Category Archives: Community

The Self and the Great Community

John Dewey saw democracy as an ideal expression of associated living.

That’s a bit of an understatement though, because for Dewey, democracy is much more than “a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration.” Such institutions are an element of democracy, but fundamentally, Dewey argued,  democracy is a way of life.

To Dewey, democracy is recognizing “the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”

This concept of democracy is deeply tied to Dewey’s understanding of humanity. Indeed, Dewey argued, democracy is the process through which people learn to be human – and being human is the process through which people exercise democracy.  As he eloquently described in The Public and its Problems:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

I’m particularly struck here by Dewey’s vision of the democratic citizen as one who perceives themselves as an “individually distinctive member of a community.” Dewey clearly embraces the idea of “I” as unique and self-aware being, and yet there’s something in his language which nods to a broader understanding of “self.”

He goes on to talk about the illusion of a false psychology:

…Current philosophy held that ideas and knowledge were functions of a mind or consciousness which originated in individuals by means of isolated contact with objects. But in fact, knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted, developed and sanctioned. 

Associated living, Dewey argued, is “physical and organic,” but communal life – embracing the “self” not strictly as an isolated being, but as a being created by and reflective of its many associations – is moral: it is “emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.”

We differentiate humanity from animals by celebrating our consciousness, by claiming that we alone have the capacity to recognize that there is an “I” and by embracing self-awareness as a distinctively human trait.

Perhaps this is not far enough.

Not only is it unlikely that self-awareness is a uniquely human capacity, but it fails to capture humanity’s true gift. Dewey writes, “For beings whose ideas are absorbed by impulses and become sentiments and interests, ‘we’ is as inevitable as ‘I’.”

In short, “self” is not the unit we should be thinking in. There is a self, Dewey seems to argue; there is something about ‘me’ which is uniquely distinctive from ‘you’. But my self and your self are not as unique an independent as we might imagine. We are intricately tied up, interconnected, and interdependent. I cannot exist without you. I make you and you make me.

We are each of us, indelibly, co-created.

Recognizing and embracing that interdependence is what makes Dewey’s Great Community possible. Our biology ensures that we are associated beings – a baby, after all, cannot survive on its own. But through conscious and intellectual decisions, by recognizing that it is not only our fates but our very beings which are intertwined, we make communities.

We are far from achieving this yet – certainly terribly far from it on a global scale. As Dewey writes, “the old Adam, the unregenerate element in human nature, persist. It shows itself wherever the method obtains of attaining results by use of force instead of by the method of communication and enlightenment. It manifests itself more subtly, pervasively and effectually when knowledge and the instrumentalities of skill which are the product of communal life are employed in the service of wants and impulses which have not themselves been modified by reference to a shared interest.”

Yes, the old Adam persists. We hang doggedly to the idea that I have made my own way and that there is an isolated ‘I’ which has a way to make. We forget that we are fundamentally associated beings, and we underestimate the pockets of community collectively built. The old Adam persists, but a new vision is slowly taking its place; an awaking to ourselves as individually distinctive member of a community. Distinctive, perhaps, but inextricably intertwined.

 

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Again.

I got confused while watching the news this morning.

There was grainy cell-phone footage of a black man shot by police. But the details were all wrong.

This wasn’t a story about Alton B. Sterling, a 37-year-old man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was shot multiple times by police early Tuesday morning. He’d been engaged in the dangerously criminal act of selling CDs in front of a convenience store.

This was the story of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old man in Minnesota who was shot four times by a police officer Wednesday night while his girlfriend and young daughter looked on. He’d been reaching for his license, as the officer had requested.

In a powerful New York Times opinion piece yesterday, Roxane Gay expressed the anger and frustration many of us feel; the pain and fear felt acutely by people of color in this country:

I don’t know where we go from here because those of us who recognize the injustice are not the problem. Law enforcement, militarized and indifferent to black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem. That this happens so often that resignation or apathy are reasonable responses is the problem.

It’s overwhelming to see what we are up against, to live in a world where too many people have their fingers on the triggers of guns aimed directly at black people. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don’t know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary. I don’t know how to feel that my life matters when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

I am tired of writing this blog post. Tired of chronicling the deaths of too many people of color. Police killed at least 346 black people in the U.S. in 2015. Sometimes I want to just look away.

Of course, looking away is a luxury – it would never be me shooting that cell-phone footage; watching my boyfriend die in the back seat of my car while my daughter looks on; finding the strength to narrate while an officer points his gun through my window. That would never be me.

I was struck by something a Minnesota official said in response to the shooting of Castile. He was visibly shocked. “Things like this don’t happen here.” ….”Often.”

That sentiment strikes me as the problem.

I’d like to think that something like this would never happen in my city. That if I ever witnessed such a horror I would jump in and save the day. But ignoring the fact that I’d more likely be frozen and dumbfounded – this brutality doesn’t need heroes. It needs deep, systemic, and collective change.

Until then, these deaths will continue to happen everywhere. Black men will keep dying.

Earlier this week, the Center for Popular Democracy and Policy Link, in partnership with protesters and street-level organizers released a report detailing what cities and towns can do to end police brutality.

Mic has a good write up synthesizing 15 concrete steps citizens and local governments can take to affect change. I recommend reading their article and reviewing the report, but here are the 15 actions every municipality should take. This is how change happens:

1. Stop criminalizing everything.
2. Stop using poor people to fatten city budgets.
3. Kick ICE out of your city.
4. Treat addicts and mentally ill people like they need help, not jail.
5. Make policy makers face their own racism.
6. Actually ban racist policing.
7. Obey the Fourth Amendment.
8. Involve the community in big decisions.
9. Collect data obsessively.
10. Body cameras.
11. Don’t let friends of the police prosecute the police.
12. Oversight, oversight, oversight.
13. No more military equipment.
14. Establish a “use of force” standard.
15. Train the police to be members of the community, not just armed patrolmen.

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Civic Engagement in the Zombie Apocalypse

Imagine the early days of the zombie apocalypse: a few zombies shamble down the street but society hasn’t quite yet reached full-stage desolation.

It is very clear that something is wrong, but the whole situation is shrouded in chaos and uncertainty. People who seem more or less normal one minute become brain-hungry monsters the next.

Leaving the cities seems like a wise idea. With so many people becoming vicious and unpredictable, it’s probably best to isolate yourself from the mass of humanity.

But at the same time, you can’t cut yourself off all together. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I probably don’t have the skills to survive in the wilderness on my own. I’d like to think I’d have something to contribute to a small, post-apocalyptic society, but I would most certainly need a community – people to help me forage and fight back the zombie hordes. I’m fairly certain I couldn’t do that on my own.

I would also be inclined to argue that community provides broader value – that living amongst at least a few other people would be better than living in total isolation – but I suppose such an argument goes beyond the scope of what I’d like to write about today. Even on purely practical, utilitarian grounds, one must trust at least a few other people in the zombie apocalypse world.

The challenge here is that, especially during the initial waves of the zombie apocalypse, it is entirely unclear who it wise to trust. The zombies, after all, aren’t some inhuman creatures instinctually distinguished from ourselves – indeed, every zombie was a person first.

One might hope that the human/zombie distinction would be clear once the full zombification of a person has taken place, but there’s every reason to think that it would not be clear in the early stages. Indeed, until you properly learn to recognize the signs, a trusted human might go to monstrous zombie more quickly than you could anticipate the tragic transformation.

This leaves the important question of what civic engagement and civil society would or should look like during the zombie apocalypse.

Do you err on the side of welcoming people into your post-apocalyptic community, benefiting from their skills and talents but risking their future thirst for brains? Or do you isolate as much as possible – protecting yourself from infection, but cutting yourself off from the benefits of society and decreasing everyone’s chance for survival?

Both options have risks, and either could be decried as foolish.

For myself, I lean towards community. Isolation may have its benefits and at times may have its appeal, but ultimately, such tactics are a short-sighted solution. Facing the desolation and despair of the apocalypse, one would do well to remember: isolation may help you survive another day; but community is how you go on living.

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Collective Emotions

It is not uncommon for groups of people within a shared community to experience what’s known as “collective emotions.”

Sociologists Christian von Scheve and Sven Ismer define the term as referring to “the synchronous convergence in affective responding across individuals towards a specific event or object.” Communities may celebrate together and they may grieve together. They may feel fear together or may share a collective sense of shame.

Importantly, as philosopher Bryce Huebner argues in detail, such collective emotion is different from simply plural emotion. That is, “there are emotional states that are not merely states of individuals in aggregation.” Collective emotion is something more.

In developing a model for collective emotion, Scheve and Ismer argue that “for collective emotions to emerge, individuals have to appraise an event in similar ways, which in turn requires a minimum of shared appraisal structures or shared concerns.” People must not only respond to an impetus in similar ways, they must be aware of each other’s emotional response.

I find it important to think about this as our nation continues to reel from the tragedy in Orlando and from too many other horrors our world has experienced.

In my own circles, I felt that sense of collective grief, collective anger, collective fear, and collective love.

But I’ve been struck by how many people have told me they didn’t.

They went to work on Monday to small talk about weekend plans and the weather. As if nothing had happened. As if nothing were wrong. When casually asked how they were doing, they found they had little choice but to respond politely:

I am fine.

Events like these, I suppose, expose our cultural fault lines. Many people in America consider the victims of the Orlando shooting to be a part of their communities – a community of humans, Americans, Latinos, or LGBTQ folks – but many others, it seems, do not.

It is not necessarily that they don’t see this horror as tragedy, but rather, that they have some emotional distance from it. It may as well have happened on the moon. It is easy to switch the news off and go about your day.

I’ve heard similar reflections from people of color following the many, many, many, acts of violence and brutality faced by that community. After hearing the news of the death of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, or any of the other 102 unarmed black people killed by police in 2015, they go out into the world saddened and angry, only to find their white peers, blissfully unaffected by the news, smiling and asking amiably, How was your weekend?

Having no doubt done this myself at times, I suppose it’s just a reminder of how important this collective emotion can be. That’s not to say that white people should take over the grief of people of color, or that straight people should make the mass murder of latino LGBTQ folks all about them.

But whether we see ourselves in the faces of the victims or whether we see the loving faces of our human brothers and sisters, we can, and should, all grieve together, all mourn together, and, above all, all work together to prevent such atrocities from happening again and again and again.

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No Words…

There are no words in the face of tragedy. No words to fully express the confusing mix of horror and love and anger. No words to change the terrible past. There are no words.

And yet, I find I am left with little else. I’ve no response but to love, to speak out, and to act.

I am not powerless; these are my tools.

But I’ve written this post too many times, seen too many good people die, seen too much violence against our most vulnerable communities.

We can and should pass an an assault rifle ban, but that is not enough. Like most civilized countries, we should limit access to firearms – but we must also change our culture of violence and hate.

50 people died in an attack targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. And yet LGBTQ people are being straight-washed from the story by elected officials who have continually and vocally denounced this community. By elected officials who may very well continue to spew homophobic hate after the requisite moment of public grieving has passed.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, managed to deftly ignore both the LGBTQ victims and the U.S.-born perpetrator, choosing to highlight in his statement: “We are a nation at war with Islamist terrorists.”

It is all of it too much.

I can’t stomach the hate.

As I try to make sense of this senseless situation, as I grope for some sanity in this mad world, I find I am left with little but a deep, profound love for every living being. Yet, as many before have pointed out, that is not enough. So, I am full of love, yes, but full, too of a certain divine dissatisfaction; a need to keep working until the work is done; until we’ve collectively put aside hate and violence and found a way to simply love, to embrace our collective humanity.

I’m afraid this is little to offer in the face of such an insurmountable task, but this is what I can do. Love, speak, and act – those are my tools.

And there is so much left to do.

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Equilibrium vs. Extremes: Rejecting the Premise

In my post yesterday I posed a question raised by Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia: Is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

In Kazohinia – as well as in some other social satires – these opposite choices are presented as mutually exclusive; a society can not have both. Both options seem to have pros and cons: the society at equilibrium is efficient and stable, but lacking in art, love, and life in its richest sense. The society with extremes has creativity, growth, and change but also has war, poverty, and injustice.

So which is better?

I was careful yesterday not to answer this question for myself: partly out of a interest in trying to define both sides of the argument, and partly because I’m not entirely satisfied with my answer.

I will also not answer that question today, instead exploring an alternate approach. Frankly, my instinct is to reject the premise of the question – why must we see these choices as exclusive? Surely there is some way to embrace the best of both models?

That is a tempting out of this debate, and would surely be the best option. This, however, quickly leads to a host of other questions: is a balance between these models possible? What would that look like?

A core argument for an equilibrium society is that so-called good things necessarily create so-called bad things: that the existence of love intrinsically means the existence of hate. Therefore, finding a proper mix of these two social models means finding a path that allows for some close relationships while preventing apathy towards the broader populace.

You’ll note that I’ve softened the contrast here: perhaps love does not necessitate hate, but favoring some people – through the simple realities of one’s energy and resources – does seem to necessitate not favoring others. In a wealthy country where the global populations we don’t favor are starving to death in poverty, this presents a real conundrum – even if you generously assume that not favoring these populations is completely separate from issues of hate and racism.

This is exactly the issue philosopher Peter Singer tackles in his book, One World. In lecturing to his students, Singer quotes Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick:

We should all agree that each of us in bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree: and to those who have rendered services to him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends: and to neighbors and to fellow-countrymen more than others…

Singer comments that his students nod their heads in agreement with these words. This is the existence of love. We should love our family more than our friends, and love our friends more than strangers. One might sense a nagging doubt at these circles of concern, but on the whole it seems reasonable: we might care for humanity at large, but it seems improper and unnatural to love a stranger as much as your own child.

But while this demarcation may seem reasonable and morally valid, Sedgwick quickly goes off the rails:

…and perhaps we may say [we are bound to show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Singer’s students “sit up in shock.” This completely reasonable moral perspective to which they found themselves agreeing suddenly turned into a racist manifesto. Good people certainly don’t endorse that last sentence!

Singer shares this story to challenge the notion that “it self-evident that we have special obligations to those nearer to us, including our children, our spouses, lovers and friends, and our compatriots.”

His work, then, centers around answering the question, “How can we decide whether we have special obligations to ‘our own kind’ and if so, who is ‘our own kind’ in the relevant sense?”

For his part, Singer finds moral justification for preferential treatment of family members and friends:

Very few human beings can live happy and fulfilled lives without being attached to particular the human beings. To suppress these partial affections would destroy something of great value, and therefore cannot be justified from an impartial perspective.

Furthermore, while these relationships do require partiality, they may not necessarily result in the sort of broader injustice that should cause us concern. Friendships, after all:

…are stronger where there are shared values, or at least respect for the values that each holds. Where the values shared include concern for the welfare of others, irrespective of whether they are friends or strangers, then the partiality demanded by friendship or love will not be so great as to interfere in a serious way with the capacity for helping those in great need.

So there are grounds for accepting these intimate relationships. After that, though, the circles of concern break down.

I am inclined to agree with Singer in finding “few strong grounds for giving preference to the interests of one’s fellow citizens, and none that can override the obligation that arises whenever we can, at little cost to ourselves, make an absolutely crucial difference to the well-being of another person in real need.”

It is good to love ones friends and family, but nationalism is a step too far.

This all seems good and rational, but there’s something seemingly arbitrary in determining where we draw our lines. Nationalism, for example, doesn’t quite seem to capture the international biases we show in our daily lives. In the US, for example, media attention and public concern are biased first towards our own affairs, and then towards European countries we find, though some ineffable metric, to be like us. Those people we find least like us are then shown the least concern.

Singer resolves this issue by arguing that what we think of as “community” is really a made up concept. Being “American” or even “Somervillian” really just means being part of an imagined community. Building off Benedict Anderson, Singer explains:

Though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values, such as a constitution, democratic procedures, principals of toleration, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

And if our nationalism is little more than an imagined community, we can, with a little effort, imagine ourselves as part of a different community. A global community.

This is an inspiring thought, but Singer has far to go in illustrating that such a thing were broadly possible. If everyone saw this as the clear moral path, one might imagine we’d have accomplished it already.

Furthermore, given the deep racial and social injustices we see within our own ‘American’ community, it is hard to imagine that we are anywhere close to collectively embracing our international identities. If our current imagined community is so narrow as to only accept people of similar race, class, ideology, and national identity, how are we ever – on a collective scale – to move beyond that?

Thus Singer’s solution leaves me somewhat disenchanted. In theory, his approach provides a map for integrating cultures of equilibrium and extreme. We ought, one might hope, to be able to love select people a little bit more, while loving the vast mass of humanity all the same. However, the mere fact that Singer has put so much effort into answering this question – and that the answer is disputable – illustrates that, even if balance is possible, it is neither easy nor self-evident.

As much as we may resist it, we may, indeed, be left with the choice: equilibrium or extremes?

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A Taste of Immigrant City

On Thursday of this week, The Welcome Project, a non-profit dear to my heart, will hold it’s annual YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City Celebration and Fundraiser. (Get your tickets here or at the door!)

I have to admit, it’s a little surreal for me – after serving as event chair for four years, this is the first year I’ve hardly been involved at all, since I’m currently focusing my energy on school. I still find time serve on the board of The Welcome Project, though, and I’m looking forward to waltzing in to enjoy a great event without having to worry about all the planning.

Founded over 25 years ago, The Welcome Project builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions. Through practical offerings such as ESOL classes for adults and supporting interpretation at local meetings, we work to ensure that immigrants have a real voice and role in our community.

In many ways, I see the philosophy of The Welcome Project as turning the paradigm of immigrant assimilation on its head. Rather than demanding that immigrants abandon their cultural backgrounds in order to become part of the community, we start from the genuine belief that immigrants are full members of the community.

Our work is therefore to support the civic leadership, engagement, and voice of immigrants. This is their right as members of the community and, importantly, such equal participation adds real and needed value to the community.

This is the work of The Welcome Project, work that you have the opportunity to support on Thursday, April 14 by attending a delightful fundraiser with live music and delicious food immigrant-owned Somerville restaurants.

Or, you know, you could skip the food and just donate here.

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Politics in an Ideal World

Not long ago, a friend asked me why anyone would want to engage in politics for politics’ sake. We worry about such things because we have to, but wouldn’t it be better, in some theoretical, ideal world, if we didn’t have to?

Imagine, for a moment, a perfect world; a society so flawless that it was always just and fair without any need for engagement from its citizens. In such a world, people would have no need for the frustrating practice of politics – they would be free, instead, to devote their time to more productive endeavors.

Now, such a thought experiment immediately raises all sorts of practical concerns; but let’s for a moment put those aside and assume that such an ideal society is both attainable and sustainable. In such a world, what would the role of citizens be?

In thinking about this question, it seemed natural to turn to John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and unwavering proponent of what he called the Great Community . Dewey’s 1927 book, The Public and It’s Problems defended democracy and responded directly to the skeptical critique of Walter Lippmann.

You’ll note here a subtle shift in language – is the thought experiment one of politics or one of democracy? Much lies, I suppose, in the definitions of these terms, but I’ll borrow here from Dewey in detangling them:

We have had occasion to refer in passing to the distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government. The two are, of course, connected. The idea remains barren and empty save as it is incarnated in human relationships. Yet in discussion they must be distinguished. The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. 

To be clear, Dewey had little loyalty to the specific mechanisms of political democracy:

There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. These things are devices evolved in the direction in which the current was moving, each wave of which involved at the time of its impulsion a minimum of departure from antecedent custom and law. The devices served a purpose; but the purpose was rather that of meeting existing needs which had become too intense to be ignored, than that of forwarding the democratic idea. 

So, if ‘politics’ is simply the act of engaging in a narrow system of political democracy whose mechanisms randomly sedimented over time, it’s unclear that Dewey would have much zeal for the idea of politics as an essential element of human life.

However, ‘politics’ can also be interpreted through the wider lens of democracy as a social idea; a concept to which Dewey was deeply committed.

For Dewey, democracy wasn’t a set of systems or an inventory of regulations; it was a way of life:

Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.

In this sense, ‘politics’ is the very element which transforms the “physical and organic” stuff of “associated life” into the moral entity of community. The work of politics is the work of building the Great Community:

We are born organic beings associated with others, but we are not born members of a community. The young have to be brought within the traditions, outlook and interests which characterize a community by means of education…Everything which is distinctively human is learned…To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its believes, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers onto human resources and values.

Importantly, Dewey argues that the two senses of politics cannot exist separately; without the broader understanding of social democracy, the mechanisms of political democracy reduce to nonsense: Fraternity, liberty and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions.

It is only through the engagement of the people in this deeper politics, in democracy as a way of life, that we can ever achieve the mechanisms of political democracy we strive for.

If, some how, the ideal world described above were possible – if justice rained from the sky with no effort from below; such a society would still be lacking in the moral concept of democracy writ large.

Dewey was under no illusion that transforming the mechanisms of political democracy would be an easy undertaking – but it was a transformation he believed could only occur through the political work of the Great Community:

The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not a despotic master. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consumption when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.

 

 

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The ‘There’ There

In 1933, after visiting her hometown of Oakland, CA, Gertrude Stein remarked that “there is no there there.”

Among many in the much maligned city, accustomed to defending themselves against such abrasive attacks, the remark has often been taken as a slight: as if Oakland were such a wasteland as to be little more than a desolate limbo.

Our more privileged neighbors across the bay have certainly said worse.

But this reading misrepresents the sentiment.

Stein had moved to Paris in 1903. She returned to her hometown thirty years later to find the city developed and her childhood home destroyed.

She wrote:

…anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there. …but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

Stein lived in Oakland from six to seventeen. When she returned she found it was not the city she had left behind – and she was not the person who had left it.

There was no there there. 

Stein writes of the loss of place as the loss of of something more – the loss of memory, the loss of identity, a meaningful loss of self.

“When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing,” Stein writes.

And then, one day, you return to find that this thing which you knew so well has become another thing.

You don’t recognize it; and, surprisingly, it doesn’t recognize you.

Or, perhaps worse yet, you do recognize it. You know every corner, every nuanced shade. You are intimately acquainted with the place, yet find yourself a stranger. You find that you know these details not at they are, but only as they were. Every sight becomes a haunting memory of the past. A faded ghost just beyond reach.

This is how I read Stein when she writes that there’s no there there.

Oakland as a place is really just an aside. Surely lacking in the luster of Paris, perhaps shabby and overgrown (I say with great love), but really just a place that was not the place she expected.

It was not natural – how could she have come from this place which was not her place? Where was that big house? Those Eucalyptus trees? The rose hedge and the big garden? Where was that life she had left behind?

And who was she, this strange person visiting this strange place?

The dissonance in place led to a dissonance in self.

Oh, how time goes by.

But there is a there there. Stein had become a new person, just as Oakland had become a new city. The confluence of the new can be unsettling; can be distressing; but ultimately – it is just the growth of life.

The there you remember is replaced by a new there – cherished by new generations and new  children who will grow up, travel, and return home to find their there no longer there.

No there there, and yet – still there.

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Civic Engagement and Custodianship

I attended an interesting discussion today with Dan O’Brien, Northeastern Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, who also directs the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI).

BARI has collected numerous datasets related to Boston: 311 calls and 911 calls; event listings and ticket sales from ArtsBoston, property tax assessment records, data on bicycle accidents, and more. You can even access the data online here: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/BARI.

O’Brien discussed a number of projects he was interested in exploring with his work, but I was most struck by his work using data from 311 – Boston’s hotline for requesting city services – as an indicator of civic engagement.

Through the 311 system a person might notify the city of a burnt-out street lamp, a pothole, or any number of other issues.

This creates a dataset which can measure what O’Brien calls custodianship – essentially citizen actions to improve or repair a community good.

This civic indicator has typically been challenging to measure. As O’Brien notes in a 2013 paper,” custodianship entails the co-incidence of an ‘issue’ and someone who moves to address it. Although some such events might be regular, like an individual who sweeps the front walk daily, they will typically be rare.”

However, 311 data are starting to change that, with the added benefit that – at least in Boston – users register to use the system, making it possible to “aggregate cases for each registered user, permitting analyses that examine and compare patterns of custodianship across individuals.”

In his work so far, O’Brien has found that custodianship through the 311 system is “a rare act” – most users only reported 1-2 cases within the 15-month window. Of course, the 311 system only captures some portion of “custodial acts,” so it’s entirely possible that a low frequency of reports does not indicate low custodianship.

(Also possible: Boston is perfect and few requests for improvement are needed.)

Perhaps most interestingly, O’Brien has found that “Most individuals take responsibility for a narrow geographical range surrounding their homes.” This could be a simple indicator that people are more likely to see a problem in an area the frequent, but it could also indicate that people feel more custodianship over their immediate neighborhood.

This work is just the beginning of a really interesting exploration of the relationship between civic engagement, custodianship, and 311 calls, but with cities’ growing interest in collecting resident data, there will certainly be more great work to come.

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