Thursday, September 11, 2008

Building Community 101

Over a year ago, I decided that my lifestyle was not in harmony with my beliefs. I was dreaming of a smaller planet but living for a bigger one. I shopped recreationally. Fed my family frozen dinners wrapped in plastic. Used my dryer. Those things changed and my footprint slimmed down considerably over the last 18 months. My impact is now roughly 30% of the average American. Could I cut back more? Sure. It would be difficult at this point but I could do it. My family living at 10% of the average American's impact, though, would not solve our collective environmental woes. Climate change would still churn forward. Over 60 percent of Americans would still believe that drilling for oil will lower gas prices. WalMart would still sell cheap underwear imported from China.

And so my blog has gradually changed focus. I write less and less about personal changes. Do I still believe we should hang our laundry out to dry? Bike to work? Shop at the farmers' market? Absolutely! I write about those things from time to time. But I am increasingly focused on something else.

Reducing my impact is only half the solution. The other half lies in gathering numbers, gaining momentum, building community.

There are a million ways to do it. Sign up with a local green group. Join a church or, if you already belong, attend an event or volunteer to be on a committee. Put together an email list for the neighborhood. Plant a garden in your front yard. Set up a cocktail table in a cul de sac. Ask other parents at your child's school about carpooling. Ask a neighbor to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar. The ways to build community are as simple and as limitless as can be.

But here's the catch.

Building community is hard. It will tug you out of your comfort zone. It will force you to interact with others - particularly, others whom you do not know well or at all. That is, after all, the point.

In many ways, it is easier to make your own yogurt, plant an edible garden, make jam in a silent kitchen. That is more comfortable for most of us and certainly for myself. I don't have to talk to anyone when I harvest lettuce or stir in the yogurt culture. I can sit in the quiet cocoon of my own home and reach out only through wires and cables. I don't have to look at anyone's face. Or struggle for something to say. Or wonder afterwards if what I said sounded stupid. If I talked too much or too little.

Building community is hard.

And we are out of practice. Over the last few decades, we've moved away from block parties, bunco games and bowling leagues to nursing homes, TiVo and closed shutters. But being out of practice doesn't mean out of possibility.

All it takes is one brave soul to attend a meeting for Habitat for Humanity, send out an email on a school or mothers' club listserv, offer to set up a CSA, or sit on his or her front porch and make conversation with neighbors and passersby.

That first step is the hardest. But here's the truth. The second and third step are hard too. Building community takes time and it can be draining. It also can be exhilarating. Meaningful. Satisfying. Warming. Rewarding. And so many other wonderful, magnificent things.

Connections do not need to center on the environment. In fact, you'll probably get a lot further if your intention is just to connect and not to convert. Bringing environmental enlightenment can come later and can come naturally. New found friends will eventually notice how you live, what you care about, what you work toward. Just by connecting with others locally, though, you'll lessen your and their impact on the environment. You may share a meal, lend a tool, carpool, pass down clothes and toys.

Are you that one brave soul? Can you take that first small step? Put an idea out there? I won't lie. It is hard. Initially, it will be scary. And uncomfortable. And sometimes disheartening. But the payoff is huge. The payoff is a community you can rely on, a cooler planet, a safer home, a more effective government. The other half of the solution. The payoff will allow us to adapt to our changing climate.

* Photo courtesy of


Alana said...

It's so easy to feel isolated today. Since our daughter was born we've been taking lots of walks in our neighborhood. We love waving to neighbors, starting conversations about their yards and just plain getting to know the faces of our block. Likewise, we like to spend the weekends and evenings working in our front yard vegetable garden and talking with those that walk past our home. It's amazing how just the simple act of walking outside of our house can make a bunch of houses feel like a neighborhood.

Burbanmom said...

Oh sure, you switch from posting about the easiest change to make (food) to the hardest (talking to others) in one day!

This is for me the most difficult thing in the world. Believe it or not, I'm actually quite shy (stop laughing) and never quite know what to say around new folks. However, just this week I volunteered to be on a "Going Green" Action Committee in my subdivision. I'm nervous as hell, but it's a great first step. Not just to implement some new enviromental rules (maybe we can finally kill the clothesline ban!) but also to just meet some of the people in my community.

What's funny is, when you think about it, isn't it more scary NOT to know your neighbors than to go say "hi" and introduce yourself?

Heather @ SGF said...

Thanks for the great post. I really struggle with this as I've always been a loner.

Robin said...

"They disparage one who remains silent, they disparage one who talks a lot, and they even disparage one who talks in moderation. There is no-one in the world who is not disparaged."

Keeping that in mind, I now speak freely. It does not come naturally; I am an ex-stutterer and a painfully shy and introspective person. And yet people seem to sense this, and respond to it.

"As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." -Marianne Williamson

I think the only thing that will save this country is a bringing together, a sense of community; a social fabric to work for and be proud of. I get out there, step out of my comfort zone, in theory to benefit others. But truly I reap the benefits.

spelled with a K said...

Thank you again for another beautiful post. I think it speaks volumes that you and so many in the "green" movement are reaching more towards a core change getting to the cause rather than the symptom. Disconnection. We are disconnected from our neighbors so we close our shutters and don't talk to each other. We are disconnected from our food, so we shove any old thing down our throats because we are in a hurry. We are disconnected from the earth so we don't understand the consequences of our quest for convenience and immediacy. We are disconnected from society, so we turn on a TV which gives us the simulacrum of such no matter out out of touch it may be with reality.

I've always believed in being an example, but I think this is just a reminder that if I don't reach out, no one will see the example. This step is harder for me than becoming vegetarian, learning to garden, riding a bike instead of driving where possible or any of the other myriad of things I have changed in my life. That fear of the unknown social realm still plagues me to this day, and I think its high time we all got over it, especially me.

Mama said...

Thanks for this post, we all need to work together, and help eachother get involved. For those of us who have an easier time making the first move, and striking up conversation, we need to take the initiative to help make others feel more comfortable getting involved. Thanks for the encouragement!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your infectiously positive thoughts with me, and with all those lucky enough to read it.

Building a community is a worthy goal, and worth the difficulties. I would add that belief is a crucial component of this process. Belief that a community's principles and actions are healthy and important for our present, and subsequently future generations. This belief will carry you through the days when few seem to offer support and through the deeper, darker thoughts.

Aside from community building, each individual action we make is crucial. Every dollar we spend is an investment in a system and a belief. We must spend dollars on food and objects that we know the origin of, that support the people in our community and throughout the globe. Every thought we think, every word we write or speak is crucial. When you stick to your principles about the environment, when you bring your own bag to the grocery store or the farmer's market, everyone see it, and files it away. People think, I should do that, or why does she have a canvas bag?

Kimberly said...

Hiya! I just came across your blog via the "Best Green Blogs". I was interested as I am a Mum of a preschooler with another on the way who wants to live a more green lifestyle.

I really have enjoyed your blog and this post in particular. You are spot on about building a community before preaching to people. Leading by example is the best goal to have. Thank you so much for your thought provoking post. I am adding you to my blog roll and will definitely be back for more inspiration.

I look forward to getting to know you better and to building community (even if it is an online version) with you.

Cheers, Kimberly

Melinda said...

Awesome post, GB. My response.

Bobbi said...

I've got to come back and reread your post and the links and Melinda's post. Thanks, to everyone, for confessing to how difficult it is to talk to people. I'm a loner basically too though no one would believe that. I call editors all day. How scary is that?! But community? Nah, rather read or knead bread.

GB, I've been asking myself the same question you're posing. How did people do barn raisings and such? I can't imagine any of my neighbors offering to do that. We are all too busy to reach out.

Well, sounds like a good subject for APLS. And Kimberly, if you check back, join APLS. Sounds like you might be English? We need an outpost in the Motherland. Check us out

Rhonda Jean said...

I agree, there is a huge payback when you help build ties in your community. I am, by nature, a loner, not the bell tower type, but I like my own company and to work silently in my garden. However, in my attempt to give back and connect with my community, two years ago I started work at my local neighbourhood centre. There I teach free budgeting workshops and how to live well on less. We have a permaculture garden for everyone to pick from, free sewing and mending workshops, we give info and advice and free food when it's needed. It has been, without a doubt, the best "job" I've ever had.

Stephanie said...

And this is what's missing from every other political activist group, the thing I desire more than anything else.

Thank you for such a great post. I think all the positive attitude towards community building is helping give me the courage to reach out to others, not even in the environmentalist sense, but in the sense so that I have people I can lean back on when my mood is dark and lonely. So thank you, again.

Donna said...

You are an inspiration! Thank you! Community is the next logical step in the journey we're all on, and you're so right that it's hard. I find, however, that if I am brave enough to even stick my littlest toe in the water, it is rewarding. Thanks for the encouragement.

Green Bean said...

Alana: So true. Just being out front is often enough.

Burbs: Doh! You are right. I did go from super easy to super hard. And despite how hard it is, you are rocking the subdivision, aren't you! Love it.

Heather: I'm definitely a bit hermity. That's what makes this hard.

Robin: Beautiful comment. Community really is the answer.

Spelled with a K: Another awesome comment! Disconnection does seem to be at the heart of every crises we face today. Let's start making connections at the most basic level - with ourselves.

Mama: My pleasure!

Anonymous: "belief is critical" - absolutely. I wrote this post after a community bike ride. I threw myself on the couch and complained to my husband that I didn't think anyone liked me, maybe I said the wrong thing, talked to much, and so on. But I believe in what I am doing. And that is why I keep going to events and making the effort - even when it is difficult. Thank you for an insightful comment and for calling my thoughts "infectiously positive". I love that!

Kimberly: Thanks for popping over! I think the virtual community is a valid one as well. Without it, we wouldn't be able to find support on the dark days, share ideas, learn from others unlike ourselves. I look forward to getting to know you in this community! :) if not in the phyiscal one.

Melinda: Keep it coming girl!

Bobbi: We are all too busy but also too unwilling to try something uncomfortably and not immediately gratifiying. We're getting there,though. Right? Thanks, btw, for bringing up the APLS blog and regions. Maybe this will be the month it goes global. ;-)

Rhonda: What a wonderful wonderful job!

Stephanie: Absolutely we do not have to make the environment the key to all this. It is nice to connect just to connect. I do, however, think that for the environmental movement to be successful we need to make a social movement (ala my environmental church post). We need to make connections with others, have fun, feel fufilled, and not just sit around and ask people to knock on doors for petitions or donate.

Donna: Littest toe? Yes! Then bit by bit, I find myself fully submerged.

Anonymous said...

GB: thank you for this beautiful post! it's especially timely as i venture out today to attend a rain barrel workshop and again next week to start a green book club! both of these projects are partly the result of a meeting i attended last spring to offer to help a local environmental center kick start a larger local presence. as a very contented hermit, with a hearing disability to boot!, it's hard to take the risks of "getting out there". but i do believe it is critical and the need is exigent. and so far, the results have been warm, welcoming and very encouraging! i can't wait to learn about rain barrels today, meet some other like-minded folks and bring home my very own new water saving barrel!

Timothy Latz said...

Thanks again for a great post about an important idea, that with all the things we do in our own homes to become greener, the most important thing is to step out of our zone and get the larger community together.

I'm moving from the big city of Chicago to the exurbs of TN soon and one of the things I want to accomplish is to help to nurture the community where I'll be living. There's not a lot of "green" awareness in TN, it's still considered a wacko environmentalist fringe movement in a lot of places, so there are challenges to getting the word out. I'm starting a community gardening plot at my new home.. Looking forward!

Domestic Accident said...

You know what got me? Ask for an egg or borrow a cup of sugar. I remember these interactions as a child, but I've never had a neighbor ask for anything, nor have I asked. I jump in the car and run to the store with 3 kids in tow and then I'm a grump. It never even occurs to me to ask.

Great post, GB. It actually made me a little teary eyed.

CindyW said...

Building a community is really really hard. First you have to initiate a conversation that is of interest to most. Then you have to tolerate diverse opinions of each other. If you have a end goal, e.g., shading the community greener, you must do it without preaching and with a lot of understanding.

It is easier to form a green community online, since all three obstacles are removed or reduced.

In a physical world, it is difficult. We choose to live in a community for different reasons, least of which is going green.

But if it were easy, it would have been done. So bravo GB for starting the conversation.

Robin said...

Revisiting to read the comments (I always forget to click the email follow-up box) and I'm struck by the number of self-professed shy people, introverts, hermits, and social misfits of all stripes. On my blog I have people email me because they are "too shy" to leave comments. Is there a link? As child introverts, did we spend more time in and relate to nature more? As adults, are we more naturally inclined to reflect on the consequences of our actions? Or is it just that the naturally shy are the ones who get really enthusiastic about the notion of building community... some sort of lifetime yearning?

I'm sure there are extremely extroverted, alpha-type environmentalists... just don't hear anybody prefacing comments that way.

Sorry so long...just thinking out loud.

Green Bean said...

Anonymous: I'm so glad to read about your adventures. Please leave me a comment or email me after the book club meeting. Can't wait to hear how it goes! Good luck.

Timothy: Good luck with the community garden. I find that food and gardening seem to be an easier entre into green living. They are so rewarding and people often embrace them as hobbies having nothing to do with the environment. Looking foward to reading about it.

Domestic Accident: I'm so glad! I got that idea from a neighbor. Why do we feel we must trudge down to the store for the smallest little thing when asking for it from a neighbor establishes a connection, creates some good will.

Cindy: You are right but I think we get so much further the more open, less judgmental we are. And yes, it is hard. It is the only way though.

Robin: Don't be sorry to be long! It was thoughtful and insightful. I don't know why most of us who put these thoughts out there are naturally introverted. Are the extroverts already out there doing what we're talking about? Are they less likely to be bloggers (I think I read that some where)?

musingsatapicnic said...

Wonderful ideas and encouragement, Green Bean. Today, my friends and I had a yard sale to de-clutter our lives, but the best byproduct was actually meeting our neighbors and feeling a nice community energy in our little yard.


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