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On Community by Casey Plett

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

This book begins with two encounters author Casey Plett experienced. In the first, Plett returned after ten years away from a Manitoba town to attend an elementary school reunion. When someone sneers aggressively, “Who the hell is that?” Plett’s friend replies, “It’s cool. He’s from here.” The harassment stopped. The other encounter was with Plett’s uncle, who, despite having lived in another Manitoba town for twenty years, confided that he still didn’t feel he was from there.

In each instance, the issue is whether the person in question “belongs” in the town. Of course, “belonging” is more than being part of a physical location. It is having a sense of identity. Both of these towns happen to be small Mennonite communities, where that identity is strong among their inhabitants. And this is what “community” is: a sense of identity and belonging.

But it is nonetheless a tricky concept. The media regularly bandy about the word community to describe all sorts of groups within our society and, in doing so, imply cohesiveness and homogeneity among the members of such groups, whether ethnic, religious, professional, generational, or otherwise.

Plett is having none of that. A writer, editor, publisher, and professor, Plett comes from a Mennonite background and has lived in both the US and Canada, in towns and cities big and small, and thus has experienced enough of life and human interaction to know things aren’t that simple.

On top of that, Plett is also a trans woman, thus the issue of her personal identity has been in the forefront of her mind for a good deal of her life.


Plett’s complaint is that in classifying people as part of a “community,” we tend to promote stereotypes, and ignore, even condemn, variations of behaviour and opinion within that community—as if every member of a given community must necessarily speak with the same voice.

Although Plett cites a good deal of scholarly research on the issue of community—there is a long list of footnotes at the end of what is a short book—her tone is anything but academic. It is casual, almost conversational. And this is certainly deliberate, underscoring her insistence that “community” cannot be reduced to a narrow, academic definition. A community can mean many things to many people, both those within it and those outside.

Her chapters are short, each dealing with a separate consideration of what “community” can mean. And Plett does not limit herself to marginal communities. Her analysis applies to all groups that share a common identity, however that may be described or by whom. Along the way, she describes the communities she and her family have been a part of: Mennonites, gay people, trans people, Canadians, New York City dwellers, etc. One particularly interesting chapter is on social media and the extent to which the various on-line platforms may, in fact, run countercurrent to the needs of those seeking to join a community.

We all need communities. Each of us needs the support of our fellow human beings, so we try to find others who share our interests and concerns. But Plett’s convincingly shows that communities can be fluid, both in positive and negative ways.

On Community is published by Biblioasis.


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