June 14, 2010

What a Difference a Neighborhood Makes

Here's something I've been wondering about. If you are someone who works in the community change arena professionally - in philanthropy especially - what experience helps you de-intellectualize the concept of community? What personal experience helps you connect the idea of community that resides in your head with the experience of community that lives in your heart? And what questions about how community happens and what community means does that experience bring up for you?

Here's how it is for me.

I've moved around a lot - from childhood until now. I've lived in neighborhoods and communities that were immediately welcoming and others where I never found my way. I'm thinking now of the neighborhoods (brand new subdivisions, inner-city neighborhoods, and others less easily pegged), apartment complexes, college dorms, and rural communities that I've called home through the years. I can rank them from friendliest to least friendly - from places that I hated to leave to places that I left without regret. I can also think about how I felt on my first day there - always hopeful that this would be one of those special places where I could be comfortably myself and feel that I belonged rather than a place I would remain invisible unless I took extraordinary steps to become visible. And my last day there - full of regret to be leaving or relieved that I could stop trying to make it work.

And I'm thinking about this because my own personal experience is woven into the information that I bring to bear when I'm at the business of "big thinking about small grants" - thinking about how everyday people make a difference in their own community.

If I could sort those "welcoming places" into one pile and those "less welcoming places" into another pile and study the two piles, here's what I would see:

Common denominators for the welcoming places pile:
  • There are welcoming mechanisms or traditions - usually involving special invitations or food, but traditions that involved a knock on the door, a friendly wave or another welcoming gesture that seems to happen naturally and right away.
  • There are welcoming places - community spaces that people actually use (parks, lobbies, front porches, sidewalks).
  • There are people who have room in their lives for new friends.
  • There is a "place-name" that people who live there know that signals "home" in addition to pointing to a location on a map.
  • There is a story associated with the place - a dynamic history with some twists and turns that is shared, almost with a sense of invitation for newcomers to add embellishments or new plot twists as they join others in living there.
Common denominators for the not-too-welcoming places:
  • A memory of an apartment number or a street address but not "the place".
  • Move-in day extended to move-in week/month/year - no "welcome" gesture.
  • No obvious "on-ramps" visible that I could use to introduce myself.
  • A feeling that social circles are set - no room at the table.
  • A feeling that that I just don't fit in or belong and that it's not something that time will fix.
If you're familiar with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community research (referenced in my Jane's Walk post earlier this spring), you'll see why this research has resonated with me. The places that I have loved - where I have felt at home and where I have stepped out of my comfort zone to get involved in ways that were new to me - are places that felt welcoming, provided social opportunity on-ramps to newcomers, and had a strong sense of place in both geography and psychology. It has taken major life-changing events to uproot me from these places - and these are the places that come to mind when I'm feeling invisible and longing for a welcome mat that is genuine. It is the experiences in these places that I analyze when I'm thinking about what makes a community work and what everyday people can do to make a difference on their block.

So now I'm curious. Does my experience resonate with yours? Have you too had the experience of communities that embraced and welcomed you and those that felt indifferent? What do you take from that experience that has meaning for the way that you think big about small grants? Post a comment (or connect directly via an email) to share your experience. The welcome mat is out.

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