One of the things I seem to continue circling back to in this blog is “community.” How it works, where it works, when it doesn’t, why we’ve all done our part in letting community — a sense of community fade. We live in a society where year after year, people talk about how they feel lonelier, don’t feel as though they have as many close friends — despite numerous “friends” in online social networking platforms. We live in a society where we’re destroying the non-human community around us at an alarming rate (by some estimates, 200 species a day go extinct). We live in a community where people — a friend of mine just said this — which doesn’t want to talk politics, which perhaps is why we’re becoming more politically polarized. In short though, we mostly just don’t open up to each other. We mostly don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to be vulnerable — to ask for help, to offer help.
In full disclosure, lately, this has seemed particularly important to me on a personal level. I’ve lived in my current town for a year and am only beginning to bond with a few people. It’s been a lonely year and I’ve recently been pretending Jaime and Allison from Citizen Radio are my friends on walks and bike rides, and while I’m working, cleaning other people’s houses. It’s come to this because (most of) the people I used to rely on most are becoming more involved with their immediate (elsewhere) lives, and I’m having trouble forming deep connections with people who are immediate to my life and day-to-day activities. I’m not sure if this has to do with me not being open enough and investing enough in these potential relationships or if the people around me aren’t investing enough. I suspect it’s a combination — but there are also only so many times I can be the person to make the first phone call, the offer of conversation or an activity.
There are also only so many times I can hear things like “our little activist,” “don’t let it worry you, that’s a societal problem,” or “there’s no point in resisting; we can’t change culture.” Fuck that — I disagree. And community is an integral part of resilience, which is necessary for a culture of resistance. Let’s face it, there’s plenty to resist. And there are plenty of people willing to throw up barricades to building that culture of resistance. I’ve noticed a lot of defeatism, a lot of disengagement, a lot of hoping that if we all just change the way we think and act as individual beacons of hope (“be the change you want to see”) that things will actually change and sparkly ponies will appear everywhere. This is particularly true in my new-agey town.
I’m tired of feeling disconnected. I’m tired of only thinking about change.
So, I’ve been seeking community building projects — and following community building projects elsewhere. This spans from land reclamation projects and urban gardening to housing projects such as the variations of Occupy Our Homes across the country and alternative-to-shelters housing in Portland for the homeless (Dignity Village) to Community Supported Agriculture and bike co-ops (like this one and this one).
Most of these projects have their weaknesses, their advocates, and their critics. That’s fine. These things are all important to helping forge a stronger community. This is something that we overlook: that addressing weaknesses, standing up to critics, organizing for more community involvement and understanding & working with community members who are initially resistant to a community-good mindset helps build not only a stronger project but is central to building community. We’re forced to work together, in these cases, forced to reach compromises, forced to listen to each other.
I wanted to highlight just a few community building projects–this is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list of even the organizations I’m following and/or supporting–around the country, sometimes in places where I can’t get involved directly, and to invite you to share projects you’re involved in or following as well. If any of these interest you, let me know and I’ll be happy to put you in touch with an activist/organizer so you can talk about how you can offer your support even if you’re not part of that community. I’m intentionally focusing on smaller projects rather than ones that have broad followings already and/or are well established (though there are some really cool projects within those too).
Remember, support for these projects can come in the form of monetary support if that’s something you can do, but it can also include writing letters of encouragement (particularly important if the community building results in jail time for some of its activists — and this does happen), donation of supplies, donations of your time if you have a specialized background (i.e. – legal, financial, insurance etc.), or providing other resources. For many of these things though, it would be best if you found a similar project in your own community or initiated one. If you’re curious about ways you might start this, please post a comment.
Land Reclamation & Rehabilitation:
- Lot 26 – (I’m personally involved in this new garden project) A community organizer saw a vacant lot that was overgrown with invasive species and thick with rock. A social eye-sore on environmentally degraded land. He contacted the landowner (a local) and asked permission to turn the lot into a garden. Perhaps he was fortunate because the landowner is also a gardener and agreed readily. In the past eight months, the community organizer and his recruits have erected a deer fence and created garden allotments — and things (sunflowers, tomatoes, edible flowers, squashes, garlic and onions, and more) are growing beautifully. He’s asking the community for vegetable scraps (with overwhelming response!) and composting to improve soil health and as of a couple of weeks ago, the soil now has earthworms. He and his family have made friends with their neighbors, and community members who walk by, stop to ask questions. Even if he’s asked to leave the lot tomorrow (he asked for one week’s notice if the landowner wanted the gardeners off the land for any reason), the health of the soil will be better.
- Detroit Heirloom Conservatory – based in North Corktown, the goal of this project (which just acquired land in November 2011) is to cultivate heirloom varietals and host workshops for urban farmers as well as novice gardeners — of which are meant to improve the health of the community and help people connect with each other. It will also improve food access and food security (by, among other things, disseminating seeds). It’s a cool project and if you visit their website, you’ll find it easy to navigate (and also easy to figure out how to lend your support if you’re interested in doing so).
Around the country, you’ll also find vacant lots that have been turned into parks (as well as gardens) and community centers who have appeared in people’s homes — because someone saw the need for a community center in their neighborhood.
Homes & Housing
- Occupy Homes MN – “Occupy Homes MN works with homeowners facing foreclosure to help them stay in their homes by building public support around their cases and putting pressure on banks to negotiate in good faith. We facilitate neighborhood assemblies in order to build communities that can fight against foreclosure and economic injustice.” They very much practice direct action and the application of public pressure to encourage bank officials and loan companies (such as Frannie Mae) to renegotiate with homeowners. They canvass neighborhoods and seek neighbor support. They foster community, within communities, through BBQs and outreach, in addition to their direct action events which often pull in members of the immediate community in addition to support from other parts of Minneapolis — and even around the country.
- Dignity Village – A Portland, Oregon housing project that acts as a stepping stone for people who have found themselves homeless. It provides a lot of the tools the standard shelter system can’t provide, including a sense of community. This project is particularly interesting to me because it was built by homeless people who wanted a change — and the ability for a potential employer to actually reach them by phone. This is an older project (it was established in 2000), but given the rising number of homeless people around the country, this seemed like an important one to highlight.
- Occupy the Auctions – This project has very similar goals to Occupy Homes MN, which I mentioned above, except it’s based in San Francisco (there are similar projects that seemed from the Occupy movement around the country — see if you have one near you, especially if you’re faced with foreclosure & eviction). I particularly appreciate the immediateness & sense of need their website fosters: it tells you the number of homes up for auction on a given day, in addition to developing stories about the plights of the home fighters (the homeowners). Their website also provides resources for homeowners & defenders.
There are a lot of projects going on around the country and this post only highlights five of them. These community projects, it cannot be emphasized enough, are an integral part of building community resilience and solidarity, which is a vital part of building a culture of resistance — a culture which can challenge the established authority (the oppressors) and make changes that benefit the people. Projects, like the ones I highlight here, need support and I tried to emphasize some of the forms this support could take but if you’re curious it’s best to contact one of those organizations (again, I can put you in touch with organizers for these communities also) and find out the best way to help them — or better yet, to find the equivalent project in your own community and support that.
You’ll probably see another post about this again in the future. Once again, if there are community building projects you’d like to bring to my attention, please let me know in the comments section.