Good Neighbors Are Earned

Where to begin? If local communities are to serve as the foundation for healing the American spirit and reclaiming our sense of purpose, we must learn to make them strong – dependable, trustworthy, and resilient.

Many of us are not well acquainted with our immediate neighbors, much less those around the corner or down the road. If we want good people to depend on in a serious crisis, this has to change. Many problems are more easily resolved when we team up with others. Think food security, or friends we can trust when the banks close or the power goes out.

I have shared my concerns with you about the critical role of local communities. I have explained why I believe local communities and networks of communities will become the essential platform on which Americans reorganize themselves to identify common values, plan a common future, and forge a common purpose.

Building on the solid ground we foster in neighborly relationships, community is the only place in these extreme days where we have both the ability and the opportunity to control our destiny.

As each of us looks around and assesses our circumstances, how can we begin?

Those of you who are naturally outgoing will find this discussion simplistic. But for others the challenge of reaching out to strangers and proposing a common endeavor will be imposing.

There are several kinds of challenges to consider. These include: 1) getting acquainted with strangers and developing friendships, 2) explaining our motives honestly and our ideas effectively, 3) cooperation in addressing local needs, and 4) proposing more ambitious endeavors.

Community-wide efforts can include a wide array of possibilities. For example, these might include local security considerations, growing and preserving food, educating children, initiating small business enterprises, and troubleshooting technical problems that require creative thinking or specialized skills, such as electrical power, safe drinking water, and waste disposal.

All these possibilities can be placed on the table when we are first getting acquainted. Hearing a range of possible benefits for engaging in mutual assistance can jump-start resistant minds.

However, it is probably best not to try to fix all the ills of the world on the first visit. Unless you already know someone well, the first step will be to get acquainted and to find reasons to spend more time together. A warm, friendly first visit can be the basis for later, more substantive engagement.

Always begin interactions by inviting people to share their feelings and views before you do. This will provide you with a basis for effective engagement, and it will make them more receptive to you. Do not pry or press. But, if you can get another person talking, you will find them far more open to hearing from you.

Once new acquaintances begin to warm to you, invite them to think with you about ways the community can be improved. Invite ideas, and then suggest some of your own. If you find an opening, share your hope.

Try to avoid or downplay the more serious political or emotional issues, if possible, until you have secured a stronger positive connection.

If you meet unreceptive people, don’t push. Be friendly, stay in touch, and make yourself useful. As time passes, watch for ways to demonstrate the practical benefits of a mutually supportive community.

Soon we can begin to introduce people to each other. Small social gatherings can help people get acquainted. While remaining informal, we can introduce ideas by floating questions. What problems or unmet needs do we know of? Who has skills? What skills would be we like to learn? How can we assist one another?

As we come to know one another better, we can begin to discuss our willingness to rise above our differences when needs are great or the stakes are high.

First we are human, then we are neighbors, and, finally, we are Americans who care. As individuals we can be none of these things in isolation.

The future is of immense importance – but reality begins at home.


Next week: Finding our strengths.