My Little Community that Takes Care of Each Other, and Why I Wouldn’t Shut Down Its Elementary School

ImageNot too long ago I got the following email from my Mom and had the urge to run into a phone booth, throw on a cape, and turn into some type of academic super hero:

Hi!

 I talked to xxx tonight at the shower for xxxx, who by the way looks fantastic as an expectant mom, but the conclusion was you should write to the Moon School board members about the plan to close Allard. As a PhD student with credentials from U of Chicago, Boston College and an emphasis in the research of education you could have a positive impact by voicing your opinion.

Allard has the very situation communities seek. Neighborhood elementary school, community and the second best scores in the state. The concept “it takes a village” is alive and well on this side of University Blvd.

Additionally, what I heard tonight is that RMU is very much interested in creating a lab at Allard for student teachers. That sounds like a perfect partnership.

 You should talk to xxx and exercise your intellectual prowess for the sake of the community. I think your voice should be heard as a former resident, student and academic.

Love you,

Mom

Allard is the neighborhood elementary school where my sisters and I grew up, and now my sister’s children attend.  It’s one of a handful of neighborhood schools in your fairly typical suburban school district of about 3700 students.  The district is not huge, it’s not small, it’s not really rich, it’s not really poor (thought the district has its share of both ends of the economic spetrum), it’s not the best district, it’s not the worst; it’s just mediocre in a way that allows disciplined and talented kids to find opportunity and dropouts and delinquents to not appear particularly out of the ordinary.

This summer, my sister informed me that the district had contracted a company to perform a study of projected neighborhood demographics in favor of shutting down at least Allard, if not more neighborhood elementary schools in favor of transporting students from around the district to the wealthiest neighborhood school.  The organizing parents against the move needed a sociologist to help make sense of the report.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time I thought I did to really interrogate the report, but one thing stood out to me immediately which has been at the foundation of my scholarly pursuits: the methodology used assumed a stable, unchanging economy (or at least economic paradigm) and included no mention of climate change.

Don’t walk away from reading this because I mentioned an intensely politicized and partisan issue.  I could break down for you why climate change has become almost a perjorative word outside liberal circles (and in my opinion, often because of things liberals do themselves) – but engage me later on that one – I need to focus this post a bit.

The 2008 financial crisis has brought out a level of hustle, resilience, and creative ingenuity in people more akin to our grandparents generation that lived through the depression than any other generation most of us can remember.  We’re learning how to can again and what vegetables are seasonal so we can save money on food.  We’re shopping at farmers markets.  We’re picking up practices our mothers and grandmothers taught us like sewing and engaging digital media to access platforms like Pinterest where we’re learning how to make DIY cleaning products that are saving us money (and our kids from being exposed to unnecessary toxins).  We’re buying one snowblower for the entire street and working out a schedule of who gets to use it and when, or negotiating barter trades where younger able-bodied neighbors shovel snow or rake leaves while our elderly retired neighbors take out our dogs or collect our mail when we’re away.  We’re hosting potlucks and progressive dinners instead of spending a lot of money at less intimate chain restaurants and sharing our recipes over homemade wine and homebrew.  We’re shopping at second hand stores and volunteering at major swap sales like Just Between Friends so we can get a larger discount on second hand kids clothing and goods.  We’re trying new family business ideas, fixing our stuff instead of just buying new, and we’re learning again how to grow herbs from our window sills.

So much of what I’ve just mentioned is being called the sharing economy – an economy based on tapping into the idling capacity of goods and connections between people to essentially do more with less.  It’s always existed, more typically in different historical eras or in low-income communities or other cultural contexts.  But lately it’s been getting a lot of press because it’s seeping into American communities where you might not expect it.  It’s starting to show up in places where materialist lifestyles keep big box stores in business – places where it seems like there is nothing more American than having enough money to buy that thing that makes your social status look like your neighbor’s (who is simultaneously trying to make theirs look like yours).  I say this compassionately, because I am from a community that both buys from and works for big box stores and the corporations that prime and depend on consumer capitalism.  I am from people who have had different life chances because they’ve succeeded in this economic world, or have suffered greatly because they haven’t.  I am from a community where zero-sum economics is alive and well – the concept that in order for me to win, someone else must lose.  But I am also from a community of entrepreneurs and hustlers.  I don’t have the statistics here, nor do I have any real concept of whether or not entrepreneurship among members of the community where I grew up is higher than other communities, but I do know that every time I go home I hear about someone else’s small business venture or side hustle – even if it’s as simple as watching someone else’s kids in your home from 6am until the bus comes.

I grew up watching my father, an entrepreneur, cultivate relationships with his customers and clients and suppliers.  As an adult, I asked him one day why he thought he was so successful.  Did he have superior products?  Did he train great employees?  Was he just relentless when it came to success?  His answer was simple: “I take care of people.”  When he got really sick a year ago I watched what “I take care of people” looks like when returned.  I was at home, taking care of him, when I witnessed the outpouring of cards and meals and cookies and offers to sit with him or take him to lunch when he was up for it or visits to the hospital when he was most ill.  One person had asked their church to dedicate the week’s prayer shawl to him.  If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, a prayer shawl is a thing a bunch of church congregants knit while centering their prayer on the person they are knitting it for, who is in need.  I watched my dad wrap the black and gold (of course it was Steelers colors) shawl around him like it contained the love and concern of one thousand friends, and saw him breathe in a type of peace you can’t manufacture at scale, no matter how well you’ve perfected your supply-chain or employee productivity.

I am from a community of people who take care of each other.  The entrepreneurs in our community know it best – but so do the little league coaches, the cub scout den leaders, our most vulnerable, and especially our children who are able to roam the neighborhoods on their bikes and are never outside the indirect supervision of someone who knows them or their parents or the family of their friends’ families.  As a sociologist, I could speak for days about what type of value a neighborhood like mine possesses.  When I sit down to think about what this letter to the school board might look like, I try on multiple voices and debate literature and research in my head to think of what I might write that could be so convincing and bulletproof that no rational individual would ever want to shut down my elementary school.  I haven’t written it yet because my training has gotten in the way.  I’m looking for that bulletproof argument.  I’m looking for that thing that says “everything you’re thinking is wrong, and I can prove it.”  But that type of logic doesn’t work in communities like mine – and it’s probably why communities like mine don’t trust people like I am learning to become.  It’s also probably why I fear becoming this person.

So here’s a logic that I can speak to, authentically, and can still back up a bit with what I know as a sociologist.  I am from a community of people who take care of each other.  I am from a community that is primed to engage in the sharing economy because much of what we’re doing now we’ve always done, before the NYTimes talked about it or academics like me decided to study it as a cultural and economic phenomenon.  I am from a community who is trying practices that we might have temporarily lost from our parents and grandparents, but never quite lost the reason why our parents or grandparents did them.  I am from a community that does stuff when it makes sense, when it connects us to each other, when it saves us money, and when we feel better or live better because of it.

In my dream world, the next report the district funds to assess the long-term impact of keeping Allard open would do more to measure my community that takes care of each other.  As an economic sociologist, I would be happy to suggest ways to do so.  For starters, we could analyze the resilience of taxable income and property values – two indicators that get the lead role in any policy decision.  I would venture to guess that there isn’t a lot of “growth” in my community because growth has never really been our sole focus.  I would also venture to guess that those of us who have stuck around for a few generations like it that way and those of us that moved into the neighborhood kind of fell in love with it.  Sure, we’d love to work for X company and make a ton of money and never have to worry about whether or not we could afford to sign our kids up for sports next fall.  But I guarantee that when X company leaves, so does that family, or that family drops taxable income brackets quite fast or spends time on unemployment or other social welfare programs or has to sell their house and move to a community like mine, if they’re lucky.  When we lose our jobs, you probably wouldn’t know it.  We get thrifty.  Our friends employ us for things or we hear often “I know somebody that knows someone” and we have an interview next week.  Our houses are paid off or our mortgages are so low or we’re in such good standing that we can usually go to the local credit union and negotiate a plan that works for us until things get better.  Our neighbors watch our kids while we look for jobs or work that second shift or go back to school or do whatever it is we have to do to keep moving.

So if we’re not growing, what ARE we doing?  And is it at all possible that what we are doing might be better for us as a district in the long run?  Here’s that dirty word again – climate change- I can tell you as a scholar that works with an environmental focus that we’re going to see significant changes in the way we live and work in the next 20 years.  Some fear what this means – but others of us are already starting to see the really amazing and cool ways that we’re adjusting our lives for the better, not because we are threatened by global catastrophe.  We’re engaging the sharing economy.  And let me tell you something really amazing about the sharing economy: it has the potential to lessen our climate footprints.  It lessens our dependence on things that are polluting our world and presents us with choices for consumption that aren’t so automatically devastating to our environment and economy.

If I were in charge of a school district, I’d want to think about my schools and communities in terms of that future – and I’d want to develop assessments and feasibility studies that could measure who was already excelling at adopting it.  I’d want to know about my little community that takes care of each other.  And I certainly wouldn’t shut down its little school.

2 thoughts on “My Little Community that Takes Care of Each Other, and Why I Wouldn’t Shut Down Its Elementary School

  1. Hi, Luka

    This is a wonderful post. It reminds me of Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” (http://goo.gl/j3aov3 & http://goo.gl/rdNfhQ — a few of the episodes can be downloaded from http://goo.gl/JEZifx). He was a master at dealing with big, complex issues (such as major changes in legislation) by beginning his “letter” with a local, specific story about a particular person or family. He would then pull back and report on the (impersonal) news of the day before returning again to the local and specific. It was a wonderful strategy, because it put the news into context, and it helped the listener to empathise with the people who were directly affected.

    Your integration of a personal narrative makes your post very different from a news story or a distanced (‘professional’, objective) report. This makes it appealing and somehow more meaningful (despite the lack of statistics and scientific validation). Your voice certainly comes through in an effective and appealing way. As academics, I think we often wrestle with the appropriateness of allowing ourselves into our our teaching and research writing. I can think of one person I know who makes a point of allowing her own voice and practices into her academic life. Her name is Niki Harrē (@NikiHarre), and she is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Auckland (North Island of New Zealand). She’s written an inspirational book, “Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability”, which is available as a free download from http://goo.gl/lGoyCX. I think she’s a wonderful role model.

    There is much else to comment on in this post, but this is what occurred to me first.

    Mark

    • Thank you SO much Mark for the incredible feedback – I’m lucky to have found you and am deeply grateful for your mentorship! I will check out both Alistair’s work and the work of your colleague, Niki – thank you for the recommendations. I don’t feel like we talk about this stuff enough in graduate training – that is, how we learn to use our voice as academics. I’m very appreciative that you’ve been willing to provide feedback on the topic – I can’t imagine doing this work without getting to use my voice.

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