– William H.(Holly) Whyte (1917-1999)
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 their life circumstances. Maybe we’re nervous about developing a connection because we think we might not like them or their viewpoints.
Yet, 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 take root and grow. With time-tested ways to communicate, we all can 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 leadership and community building, 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 how do we create a more connected community? 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.com, which has been gaining a foothold across the US. Nextdoor provides a secure bulletin board-type web site, available only to residents within a defined geographic area. Imagine that 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 how can we foster meaningful conversations - within blocks, neighborhoods, towns, and cities?
Over the past few decades, a variety of approaches for supporting group dialog have sprouted and have now grown into time-tested tools. Here are some of the names: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and The Art of Hosting. In general, they all have several aspects in common, including:
- Focus is on a “level playing field” where everyone in the room is encouraged to participate. And all voices need to be heard.
- Leadership/facilitation roles are distributed within the group.
- Well-crafted questions are used to spark conversation and focus attention on what matters. We grow in the direction of the questions we ask.
- Chairs are often in a circle - with breakout groups in smaller circles or around small, round tables.
- People are encouraged to be fully present, to listen openly and deeply - suspending judgment - and to speak their own truth based on experience.
- Ideas that surface in small group conversations are “harvested” and shared with the larger group.
- The wisdom exists within the room - to collectively generate innovative ideas, approaches, and solutions.
In particular, there is a growing awareness of the vast challenges of climate disruption caused by increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. My sense is that more and more people care about this issue and want to contribute - but they don’t know how and/or don’t think what they might do would make a difference. Coming together through collaborative dialogue can help us explore the situation and can empower us to move into constructive actions - individually and together.
So this is my mission: I want to help community groups and associations tap our collective potential by exploring these new modes of group conversation and idea harvesting. And I want to work with town and city governments in leveraging these approaches as they open communications channels with their citizens.
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 is fundamental to our collective growth.
Mr. Rogers had it right all along: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” We have much to share - tangible and intangible - that can benefit us all.