From Commodity to Community

Submitted by Mallory B.E. Baches for The Civic Hub

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Here at The Civic Hub, a big part of our work includes talking to everyday citizens.

This means that we are constantly learning about the local community: what the high school football team’s prospects are…who hung out a new shingle, and who had to let their employees go…how the shops downtown are faring…who might throw their hat in at the next election…the best restaurants in town…whose grandmother makes the best pecan pie.

Topics can range from fascinating to mundane, but if you know what you are looking for, anything can provide at least some amount of useful data.  If the high school football team’s prospects are good, you can expect a real surge of community pride around a shared interest in the coming months.  Newcomers to the political scene will be people who want to see change, and it is always worth learning why they do.  If lots of folks are opening or closing up shop, you know that the economics of the place are in flux, and the population may be as a result.  The best restaurants in town will be nightly spontaneous town squares full of personalities and popular topics of conversation.  If the shops on Main Street are busy, you know you can collect a whole lot more data from the shopkeepers because they are unknowingly serving as the eyes and ears of the consumer community. And whoever’s grandmother makes the best pecan pie, well, that’s someone you ought to try and meet before you’ve left town, at least if you like pie (and I most certainly do).  Chances are that grandmother knows a thing or two about a whole lot more than just pie, too…

Something we frequently hear is a dissatisfaction with people’s disassociation.  Folks cite their frustration over how it seems like they don’t recognize anyone on their street, or their concern about how few people seem to show up for community events, or their confusion with why they can’t seem to find new activities and meet new people.  But what those and so many similar comments boil down to is the fact that people feel disconnected (and they don’t feel happy about it, either).  Folks are tired of feeling isolated, not feeling comfortable (or even being able) to go next door and ask for a cup of sugar.  They live lives separated from the people living around them, by design or by distances, and many times they are embarrassed to admit to us that they don’t even know their neighbor’s name.

Save Sharsted/Keyworth meeting

credit: szczel via flickr

And how could they?  On any given day, they get into their car in their garage, drive 15 or 30 (or more) minutes away to work or their children’s school or for their groceries, pick up a coffee or a prescription or dinner at a drive-thru on the way home, and return to their garage and into their house without ever personally passing by their neighbor’s home.  They probably even reached through the car window to get the mail from the mailbox on their way in.  They pay others to maintain their yard to the level required by their neighborhood association’s covenants (who has the time?), and with so many “features” throughout their recently-built house, they rarely even find the desire or reason to venture out into that yard anyway.

It is then at one of our Civic Camps or Co-op Conferences that these dissatisfied citizens deliver their solemn confessional: they are afraid that maybe they don’t even have a “real community” in the first place, at least not one that they are a part of.

And if you step back and take look at how we categorize groups of people any more, you see the pattern plainly.  We are not a society, we are a “spending group.”  We are not people, we are “market segments.”  We are not citizens, we are “consumers.”

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While financially devastating for a large number of Americans, the Great Recession has shone a light on important things we were getting wrong in previous decades, not the least of those being the strangely isolated way so many of us have been living.

In the economic boom times of the early 2000s, the easy solution to the disconnection in our daily lives was simply to pay for connection.  We outsourced our connectivity through purchases or payments, and we subsidized those activities with enormous vehicles with enormous gas tanks that we drove enormous distances as we spent our way to socializing.  And when that wasn’t enough, we would actually buy our way on to the next better place: we would move to solve our social and cultural needs, seeking better schools or better neighbors or better lifestyles someplace else. 

But in the past five years, many of us have been forced to curtail our more consumerist tendencies, and in doing so, we’ve become much more aware of the hidden burdens of the lives we have been leading.  With gasoline over $4.00/gallon, driving to all of our daily needs and activities is uneconomical.  With unemployment high, paying for the entertainment that gives us connection with others is untenable.  With real estate in a slump, hop-scotching through houses is unfeasible.

Many of us feel like the things we consume are actually consuming us instead.

And it looks like the shift may be long-term.  A 2010 PricewaterhouseCoopers study predicts a lasting legacy of reserved American consumerism, thanks to the Great Recession, with only 7% of shoppers saying they have made no changes whatsoever to their buying habits, as compared to 34% who have made significant changes.

Unlike our previous decades of consumptive decadence, it is possible that we won’t be spending that way again at any time in the near future, and that can actually be good for our communities.  Because the interesting thing is, that problem of not having a “real community” that folks speak of was only being compounded by the spending solutions so many of us had come to rely on.

As we systematically outsourced our experience of community, we simultaneously eroded the strength of our actual communities.  We lost (or failed to make) connections with those around us, with whom we shared geography or perhaps much more.  As the web of social capital became unwoven in our towns and neighborhoods, we made ourselves vulnerable to those factors beyond our community’s control.  We do not collectively share personal investment in our common place, and we now lack the benefits that a cohesive society can bring.

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The word community is derived from Latin, effectively meaning “to give among each other,” a sharing view of how citizens interconnect.  It calls to mind a sort of American ideal, Mayberry or Walnut Grove or Walton’s Mountain, but it also suggests trends that have taken off in the past couple of years, crowdsourcing and crowd-funding and the sharing economy.  What we might have done manually a century ago, convening at town hall meetings or investing in a friend starting a business or bartering our skills in exchange for a neighbor’s skills we lack, we are now finding ways to do digitally.

Words from Community Session

credit: Choconancy1 via flickr

But there is still much more restitching of our local societies to be done.

When everyday citizens talk to us about their fears of lacking real community, we often ask them to explore the ways that they do manage to feel connection.  Sometimes they tell us about their church, or the sidelines of their child’s sporting events, or the local farmer’s market.  Often they express doubts over how to reconnect again, or whether the connections that they do experience are actually meaningful, or what they might do if they really needed the help of their neighbors.  Every time they tell us that if they knew where and how and why they could and should get far more deeply involved in their community, they certainly would.

WCGN Garden Committee: Germantown Asset Mapping Project

credit: jsaull via flickr

Citizens are anxious to start building connections again.  The question for their communities is this: who will lead the charge to restitch the fabric of their citizenry?

Particularly in the small towns where The Civic Hub often works, we see municipality after municipality reducing administration and removing departments that might have addressed such an effort in the past.  And we understand, how the era of limited resources and the popularity of restricted power means that even the good that can come from government must be gone.  But if it isn’t our cities and their staffs, our towns and their managers, our neighborhoods and their organizations, then who is going to sponsor and support and speak for a return to civic investment?

Part of our work is to learn who is is willing to lead the civic restoration in their community, and then help support them as they do.  More often than not, those conversations we have with everyday citizens help us in our quest, though as a colleague said recently, it is hard to make the role of local leadership seem sexy.  Leading the charge toward civic change can be a thankless task.

Still, with so many of the folks we talk to interested in joining in, we’ve got to believe that “real community” has never been so easy to sell.