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December 21, 2011 / HandsOnCorps

Do you Know your Neighbors?

At the close of my first day working for Grassroots Grantmakers I found myself staring at a stack of books my supervisor, Janis, had left for me to read.  I thumbed through a couple of short packets in the stack and looked out my window at Lake Erie’s choppy water.  As the four o’clock hour turned to five I grabbed The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block from my stack to read on the train home.

Grassroots Grantmakers is a network of foundations that all engage in some form of place-based, community funding—championing the idea that neighborhood residents know, more intimately than anyone else, what is best for their neighborhood.  And as I learned very quickly on the train, academics like McKnight view this form of grantmaking as a way to combat the deterioration of community within one’s own neighborhood.  McKnight and Block argue that consumerism has pushed us to outsource all the traditional functions of a neighborhood.  The basest example of this would be instead of going to a neighbor’s door for a cup of sugar a person would more likely drive to the store and buy it instead.  These ideas resonated with me and challenged the way I live my life.  “Do I know my neighbors?”

Within my first week of work I had the privilege to attend a workshop that addressed many of the issues McKnight and Block raise in The Abundant Community.  The workshop was to train Cleveland City residents to host and facilitate something called Neighbor Circles, a practice conceived by Bill Traynor at Lawrence CommunityWorks.  Essentially, Neighbor Circles is a series of three dinners hosted by neighbors, for neighbors, with the intent for folks to get to know one another and eventually work together on a small project in their community.  The principles are so basic they do not feel like they need to be taught but the actions are so impactful that it’s hard not to wonder if there are other forces at work.

Here is the breakdown:

Dinner #1: 6-10 neighbors eat together and do a mapping exercise and discuss the questions “how did you end up living in this neighborhood?”

Dinner #2: The same 6-10 people eat and discuss assets and challenges of their community and chose one main issue that they feel they can do something about

Dinner #3: The same 6-10 people eat and come up with a small action to take that addresses the issue from dinner #2

The workshop I attended simulated these dinners and from the simulation alone you could feel walls between people coming down.  One man named Hank shared his story of how he ended up living in Cleveland.  He discussed his very first memory, as a young child, riding a train from Tennessee to Ohio.  In the years in between that day and now he had fought in the Vietnam War, hitchhiked to Texas, lived in California and periodically made his way back to Cleveland, his home.  When Hank told our group that he hitchhiked to Texas as a twenty-year-old, he looked down at his shoes, smiled to himself and said “Boy, that was a good time.” Afterwards you could hear each person in the group’s muffled laughter and see their coy smiles as they remembered the fun times they had as twenty-year-olds.  In that moment I got it.  I understood that no matter how efficient it may be to outsource traditional community functions the relationships were irreplaceable.

Rachel Oscar

HandsOn Corps VISTA, Grassroots Grantmakers

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