Community for the Rest of Us

Submitted by Robb Kushner on March 7, 2013 - 2:08pm
Knitting Neighbors Together

With all the advances in communications around the globe - and even in space - the next frontier is right in our own backyard - in fact, just next door. It’s the neighbors we don’t even know. Maybe we recognize them but don’t know their names or anything else. Maybe we’re nervous about developing a connection because we think we might not like them or we’ll have a problem we can’t resolve.

Like Martin Luther King, I ALSO have a dream. I imagine neighbors in cities and towns building relationships as they get to know one another. Some people may become friends while others may just say “Hi” on the street. But, in my dream, people will at least know who lives on their block. And bonds of trust will be able to take root and grow. With time-tested ways to communicate, we can all get along better and work through our differences. Imagine being able to do that - what a concept!

As the saying goes, "There is much more that connects us than separates us." We are all alive at this time, and the mere fact that we're breathing and our hearts are beating is truly a miracle. And the miracle extends to our being aware of - and open to - the people around us.

Clearly, the sense of community people used to feel is sorely lacking for many. I don't know how long it's been since most people knew their neighbors, but I imagine in earlier societies it was a basic part of people's experience. And somewhere along the line - as our society has become more complex - we lost touch with that part of ourselves.

Margaret Wheatley, founder of The Berkana Institute, author, and an expert in this field, has said, "Whatever the problem, community is the answer." In her work, she has been "preparing for unknown futures by creating strong and sustainable relationships."

Intentional communities - such as ecovillages and co-housing - where people choose to live in proximity based on common goals or ideals - serve as examples of what life can be like when people feel a strong bond with their neighbors. And while these communities exist in many countries - including the US - they are exceedingly rare. That’s why I’m calling this idea “community for the rest of us” - in the same way the Macintosh was introduced in 1984 as “the computer for the rest of us.”

So what would a connected community look like? Let’s imagine that for a minute:

Suppose that I now recognize all of the folks on my block. I learned their names and saw their photos using an online application, Nextdoor, which has been gaining a foothold across the US and provides a secure bulletin board-type web site, available only to residents within a defined geographic area. Due to a concerted enrollment effort - including periodic open houses - we’ve reached 100% participation on our block. And we held a block party during the winter to celebrate the achievement!

And let’s consider some of the potential benefits to developing communication and trust on our block. Perhaps we can boast some of the following:

  • Several of us on the block have developed skills in “non-violent communication” and conflict resolution - and we’re helping others learn them as well. So, bit by bit, we’re getting better at handling disputes in a constructive way.
  • We use our web site on Nextdoor to stay in touch regarding any occurrences of crime or vandalism - so it augments our crimewatch efforts.
  • We swap tools and equipment, so people can avoid purchasing expensive items that get used only once in awhile.
  • Some folks on the block have a meal sharing arrangement where they each have to cook only one meal a week - and they make enough to share.
  • I don’t have to pay the full cost of car ownership. A group of the neighbors share the use of several cars - enough so there’s always one available when needed - and we distribute the expenses.
  • Baby sitters can care for a few kids at a time on a given evening - and the kids have more fun in the process.
  • We have a communal composting arrangement, set up in some unused backyard space. A group of us contribute our food scraps to keep it going - and each of us can take back fantastically fertile soil for our flower or vegetable gardens.
  • Last summer, a group of us worked to establish a rain garden which not only beautifies our block, it helps harvest rainwater runoff and reduces the load in the city sewer system.

I see this challenge and opportunity as part of a global awakening that’s happening - on many levels. People are realizing more and more how precious life is - and that being more connected to each other - and to nature - is fundamental to our collective growth.

Mr. Rogers had it right all along: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” We have things to share - tangible and intangible - that can benefit us all.

I want to help make this vision a reality. Will you assist me? I’d love to hear your thoughts - and suggestions!
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About Robb:             

I grew up on a suburban block in Maryland, just north of DC. Around us were young families of varying backgrounds. I played with all the kids on the block, and my parents knew nearly all the adults. This seemed like the natural way of things. Then, during my college years in Boston and Cambridge, I found myself living in an apartment building where hardly anyone knew anyone else. “What a strange way to live,” I thought. Being strangers to our neighbors has seemed odd to me ever since.

Over the years I’ve learned my forte includes turning people onto ideas, places, people, music - and more - that I find interesting. I’m always learning - in many areas - and I’m adept at connecting the dots to grasp the larger picture. In recent years, my affinity with the natural environment has deepened, and I realize more and more how we need to connect with each other and also with the earth in moving toward a sustainable future.

My career has woven the triple threads of learning, technology, and relationship-building. I’ve taught people about systems and also designed applications to help people learn and share knowledge. In a variety of positions, I’ve developed skills working with others in a collaborative mode. I’ve experienced many organizations steeped in the domination model of top-down management and am eager to work with and within organizations that are more “enlightened” in their management style.

I believe the future is bright for us, if we can truly wake up to all the blessings we have and learn how to work together toward common goals.

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Call to Action: How You Can Help

In addition to your reaction to “Community for the Rest of Us,” perhaps you can be of help in any of these ways:

  • Do you know someone with whom this vision may resonate? If so, I’d love to connect with them for a conversation.
  • Can you think of any organizations that might want to fund an initiative to help “knit neighbors together” as I’ve outlined here?
  • I am seeking to work for an “enlightened” organization with a focus on helping people connect and communicate in mutually supportive ways. Can you suggest someone who might be interested in my skill set and orientation?

Feel free to contact me at robbkushner@gmail.com or 201-349-4481

Comments:
Bringing this to Canada

Robb, thank you for sharing this.  I would be very interested in connecting with you and finding a way to bring this to Canada.  I love the idea of sharign and buildign community using technology.  There seem to be a bunch of different online forums developing in this direction.  I am interested in seeing how they can work together to help connect people.  How can Nextdoor, work with a site like Meet Up or Streetbank?

Good question!

Derek, your question is very on target for the future of these technologies. I imagine there will be some morphing and connecting of these tools as they get used more extensively. Great to have them, and we'll see how it all develops.

I'm also very interested in the interplay between face-to-face connections and online. I'm sure it will be a fascinating dance!

Amen!

Robb,

You write so well, embodying our core values here on seeking community. In fact, many of the people you referenced (Maragaret Wheatley, Martin Luther King,...) we also reference and include in our work.

Loved the tangible points of the benefits that have come from your neighborhood group. This is beautiful.

What things have stood in the way of building meaningful community in your neighborhood? What suggestions do you have for others who might be facing the same issues?

Still getting going...

Rachel,

Thanks for your lovely comments. I need to clarify that the vision I described is just that -- a vision of what MIGHT be, with some luck, at some point down the road. I have a great imagination, I guess(!)

Anyway, we are just getting started and most people on my block and in my area don't know each other. We have a group on Nextdoor which is in it's very early stages. Only a couple dozen folks connected out of hundreds living in our neighborhood. So lots of potential and with lots to do and learn along the way. I hope to share that as I go...