What Does it Mean to Contribute in Community?

What Does it Mean to Contribute in Community?

I like the word contribute, but I hate how it can be used.

When I say I like the word, I mean just that. It’s a cool word. In university my major was linguistics, so I like words. I especially like etymology, this includes the etymology of ‘contribute.’ The word contribute comes from Latin, with the prefix con meaning ‘with’ and the root, tribute meaning ‘bestow.’ What I love about the word is that each component exists elsewhere in the English language: Con exists in words such as confident, and tribute exists as its own word, or with other prefixes like with the word attribute. By acknowledging both con and tribute exist outside the word contribute, we can then recognize they are both necessary components to its production and definition; contributing is not just the act of bestowing, it is bestowing with. It is not possible to contribute alone, so it must therefore be a communal endeavour.

But how do we apply that intention day to day?

This is where I sometimes get frustrated. The application; so often I hear people refer to contribution as mainly financial. In the comments on an article titled ‘Homeless citizens aren’t criminals,’ one of the commenters said that unhoused people shouldn’t have rights because they weren’t ‘contributing.’ Context made it clear she meant they weren’t working, and they weren’t paying taxes, so they weren’t contributing.

It’s not just her who thinks that either. During the summer, one of our students told me about an interaction she had with someone she served coffee to. A man came in after receiving his monthly disability support payment and he told her, “I love cheque day, because for 18 hours I get to feel like I contribute.” For 18 hours of the month he feels like he contributes. If we do the math, that’s only 216 hours a year, which is equal to 9 days. For 356 days of the year, he doesn’t feel like he contributes.

Even in casual conversation, the phrase ‘contributing member of society’ is most often used to describe someone who works full time. The intention behind it is they contribute labour, which gains a profit they partially pay into taxes or upkeep of the neighbourhood. So much of modern verbiage around contribution is monetary. And it makes sense, financial contributions are necessary, we would not be able to run without them.

But money cannot be the only parameter. Labour also cannot be the only parameter. When someone is mentally or physically unable to work or make money, that cannot strip them of their ability to be a part of community, because that’s what contributing is: participating in community.

“Everyone is Needed in Community…”

One of Helping Hands Street Mission’s Value statements is that “everyone has something to contribute and is needed in community”. Even those without money, even those unable to work. If we go back to the original word, ‘bestowing with,’ we see much more than money or labour being given here. We see people bestowing their time, resources, and energy in collaboration with their community.

In the past week alone, I have seen countless friends open the door, pull out the ramp, advise, and comfort each other. We have had friends clean up messes outside and inside our space and reach out for support on someone else’s behalf. We have friends who help to clean our windows on a regular basis and others come to clean our space during clean up days. Over the past month, I have had multiple friends approach me interested in becoming a volunteer. We have friends who will sit on our front benches or on seats in our program room for hours, engaging anyone who’s interested in conversation. The same man who said he felt like he contributed 18 hours a day, advised other friends on where to go in Hamilton for a food bank. Some of these gifts are more noticeable than others, some are more physically or mentally draining. But each is given in collaboration. Each is given with intention. Everyone present gives what they can and that is what sustains us.

I am so proud of the contributions I have seen from friends and family to keep this community running, and I am so grateful to have been able to add to those contributions myself. I look forward to seeing the fruit of these contributions, which more often than not, creates more space for community and even further contributions. And hopefully through acknowledging these efforts, through giving space for gratitude for every type of contribution, we can bring it back to that original definition.

Written by Samantha Togertetz, Friendship Coordinator at Helping Hands Street Mission

This post is a part of our Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week campaign! We have a goal to raise $5,000 by Giving Tuesday on November 28th. Be sure to make a donation with the form below to help us continue serving our friends that are facing hunger and homelessness in Hamilton.

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