Questions on the design of society's institutions, the theory being that the presence of a stronger sense of community will maximize desired outcomes.
I share here because I want to get input from as many people as possible. I am sharing this in various forms in various fora because I want to get to work already and I don't know which connection will best help me do that.
I have been taken recently by questions of how the compartmentalization of societal functions (e.g. education, housing, caring for the elderly or infirm, trading or conducting business) results in an approach to those functions that neglects a basic foundation of human existence, which is that we are hard-wired to be part of communities. (I've actually been so taken by this that I'd like to make it my work, so this is also a shout out to any of you who are rethinking the design and structures of cities you run or live in, and want a partner in effecting positive change.)
A google search for the phrase “it takes a community” returns 1.7 million results that suggest that community is important not just for educating a child, but for dealing with addiction, taking care of the elderly or infirm, making Halloween fun, tackling truancy, protecting the environment, serving a veteran and achieving just about anything positive that involves another human being in this world.
My desired outcome is informed, empathetic, concerned, successful citizens leading meaningful lives, with a certain percentage (I'll kick it off at 5%) committed to effecting positive change in the world.
I think our neglect of the power of community to effect this outcome results in a piece-meal approach that in many cases serves to exacerbate existing problems. For instance, we may want people to understand history or engage in scientific study. To do this, we could choose to hand out and demand the study of certain textbooks, or we could put children in contact with our scientists and the keepers of our most recent history.
We may also want to give working people, retired people, and people of limited mobility an opportunity to contribute to the advancement of the younger generation, incidentally creating meaningful connections across age groups. If we think in terms of community structures, this suggests creating spaces shared by these groups rather than facilities strictly separated. It may also suggest the localization of structures and the limiting of community sizes to ensure a genuine connection between people. A congregation of 20 worshippers has a decidedly different feel than one of a thousand. Or in more secular terms, a runners' group has a different feel than the community of people running a marathon, though the group may provide a powerful space to prepare one for the big race.
I look at a place like Detroit (it's probably more of an idea to me than a place as I've never been there), and I want to redesign it (or any of a thousand other American cities or towns) or at least encourage the establishment of structures within it so that strong communities may form to support all community members in achieving their desired outcomes, which I hope align a little bit with my own.
So I throw this out to my people, and ask that you take a look at the communities which provide the contexts that allow you to thrive, and would appreciate your thoughts on how we can empower others to create communities to help them do the same. I take for granted the ease with which we create and draw on the communities which empower us, but suggest that our ease in creating the structures that support us is not so common.
I come from an education bias. I'd love to hear from people with other perspectives as well, and would especially appreciate citations to research that relate to the benefits or costs of community, and approaches that start at the local level.
If you think these thoughts are wrong-headed or mis-directed, I'd love to hear that as well. I do get some of the circumstances that make achieving this redesign interesting: that budgets for schools, community centers and support of retirees may come from different places; that government subsidies for individuals (Section 8, WIC, etc.) may need to be rethought and allowed to be reallocated to communities; and even that union contracts may have to be revisited to allow people to paint or clean their own schools or community centers.
As to immediate measures, I look for instance at Detroit because it is relatively flat, providing a lower housing density and more open spaces. One could select even as small as a block at a time to try to create populations that can work with each other. Considering the deterioration in various neighborhoods, it is possible that even one well heated house in reasonable repair can serve as a magnet for community activity, which could be anything from hosting a pot-luck meal, providing space for hobby groups to meet, working in a garden, to having children read with an elder member of a community (there appears to be a direct correlation between reading proficiency at ages 10-11 and prison populations 20 years later; I suspect this might be good for the senior as well; I hope people will point me to some relevant research). It might be that mentoring others in a business setting has positive effects on family life or rates of addiction, I have no idea, but I think decent data will suggest initiatives that make a difference, and that this can well drive the how, which could and probably should take as many forms as there are communities.
Last, if you are involved with a government or organization that is looking in this direction, I'd like to be a part of the effort. Please be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.