Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fostering neighborliness: You can do it!

Do you know your neighbors? Do you know why it matters?

If you don't, you have less security, less fun, and less trust. In short, you have less 'social capital.'
Courtesy stockimages, Freedigitalphotos.net
When we moved into a house in Portland back in 1999 we were dismayed to find that most people didn't even know each other's names! No one seemed much bothered by this. "Oh, people are busy," or "They have their social network elsewhere."
But it matters. Do your kids know the neighbors by name, in case they were ever being followed and needed a safe house? Do your neighbors know who should and should not be at your house? Do you have a way to contact someone if their house is on fire or their dog just got run over and they are at work? Do you know who has pets or an elderly parent at home? 
In Portland, I started by hosting a discussion course. The topic didn't matter; I just wanted to lock people in a room long enough to get to know one another. We met one night a week for 6 weeks, talking about the reading. And we discovered we really liked one another. At the end of the class, people said, This was FUN! How do we keep it going. So we had potlucks, at first monthly and then once a quarter. We also built a neighborhood list with contact information and the names of everyone (human and critters) in the house. An email list was set up to help people communicate.
We had some great cooks in the neighborhood and it was such fun to catch up on people's vacations and the like. But the biggest benefit was how we felt about the neighbors. By and large we like one another. It was fun to talk; people were so interesting! I discovered one of our neighbors—a petite but fit gal— used to be in the Secret Service protecting Madeline Albright and Chelsea Clinton. And we were resources to one another. I learned how to speak a few phrases of Arabic from one person and Russian from another before going on business trips to Qatar and Russia respectively. The attorney down the block gave us quick advice. When I needed to know how to kill off one of my characters in my novella, I asked the nurse. 
And when there was a disaster, neighbors came out in force. We took care of one senior when she got a compression fracture. Someone took her to the doctor, someone else did grocery shopping, I cleaned out the cat box. Without us, she would have been in a nursing home.
Another family had an act of vandalism. I was afraid it might have been a hate crime. Quickly the word spread. My husband and I were leaving on vacation in about an hour so we told them to move into our house. They already had a key. We gave them safe haven.
I knew we had done something special when a woman driving down the street one day stopped to ask a question of a few of us chatting on the sidewalk. "I understand everyone knows everyone on this street and I'm looking for Emma who babysits. Do you know which house is hers?" Wow. People outside our street knew that things were different here.
It doesn't take a miracle to get this going. It just takes one person to get it started and to nudge the neighbors into having a party. Here are some things I've learned about community building on a neighborhood scale.

Tips for building a strong neighborhood

Define the natural neighborhood

The governmental boundaries have little to do with what makes a neighborhood. You want to find an area small enough that people can likely learn the names of everyone there (20-40 households), and an area where people are likely to interact. In our case, we had five blocks that weren't crossed by any streets, with a very busy street on one end and a cemetary on the other. If you walked to the bus or school, you would need to walk by a bunch of these homes. 

Build relationships with a core group

 The catalyst needs to be more than a one-off (or annual) event and it can’t be an open-ended commitment. A core group needs to get to know one another in more than just name. That’s why the discussion group format is so effective. Include some team building exercise to take the conversation and relationships to a deeper level. If you are interested in sustainability, try using my novella, Dragonfly's Question, which has chapter by chapter discussion questions and facilitator guide.

Pitch a big tent 

With your initial events, you want the framing issue to be broad enough for many people to feel a connection. Sustainability with its triple bottom line is great for that; practically everyone has a ‘beef’ about some social, economic or environmental issue. 

Find the core

In any neighborhood, there are people who are going to be actively involved, some who never come to anything and many in-between. Don’t expect everyone to be gung ho. Find people who care about building community and ask them to do something, however small, to make them feel like this is their effort as much as yours. 

Develop strategies to rope in the rest

You need to make it feel safe for people to show up to the events. We’ve found if we hold the parties in the front yard, more people come than if they are in the backyard. Some of our hosts hand out fliers that act as personal invitations. Ask people to invite their next-door neighbor to come with them the first time.

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