Before I had kids, I didn’t do much neighboring. My husband knew the neighbors far better than I did, especially because I was seldom home from work before about 10PM. Even when I wasn’t at work, and even when I was outside working in the garden, I saw home as a refuge, a place to think through the strategies that might convince the Speaker of the House to bring a bill up for a vote I knew we could win, not a place to connect with others in a meaningful way.
But that changed when I began to see my neighborhood as the proximate environment in which my kids will grow. It’s where they will learn what it means to be a citizen, and what obligations to others mean for our own lives. It’s where they build relationships with adults beyond our family and their teachers. It’s where they mediate conflicts, and watch us do the same.
It’s home, but home as the center of shared lives, not home as an enclave against the outside.
And, so, today, my role as “neighbor” is fairly prominent in my life.
In the summer, I cut flowers from the garden for Sam to deliver to our closest neighbors. At Christmas, we sing carols with a few families around us (luckily, they’re more musically-talented than our clan!). The kids and I spend much more time in the front yard than in the back, mainly oriented around the large front porch that we added to the house last year. All year long, Sam shuttles back and forth with the kids two houses down, who spend at least an afternoon a week at our house. When their mom had another baby last summer, we brought her food for a week, and her husband and mine go out on a regular basis. The teenagers across the street not only babysit my kids, but also just play with them, and we go to their sporting events and consult on their homework. We have the phone number of our elderly neighbors’ daughter, who lives in California, on our refrigerator, and ours is the second emergency number on theirs. The young single mom across the street brings her son over for more exposure to other kids, and the divorced man next door lets my twins hang out on his front porch, which they, for some reason, prefer. When my husband comes home from work, after a rundown of the kids’ day, he usually asks, “what’s going on in the neighborhood?”
And I know.
But, still, despite the breadth and increasing depth of these relationships, and despite my background in community organizing and what I’ve witnessed as the power of “place-based” organizing for change, I’ve never thought much about my neighborhood, this community, as a force for social justice.
In part, that’s a reflection of the relative affluence in which we live; there are few glaring injustices that must be righted here.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use these relationships to leave a mark on policies, in our community and beyond it.
We could speak out, as taxpayers and public school patrons, about the kind of state school finance formula that would serve not just our kids but all kids. We could work on issues of after-school time, a challenge for several families in our neighborhood, and one that they mostly struggle with alone. We could share the story of our walkable neighborhood as testimony to the need for public transportation and investments in infrastructure that would address the spatial isolation of other communities.
And, in so doing, we could make being neighborly more about making a difference.
One of the tools I’m exploring to help with this is a neighborhood-based social networking application, called Neighbors Forums. There aren’t any active forums in my area to date, but there are examples of those at work in other parts of the country, models that communities can follow, and tools to integrate neighborhood forums into the social networks people already use to connect. They emphasize in-person recruiting, relying on the electronic component as a complement, not a replacement, to the “old-fashioned” door-to-door organizing that still characterizes the most successful community efforts.
And that makes sense for me, and for this place.
While I’ve broached the subjects of values, and politics, and “issues” with my neighbors, enough to know what their concerns are and what moves them, I haven’t yet begun to really organize. I think that I’m headed there, as I move towards integrating the various aspects of my life into some sort of cohesive whole. I’m not sure if I’ll look to something like the Neighborhood Forums, or recruit my neighbors to join some larger venue, or both.
As I work through some of these questions, alongside these former strangers who I now can’t imagine my life without, I’d love to hear from others who are organizing where they live. What has it meant for you as strivers for social justice, and as neighbors? How have these efforts shaped your personal and professional lives? And what lessons learned would you pass along?