People know what they do.
And most know why they do what they do.
But what they don’t know is what what they do does.
– Michael Foucault
Nobody went to jail. No one burned down the State House or forcibly removed the President of the United States from office. What a few people on our city block on the south side of Providence decided to do instead was something more radical, if less dramatic. We tried to get our neighbours to turn to each other a little bit more for personal support. As radical – meaning ‘getting to the root’ – as this idea and subsequent project were, I later discovered that one ingredient was missing from our community-building endeavour that would make it and perhaps thousands of similar trials happening elsewhere more radical, and possibly radical enough to push the world past a tipping point on the way to just, sustainable living.
Before purchasing a two-family house on Gallatin St., my family lived just two streets away in a three-family limited-equity cooperative, which we had converted from a private residence owned by an absentee landlord. Like most city folks, we knew our immediate neighbours enough to greet them by name. The other block residents were mostly nameless faces. But when we purchased our new home I resolved to greet each new neighbour I bumped into, learn names and addresses and introduce myself. I met a lot of people and recorded each name on a map I created of the 36- household block. But early on I discovered that my new neighbours seemed to know each other a fair bit more than neighbours did on my old block. I learned that eight years prior to our move a college student living on the block chose to organise a block party to fulfil a requirement for a class he was taking. The party became an annual event and naturally created a greater sense of community.
A few years after our move, as I was getting to know more neighbours, and coincidentally rethinking my assumptions about social change, I became convinced that building community – local, very small scale networks – was a more radical path to social transformation and ecological sustainability than what I was doing in my vocational life. For work, I was feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, witnessing in direct action for peace and justice and trying, through coalition work, to get the government (and other institutions) to meet human needs and respect human rights. All the while I was living simply and riding my bike everywhere. These activities I was so devoted to (and still am to a degree) were important and useful, but not radical, not directly to the point of solving social problems much less of saving humanity or creating a better way to live.
Starting where I lived, I decided to take an active role in our informal, unincorporated, unnamed block association and encourage my neighbours to step beyond the more usual block activity and try to create a ‘consultation exchange’ directory. This tool would obligate residents, upon request, to provide initial consultation to a neighbour about something they are skilled at or know about. We reasoned that neighbors would enjoy sharing what they know in this way, but not be so inclined to actually do the work itself (to care for an elderly parent or replace a roof). It’s a first step to get neighbours to do for each other what many of us do for our friends and family – offer advice before seeking professional service. Of course, the initial help is sometimes sufficient and we are spared the need to spend.
Of the 36 households on our block (demographically, about 80% African-American, 10% Latino and 10% white, including working class, middle class professionals and families surviving on public assistance), 33 participated in creating the directory. Carolyn, the mom of the former college student who organised the first block party, needed herself to complete a service project toward a college degree and conducted most of the interviews. She simply asked, ‘What do you know about? What do you know how to do that you might share in some way to help out a neighbour?’ Many residents were slow to identify a skill or something they know that could be of use to a neighbour. They could make a list of needs they have or problems in the neighborhood, but they needed some prodding to name something they know about worthy of sharing. We needed to convince some that their skill/knowledge might potentially come in handy. I went ahead and listed ‘philosophy’ as something I know about, anticipating that one of our neighbours might just return from her first semester in college and declare to her parents that she wanted to major in the subject. Then I get the call and the troubleshooting begins. Unlikely, but you never know.
We compiled a list and directory, with names, addresses and phone numbers and what each know or could do. The range of ‘gifts’ hidden in our houses – ‘unwrapped’, as John McKnight would say – provided a fresh perspective on who we were and what we could do. The survey process itself tightened the block, building relationships, bringing the block into living rooms and then back out.
In most every way, this city block is indistinguishable from the others. But the cumulative effect of the parties, exchange directory and other community-building activity we’ve engaged in makes me draw this distinction: at the very least, the neighbours on this block are disposed to come together and tackle big challenges as a group. In the 1930’s, when the economy crashed, all the economic parts were in place to meet people’s needs – the tractors, the factories, the trains, the workers. But the systems that connect all the parts and make it all deliver smoothly fell apart. If the systems fail again, and we’re all left hanging, I can imagine my old neighbours on the other block frantically using their private telephones to get relief from various downtown agencies. But on Gallatin St. block one, I imagine 120 people of all sizes standing together in the middle of the street, holding out their hands, vaguely in the direction of each other, and asking, ‘What do we do now?’ This is the kind of block environment I want my family to live in. A block of very different people, all gifted, who are disposed at the very least to come together, turn to one another, for help and support. It’s a safer and more secure living environment, and it’s a happier one.
Radical isn’t always dramatic. And it’s not always a matter of getting to the root of a problem. Sometimes it’s about getting to the root of what we need to do to get what we most want out of life. Block parties and consultation exchange directories don’t do much, in the wider scheme of things. But efforts like these point in a direction of a life we might prefer to live over what we have now. They are baby steps in a direction. So, for example, on the Gallatin St. block of 36 households, there are four men who either live in one of the homes or regularly visit as a relative or friend whom I personally served meals and/or shelter to at the centre I worked for when I moved onto the block. They made me wonder, what if our block community provided these four men the support they needed so as to dismiss their reliance on the nonprofit agencies? What if their gifts were deployed on the block and in exchange they received the support they needed? A burden shared widely enough ceases to be a burden. And what next, if we decided to roll up the paved street and created a garden, play space and block ‘living room’ in its place? And shared cars parked on the block’s edge? What if we tried to feed ourselves?
The community way is radical because it represents a categorically different way of meeting needs and enjoying life than the systems we mostly depend on now that are grounded in relatively impersonal and hierarchically structured institutions and driven by the production and consumption of products, including service products. Genuine communities place members in a circle of support rather than in a pyramid powered by interpersonal competition for external rewards. Because wealth is defined in terms of relationships as well as place in a natural world and local geography, and in terms of affirmation, belonging and celebration, community systems are not inherently expansive. They present an organisational context that is conducive to human contentment as well as ecological sustainability.
Jim Tull facilitates workshops on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology. He teaches courses in Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College, the Community College of Rhode Island and the state’s prison. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org