals and can make choices for ourselves, but this has also weakened our sense of community. Today, people are already realising that there is something missing from their lives. Although they might not yet recognize themselves as a community, even if they share common interests, values or problems. This disconnection from the community has been more radical in Estonia than anywhere else.

JT: You are referring to the transition from enforced collectivism to individualist society which suggested exceptionally beautiful but still precarious promises – the slogans never apply to everyone, there are always people who don’t fit into the examples of success stories, and thus cracks appear in the collective body.

Today, we are witnessing situations where people react both on the state level and on a very local level; for example, to the threat of closing the Virtsu elementary school, changing municipal boundaries or expanding the Nursipalu military training field. The situation has gone so far that the only way to deal with this is to come together and join forces. The question is who should take responsibility today and empower these communal initiatives born from counteraction so that they wouldn’t fall apart after having resolved one crisis (that often doesn’t end with the solution desired by the community).

DK: We’re talking about the basic needs of being human, and this applies also to different public servants. Who are public servants? They are actually also just regular people. We are talking about institutions, but institutions are also full of people and they also need the formation of non-structural communities.

JT: Exactly, we all know that public servants are also humans. If we look again at Paide’s example, then despite the fact that the public servant can also be your neighbour, the moment they enter the town hall, they become someone else. With our action Shadow Council the aim was – despite the fears of the local politicians – not to oppose the actual council. The aim was to give the citizens the experience of what it means to participate in local politics. The shadow council was formed of citizens, considering a balance of gender and age; and then these shadow councillors followed the same process as the real councillors – the same drafts and their submissions, committees, the whole ritual processes with tapping the gavel and following the timeframes for speaking and asking questions. We also created a support structure, which meant that they were guided by professionals in their field – which is not the case for the actual council. With this small group of people, we finally came to realise what kind of almost inhuman effort it takes as a small-town councillorn to keep track and be aware of all the local questions.

DK: Often the relationship with the public sector is highly formal, with public procurement at its heart. The relationship in the public sector is based on the technical conditions of the procurement. This is a far cry from the relationships we see in communities. Introducing people who think outside the box into the system allows for the insiders to have a different view of things. Communities can be seen as a resource, but it is quite difficult to influence the workings of the public sector from the outside. It should be dealt with from the inside, otherwise we’re grafting things without knowing whether they are going to grow or not. From the inside, however, we can grow roots which have a stronger effect and which enable us to grow unforeseen fruits.

TH: It seems we have come full circle and arrived back at the beginning of the conversation. We are talking about the hierarchical relationships that we want to shift – whether between the designer and client, director and audience, or official and citizen. We wish to co-design in a way that whoever holds the position of power takes a step back, because maybe their perception of the problem is skewed, or maybe the problem is somewhere else altogether. If on an abstract level it all seems very simple, then how to actually make it happen?

DN: Power must be handled in a way that it is allowed to change. At some point, the public servant, director or designer must cede the power to another party. Power must be fluid.

JT: It’s okay to have two parties, as long as both of them understand that the other also has a stake in the game. There shouldn’t be situations where one party sees the questions at hand as a matter of life and death and for the other party, they are merely work assignments. That is where the hierarchy stems from. The official who may be in a higher position compared to the citizen, might have little at stake. The citizen who already perceives themselves as inferior to the official, has a very high level of risk.

DN: I really believe in education. Cultivating in the next generation the feeling that regardless of your profession or position, you are always also a member of the community, you are always also just a person. It still takes some time for this generation to emerge. Even though we are not equal in the societal sense, we are all equal in value (of the same value).

DK: This requires a very high level of self-awareness.

DN: This guides us also to the topic of agency because the most important premise of agency is self-reflection. If we are not operating on autopilot, not simply reacting, we are already agents.

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