January 31, 2011

The Call for Civility: Why Neighborhood Connections Matter

I took a trip back in time recently and spent a couple of nights with a former neighbor, back on the street that still feels like home in the neighborhood that opened my eyes to the power of place. Those of you who know me have heard about this neighborhood - the struggle with the highway, the neighbors/mentors who spotted something in me that I didn't see in myself, and the family we became over time.

What I haven't talked much about is the tension and conflict that were part of that picture. You have probably heard the saying that goes something like "Chance makes our relatives, but choice makes our friends." While we can decide where we want to live, we have about as much power to select our neighbors as we have to select our relatives. We get who we get - and they get us, like it or not. And when we talk about being part of a community, it's only natural that some of the same conflict that we experience as part of a kinship based family comes with our family of neighbors.

We can shutter our windows, build fences, let the shrubbery grow tall and insulate ourselves from our odd-ball, strange or perpetually grumpy neighbor. Or, we can accept the opportunity to strengthen our tolerance muscle and practice civility right there on our block, open to whatever relationships and experiences that really connecting will usher in.

In Evergreen, my Memphis neighborhood, we didn't have the luxury of not connecting. Our neighborhood had been under siege in one way or another for more than twenty years and was down for the count. The situation wasn't hopeless but a steady stream of people had been abandoning the ship and moving out of this neighborhood and into other areas of town for years. Those who were left or who had stumbled into the neighborhood (and I was a stumbler) understood that any hope for the neighborhood rested with us. Neighbor to neighbor differences seemed insignificant in light of the big challenge that we all shared. But that didn't mean there wasn't tension or conflict. It meant that we had to learn to keep our focus on every one's unique gifts and not their limitations, and ignore or work around a lot that could have sapped our energy.

With the recent national conversation on civility, I can't help but draw on my personal in that experience in that neighborhood to think about the role that grassroots grantmaking's big thinking on small grants approach can play in promoting tolerance and civility at the most basic level in urban neighborhoods and rural communities. Imagine the behind the scenes, relationship-building work that must go on when even five or ten people get together as neighbors to make something happen - the learning that happens when people see each other in new roles and under different circumstances, the nuanced negotiation that goes with people learning to work together in a group, deciding on the how's, when's and who's of getting a project done, and the take-away insights that these people will have about each other at the end of the experience.

In my neighborhood, shared adversity and the very real threat of an interstate highway coming through the middle of our neighborhood is what brought an unlikely group of very diverse people together in surprising ways that were both simple and powerful - simple in how we interacted with each other day to day, and powerful in what we could do together to make our way to some very powerful tables and have a voice in shaping our neighborhood's future. Funders who have the vision to think really big about small grants can set the stage for the same thing to happen - this time in response to opportunity instead of adversity. And my hope is that when they are counting up the benefits of the modest grants they are making to groups of everyday people, they include great civility somewhere on their list.

What do you think about the relationship between neighborhood connections and great civility? Am I over-reaching or does my experience in my Memphis neighborhood resonate with you? What do you think funding can do to foster tolerance and civility at the neighborhood level? Post a comment to share your thinking.

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