Community Engagement

Dissecting the True Meaning of Community

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According to the New World Encyclopedia, the word community “is derived from the Latin communitas(meaning the same), which is in turn derived from communis, which means "common, public, shared by all or many." Communis comes from a combination of the Latin prefix con- (which means "together") and the word munis (which has to do with performing services).” The reference to munis, which is often the shorthand, albeit not all-inclusive, reference to public power, made me wonder about the etymology of the word municipality. According to Etymonline.com, the word municipal is “of or pertaining to the local self-government or corporation of a city or town, 1540s, from French municipal, from Latin municipalis "pertaining to a citizen of a free town, of a free town," also "of a petty town, provincial, from municipium "community, municipality, free town, city whose citizens have the privileges of Roman citizens but are governed by their own laws," from municeps "native, citizen, inhabitant of a free town.”

Cool, huh? Municipalities are free towns that have self-government and communities are characterized by everyone sharing in the freedoms and privileges enabled by such self-governance. Sometimes, words convey volumes. These concepts underpin who we are, or at least who and what we aspire to be, in public power. This idea that each community, literally powered by our not-for-profit, highly reliable and affordable utilities, has unique characteristics that require self-governance is such a foundational concept to public power. But at the same time, the community overlay invites this contradictory idea of collective benefits within each municipality (or service territory). What an interesting juxtaposition of uniqueness/freedom and public/common/shared by all. We straddle both in public power communities because we understand the benefits of both: one drives innovation and excellence while the other drives teamwork, collaboration, and shared outcomes.

What becomes a bit more challenging is when we band together in a larger community of communities – like we do via APPA – because we have to find the commonality while acknowledging the unique attributes every town, city, or service territory brings. Even more challenging is when we have to craft a state or federal law that acknowledges the bespoke nature of each of our communities. That is so difficult, especially as we have sought to drive toward consensus on big-ticket items like federal climate change legislation. But we do it because we know that the nationwide public power community must come together around our commonalities to retain the important characteristics that distinguish us from for-profit utilities. If this sounds philosophical, it is. But it is also the reality of the situation – common goals help us retain local decision-making as much as possible because we can argue the need for it together.

I have visited many public power communities across the nation. In fact, traveling for APPA over the years helped me attain the goal of having visited all 50 states! No two public power communities are the same, but they are all similar. The similarity is in the knowledge that affordable, reliable, safe, and sustainable electricity underpins prosperity for each town/city/service territory and for its all citizens. As we advocate together, as a community of 2,000 public power communities across the country, we must continue to spread that knowledge back home and here in D.C. We appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, as I hope I have demonstrated, so you can even pick which argument to make to each. Vive la difference! Vive la même chose!