Category Archives: Social Responsibility
#OWS #BTV #VT – Thomas Meany writes about anthropologist David Graeber’s new book, DEBT: The First 5,000 Years, in this week’s NYT Book Review. Graeber, considered by some to be the “house theorist of Occupy Wall Street,” is gaining traction. From the review…
In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss published his classic essay “The Gift,” which argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.
“Perpetually indebted to someone else”… this sums up so much of what I love about my community life in Burlington, VT right now. We have a critical mass of people who willingly have jumped into debt with each other… not monetary debt, rather favor debt.
I was raised to value making my contribution to others while taking great pains to avoid accepting the same from others. So were lots of folks here. But that’s a recipe for setting yourself apart, for isolation. As my family has learned to accept favors from those around us, it’s made our contributions to others that much more meaningful and personal.
Now, through Front Porch Forum, MealTrain, our church, school, neighborhood and other means, we ask and offer favors daily from hundreds of friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Each request works against isolation and lays down another thread in the web of community that supports our life. This is a crucial asset… as much as our house, my job, the kids’ college savings.
My brother and his family are planning a holiday visit to see us in Vermont this month. We could all jam into our house, but I know they would sleep better if we had more space for the two families. Hotels are expensive and distant… B&Bs too. So, I put the word out to neighbors and got several offers of empty houses that we could use on our block. These neighbors are traveling out of state and are glad to share their home while they’re away. We’ve done this a dozen times over the past few years… offering or asking for empty-house guest lodging. Make that hundreds of times if we include other favors… meals, rides, tools, advice, kids stuff, labor, baby/pet sitting, on and on.
This is incredibly generous and trusting of all involved… but it’s also keeping each of us “perpetually indebted to our neighbors” in a way that makes our community stronger with each exchange.
[We welcome a guest post today from Laura Grace Weldon. Take it away, Laura… ]
Bringing Kids Back To The Commons
“All real living is meeting.” -Martin Buber
Surely my baby was as good as a dog. I’d read that nursing home residents benefitted enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and in better moods. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?
I contacted the nursing home around the corner. The administrator was enthusiastic. Then I talked my Le Leche League friends into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. They were somewhat wary, but agreed to give it a try. Finally I got a local store to donate a carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. We were ready.
We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. Our babies grew into toddlers, the elders became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. We were awed. Something as simple as our presence there, sitting on the carpet playing with our children, made a difference to people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefitted too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. And we noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace.
I’m still not sure why the very old and young are kept apart from life on the commons. Vital and engaged communities are made up of all ages. Chances are children have fewer opportunities to take an active part than almost any adult. This shortchanges everyone.
Throughout history, the young of our species have learned by getting involved. Children long to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions. This is how they advance in skill and maturity. That is, unless we restrict them to child-centered activities.
Young people are also drawn to seek mentors. They want to see how all sorts of people handle crises, start businesses, make repairs, settle disputes, and stay in love. But today’s young people are largely kept from meaningful engagement with the wider community. They’re segregated by age not only in day care and school but also in most spheres of recreation, religion, and enrichment. When we keep kids from purposeful and interesting involvement with people of all ages they are pushed to find satisfaction in other (often less beneficial) ways. Meanwhile, our communities are deprived of their youthful energy and innovative outlook.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to reconnect children with our communities.
- Involve children by giving them real input and responsibility in civic groups, churches, co-ops, CSA’s, arts organizations, clubs, and neighborhood organizations. What about a child who is a dedicated rock enthusiast but the local lapidary club only accepts adult members? Propose a joint adult/child membership, giving that child the same (age factored) opportunities to build social capital in the club. A similar approach can be taken with organizations that refuse to take youthful volunteers. Offer to give your time in partnership with the child, a two-for-one volunteer bargain. Adult advocates are often necessary to pave the way for genuine youth involvement in many groups.
- Give children contact with the workaday world. They need to know people with a range of hobbies and careers. Seek out those who are passionate about chemistry, bird watching, farming, the Civil War, engineering, astronomy, bagpipes, geology, blacksmithing, wood carving, drumming, well, you get the idea. Something vital is transmitted when one person’s enthusiasm sets off a spark of interest in a child. We’re rarely turned down when we ask to learn from others. People who love what they do can’t help but inspire kids and, they often tell me, the kids reignite their hope for the future of their work.
- Help local businesses tune in to children’s interests. For example, a bakery might hang children’s art on the walls, make meeting space available for a kids’ chess club, host Invent A Cookie contests, open the kitchen for tours, offer apprenticeships to aspiring young pastry chefs, teach parent-child baking classes, invite speakers to explain the science of yeast and flour, give cupcakes as prizes for youth community volunteer hours, etc. Businesses that are truly engaged in this way inspire loyal customers, they also enliven the community.
- Create age-bridging partnerships, as we did with babies and nursing home residents. Non-profit organizations are great places to start. One successful program called Girlfriend Circle started due to complaints. A group of women at a senior center often told a volunteer that they had no hope for the future because children “nowadays” are rude. The volunteer offered to set up a tea party for the ladies that included her daughters and their friends. At that first event the girls were seated between their older hostesses. Everyone enjoyed a lesson in napkin origami. Then they took part in a Q&A to learn about one another. After sharing refreshments both age groups were eager to meet again. The Girlfriend Circle met bi-monthly for several years, finding their friendships instructive and rewarding.
- Include young people in civic affairs, giving them genuine input into programs and policies. This works in Hampton, Virginia. Young people take leadership roles by holding conferences and open forums, advising municipal divisions, and helping to run the Hampton Youth Teen Center. City administration also includes a Youth Commission, with 24 youth commissioners, 3 youth planners, and one youth secretary–all high school age.
This comes full circle for me, right back to dogs and volunteering. A boy who had been a member of the play group we held at the nursing home talked his family into raising puppies to be trained as service dogs. By the time he was 12 years old, this boy gave promotional talks about this program to clubs and schools. I went to see him. He started off with some anecdotes about exasperating puppies. Then he went on to describe the generosity and hope his family felt each time they attended graduation ceremonies for fully trained dogs, ready to serve. I tend to think community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with his smile.
Laura Grace Weldon is a farmer and writer in Ohio. She’s the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. Connect with her at www.lauragraceweldon.com
Vermont Public Radio commentator Andrea Learned chimed in today with a piece called “Sustainable Waldo.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to nudge more people toward sustainable living practices. While switching out light bulbs and recycling as much as possible are both easy ways to start that process, what comes next? … we may now need to focus on places where sustainability is hidden in plain sight… Remember the “Where’s Waldo” books? Darned if he wasn’t right in front of your nose and you didn’t see him. So where are some sustainability Waldos?
One great example might lie in urban density and community transportation planning issues… Gardening is another activity where sustainability may be hiding in plain sight.
And what about neighborhood involvement, as supported by services like Vermont’s own Front Porch Forum, which host networks of online neighbor-to-neighbor help and information. Communities built on stronger interpersonal relationships and citizen interconnections help build more long-term, sustainable views on big, challenging issues. Whether or not citizens see this as sustainability doesn’t really matter. They are responding to powerful, sustainability-promoting, shared values.
She’s got a point! Sometimes we talk about FPF’s larger community benefits… but most of the time when chatting with folks, we focus on the direct and obvious benefits… use FPF to find an affordable plumber or ride to Boston, to report a car break-in to neighbors, to sell a bike or give away a stroller.
Glad to see this move by the Sun Journal is western Maine…
The obligation to stand behind your words has also been a core principle of journalism and this newspaper for many years.
The Sun Journal does not use unidentified sources in stories. When our readers write a column or letter to the editor for the newspaper they use their real names.
That, we believe, makes them accountable for what they say, plus it adds weight and credibility to their words.
But we have deviated from that principle for the Web, believing for several years that “online” was somehow different than “in print.” Nearly all newspapers have.
While we have known the identity of many people commenting on stories at sunjournal.com, it was difficult or impossible for users to know. As a result, some comments have been factually incorrect, reckless and mean-spirited.
While the technology of the Web is very different, our core principles should remain the same.
Both our website and print newspaper are, in fact, like a town meeting or community gathering.
So, beginning Feb. 1 all online comments at sunjournal.com will be accompanied by the real names of the people commenting. Only registered and verified users will be able to make comments. Anonymous comments will not be allowed.
All commenters, including subscribers and those registered now, will have to re-register under the new system.
Many newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, are now taking steps to make Web commenting more responsible and accountable.
But our new system is the most ambitious effort we’ve seen to elevate the level of online discussion.
Plus, most of our current commenters seem to agree. In an online survey, 57 percent said they would prefer that real names accompany online comments.
The Sun Journal’s motto is “Connecting you with your community,” and for more than 160 years this newspaper has knit together Western Maine communities.
The advent of the Web has given us powerful new ways to connect people and allow anyone to become an active part of every discussion.
We know this decision will not please everyone. In time, however, we believe it will result in a better online experience for all.
Malcolm Gladwell opens his Oct. 4, 2010 New Yorker article…
At four-thirty in the afternoon on Monday, February 1, 1960, four college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They were freshmen at North Carolina A. & T., a black college a mile or so away.
“I’d like a cup of coffee, please,” one of the four, Ezell Blair, said to the waitress.
“We don’t serve Negroes here,” she replied.
The Woolworth’s lunch counter was a long L-shaped bar that could seat sixty-six people, with a standup snack bar at one end. The seats were for whites. The snack bar was for blacks. Another employee, a black woman who worked at the steam table, approached the students and tried to warn them away. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant!” she said. They didn’t move. Around five-thirty, the front doors to the store were locked. The four still didn’t move. Finally, they left by a side door. Outside, a small crowd had gathered, including a photographer from the Greensboro Record. “I’ll be back tomorrow with A. & T. College,” one of the students said.
By next morning, the protest had grown to twenty-seven men and four women, most from the same dormitory as the original four. The men were dressed in suits and ties. The students had brought their schoolwork, and studied as they sat at the counter. On Wednesday, students from Greensboro’s “Negro” secondary school, Dudley High, joined in, and the number of protesters swelled to eighty. By Thursday, the protesters numbered three hundred, including three white women, from the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina. By Saturday, the sit-in had reached six hundred. People spilled out onto the street. White teen-agers waved Confederate flags. Someone threw a firecracker. At noon, the A. & T. football team arrived. “Here comes the wrecking crew,” one of the white students shouted.
By the following Monday, sit-ins had spread to Winston-Salem, twenty-five miles away, and Durham, fifty miles away. The day after that, students at Fayetteville State Teachers College and at Johnson C. Smith College, in Charlotte, joined in, followed on Wednesday by students at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, in Raleigh. On Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines, surfacing in Hampton and Portsmouth, Virginia, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
Joy Mayer is exploring some good questions around engagement and journalism from her fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. Her posting today looks at engagement from the point of view of nonprofit organizations, news media, and online social media… and I’ll add a look from Front Porch Forum’s perch.
First, a nonprofit-focused ladder of engagement…
Joy also writes…
When we talk about “engagement” in the news, often that includes the desire to motivate users to action of some variety:
• We want to take the casual readers and increase their loyalty and commitment.
• We want the loyal readers to start sharing our content with their friends.
• We want the sharers to take our polls and comment on our content.
• We want those easy actions to lead to more involved contributions of content.
There’s a concept widely held to be true in Internet culture called the 90-9-1 principle. It basically holds that if you have 100 people in an online community, 1 of them will contribute content, 9 of them will edit or modify that content, and 90 percent will be passive lurkers. Think Wikipedia.
Here’s yet another perspective… we see people use Front Porch Forum by the thousands in our Vermont pilot. Our version of the 90:9:1 ration looks more like 25:50:25 in our active areas, that is, we see astounding participation rates. And FPF members often follow this general progression of engagement…
- A person will sign up with Front Porch Forum for a direct transactional need, e.g., sell a car, find a lost dog, report a car break-in to neighbors, recommend a new restaurant or plumber, etc.
- Over months, he/she will become more connected with nearby neighbors and attentive to local goings-on due to daily light exposure to brief postings from clearly identified nearby neighbors.
- After feeling more connected and tuned in, and after watching neighbors step up to help each other and pitch in on community projects, he/she will become more involved locally… mentoring a school kid, leading a graffiti clean-up in the local park, attending a City Council meeting, organizing a block party, etc.
This third step is what FPF means by engagement… people getting hands-on involved in their community… their geographic, real-time, real-space community. One survey of FPF members found two-thirds had attended a local event due to FPF and nine out of ten reported increased local civic engagement!
Joanne Heidkamp #BTV #VT of Green Mountain Returned Peace Corps Volunteers organized a used bike and sewing machine collection last Saturday. The dozens of bicycles and sewing machines are headed for people in developing countries. She told me today…
Front Porch Forum was the leading channel for letting donors know about the event.
FPF 35 bikes 1 sewing machine
The Other Paper 21 bikes
Burlington Free Press 11 bikes 3 sewing machines
Carrie Leber writes on The Christian Science Monitor website about the challenges of living with difficult neighbors. Her bottom line…
Maybe Internet forums, not fences, are what make good neighbors.
After discussing her own hard-to-live-with neighbors, she says…
Ironically, rather than face-to-face discussions, it may be that the Internet is the best source of info about potentially exasperating neighbors. You can go to sites like RudeNeighbor.com, where people post items about loud parties and bad behavior.
Although researching online kvetching about your potential neighborhood is one option, I really like the notion of the Front Porch Forum.
Started by Michael Woods-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, about 10 years ago, Front Porch Forum is comprised of groupings of neighborhoods in Vermont, each of about 400 homes. People sign up and must clearly identify themselves (no anonymous ravings), and then post items of concern or interest to local neighbors.
To date, 17,000 households across 25 towns in that state interact and discuss what’s going on in their neck of the woods.
What’s key about FrontPorchForum is that it is a micro-community, not a giant group of users such as on Facebook or Twitter. And while the geography of the organization to date has been limited to the Vermont area, FPF will set up a forum in any area for a fee. Or you could start one of your own!
From a real estate perspective, this is a great option for giving insight to prospective buyers about the nature and zeitgeist of a neighborhood. Had there been a forum for my community in Connecticut, I most likely would have seen the many qualms others in the area have had with the infamous Mary and Jerry over the years (no, their ire has not just been focused on me).
Ghost of Midnight is an online journal about fostering community within neighborhoods, with a special focus on Front Porch Forum (FPF). My wife, Valerie, and I founded FPF in 2006... read more
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