Now's a Good Time to Join

Group of people in a circle supporting each other

The middle of a pandemic might not seem like an odd time to think about joining a club or civic group, but now's the time to explore ways to be more involved once doors reopen.

When I was a kid, my dad was pretty active in the local Optimist club. Their annual fundraiser was one of the biggest events in town, and since I knew all the people involved and would occasionally get to help out I always felt pretty special. Along with all the other ways my parents volunteered, it also meant that I never got any kind of specific lesson on the importance of community involvement. I just absorbed it through osmosis until it seemed like an obvious thing to do. It still does.

Now might seem like an odd time to talk about being involved in your community when we’re all stuck inside. But when this is all over, we’ll need more of a sense of belonging than ever before. Crucially, after we’ve spent so much time isolated at home worrying about the state of the world, most of us will benefit from feeling like we have some agency in shaping what’s going on around us. So yes, now is the time to think about joining local community groups.

I’ve read before that frequently people want to take part in one-off volunteer events, like running a charity 5K or going and spending a day picking up trash in a park. Those are definitely worthwhile, but it’s not the kind of community involvement I mean. The organizations who put on these events need people to do the work behind the scenes. They need officers and dedicated members.

Learning to find the time

Right now you’re probably convinced you don’t have time. We’ve all been there. Keep a few things in mind, however -- first, don’t over-commit. Start with simply getting into the habit of attending meetings. If it helps, set a goal for yourself to go a certain number of times (I like to say five) to give yourself a chance to get in the habit and make some connections. From there, you can get a sense of how much time you really have and how you can possibly become more involved.

Secondly, and this is important, organizations and community groups have burnout problems when there’s a lack of dependable leaders. If more people are involved, it’s easier to share the workload. I’ve seen groups where the chairperson has to do pretty much everything. I’ve been that chairperson. It’s not fun. But I’ve also been part of dynamic teams where everyone does their part. Those are fantastic. Your fear of having to do too much is exactly why some people end up feeling like they have to do everything. Why not be an example to others and step in to share the load?

How do I choose?

It doesn’t matter what you decide to be involved in. Religious groups, professional associations, political parties, and charities are all good options. Find a group that aligns with your values or a cause that’s important to you, which helps keep you motivated to stay involved.

I’m going to put a good word in for some of the more traditional civic groups, too, like the Optimist or Kiwanis Clubs. They might seem old-fashioned, but they can still be great places to meet a variety of people outside of your normal circle and often let you work on one specific part of their mission that really speaks to you. Don’t feel like you fit in? Diversity builds diversity with groups. The more people of all ages, races, genders, or religions join, the more they’ll attract new people who see themselves reflected in the membership.

The value of being there

Finally, I’m going to come right out and say it — you might enjoy online activism, you might think you’re doing some good, but it’s just not the same. It’s been shown to be relatively ineffectual at actually changing people’s minds, and simply posting on social media more frequently leads to flame wars than lasting change. It’s also extremely impersonal. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that socializing and activism solely online isn’t enough to sustain a healthy community. Four months can’t counteract millions of years of evolution that makes us attuned to the physical presence of others.

I’m not saying community groups are a panacea for all of society’s ills. Far from it. But it’s time for the old mantra of “Think global, act local” to come back in style. Being involved in groups in our community helps us feel connected and helps us feel a little less helpless. Frequently they play a major part in the quality of life we experience and the values we promote in our communities.

Even if they’re not meeting in-person right now, it’s time to lay the groundwork. Do your research now, and when you get the chance, go out and be involved. We have an opportunity to build bridges, develop empathy, and make our communities places we’re proud to call home.