Strangers Meeting – Bridging Social Capital

I think a lot about social spaces, where people meet each other, and connect, even if its for an instance. I am especially interested in connections that go ‘outside the box’, outside of our comfort zone, stretch our understandings. When we have a choice, generally we stick with people who are similar to us – similar often in education level and class, age, family status, political opinons, ethnic background etc.

There’s been a lot written on social capital and Putnam’s concepts of Bonding and Bridging. While we rely more heaving on our bonding relationships, it is actually our bridging relationships that can move us forward in life, transform us, help us in finding new jobs, new ways of thinking etc etc.

I think a lot happens, individually and socially, when we’re in spaces with people who we don’t know, who we aren’t comfortable with, who come from a different ‘walk of life’. I am currently teaching at my local community college, and what I love most about it is the diversity of my students, and seeing this interaction and conversation happening. The learning feels so much deeper when experience and points of views are so drastically divergent. And if I, as a teacher, can keep the space safe so that everyone can speak freely, then it feels like transformative learning can happen.

A few examples of bridging social capital:

1. Social media – explosion of bridging – this is an amazing example of a Prof showing the power of bridging and social relationships through twitter with a 1.5 contest – http://tinyurl.com/l469bop!

2. One of the many unsung benefits of volunteering is the opportunity that volunteers have of building their social capital, through meeting people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. The most interesting example that I have seen is in a Meals-on-Wheels program. For Meals-on-Wheels, I recruited ‘drivers’ and ‘runners’. The drivers need to own their own car, have time in the day and drive to deliver the meals. The runners go with the drivers, sit in their cars, and deliver the meals. The drivers were VERY hard to recruit, because we needed to find people who owned their own cars but had time during the day to volunteer. So – I recruited mainly retired middle-class people and people who ran their own business (with flexible schedules). For example, I recruited my real estate agent, who has loads of money and owns a big chunk of the west-end of Toronto! The runners were easy to recruit, and many of our runner volunteers faced barriers to work and social participation for a variety of reasons. To be a runner, you needed to be reliable, friendly and polite. That’s it – you didn’t need to read or write English or possess other skills that other volunteer roles required. SO – bridging social capital was happening in those cars every day. My real estate agent actually spoke with me a few times about the learning that she had, meeting people who she would not otherwise meet and understanding the challenges they faced in life. It was an eye-opener for her, not just delivering the meals but through the meeting of other volunteers.

3. I love this – I don’t know that it really counts as building social capital because I’m not sure if the relationships in any way continue after the photo is taken. But I love that this photographer is challenging the norms of ‘strangeness’ and creating intimacy in the moment – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cORC_HWBHGo!

Sharing is Caring…

Of course, with two small kids, I’m constantly talking about sharing in my household, and trying to uphold the value of “sharing is caring”. I am interested in how we can carry out this value in our community life, in small and simple ways. By sharing, we are buying and consuming less, and pulling ourselves a little bit away from this individualistic, capitalist society. I have always loved the concept of bartering, but I think true sharing isn’t bartering. Bartering is making a deal – “If I give you this, then you give me that” which to me doesn’t completely embrace the essence of the gift of sharing. To me, the sharing economy includes the sharing of things as well as the sharing of space, time and talent (volunteering). Libraries are all about sharing, and traditional lending libraries have been focused on books and other academic materials. However, lending libraries can be don’t need to be just about book sharing! The other lending libraries that I know about are: Toy Libraries (which I remember my family visiting the Toy Library many times in Orillia, when we were on a tight budget!), Tool Libraries (a new one has just opened in Toronto – http://torontotoollibrary.com/about-2/), and even the Kitchen Library (also in Toronto – http://thekitchenlibrary.ca/)!
We definitely do informal sharing of things in our neighborhood. We don’t own a lawnmower and borrow our neighbors on a regular basis. We own a Radio Flyer red wagon that our neighbors are welcome to take off our porch and borrow at any time. Our neighbors have all the tools we would ever need and we borrow all the time.
We participated in some sharing activity of our own this summer. My partner and I wanted to go to Montreal to visit family but we needed a place to stay for our family of four. Using Facebook, we put out a call, actually first asking if anyone wanted to do a ‘house swap’ (pretty much a barter arrangement – they can stay at our place in Toronto and we’ll stay at their place in Montreal). We found someone who is a friend of a friend (who I don’t know but my partner knows as an acquaintance from childhood), who said “I don’t want to do a house swap but we’re going to Europe for a month and would be happy for you to stay at our place.” We said “Thank you, thank you…” and planned our trip to Montreal. In the meantime, Alex (my partner) went to a wedding in Chicago and met someone (a friend of a friend of a friend) who was planning to get married in the summer and was looking for a small outdoor space to use. She doesn’t have much money so was asking Alex about spaces. Alex said – “Hey, you can use our backyard while we’re away in Montreal if you want?” And sure enough, she did. We felt so happy that we could somehow ‘pay it forward’ in terms of reciprocating generosity and sharing space. Sure enough, all worked out wonderfully. We went to Montreal and found chocolates on our pillow (so sweet!) and had an awesome (free) trip in Montreal. In the meantime, there was a wedding happening in our backyard (with our awesome neighbors pitching in to help with prep and calm down the bride!). We saw the photos on Facebook, sent our congrats through the internet and imagined the love in the air.
Sharing is truly about caring. I am going to try to look for new ways to share, and challenge myself to actively share more often in my daily community life.

Teaching Values to my Son

My 7 year old son is rambunctious, extremely active, inquisitive, very enthusiastic, and the most testosterone-driven male I know. Before I had children, I thought that nurture was a much bigger factor on personality than nature, and now I know 100% that this isn’t true – I think nurture is maybe 5%. My son came out of the womb this way, with an obsession for trucks and balls, and a little bit older, an obsession for fantasy heroes – spiderman, superman, you name it. He loves physical/aggressive play – wrestling, guns/swords/weapons – You get the picture.

I love my son very much, and as a parent, I think and read a lot about parenting. My biggest dilemma that I struggle with is teaching my children values to be kind to others, to make the ethically-right decisions, and to make a difference in the world. To me, making a difference in the world, as perhaps idealistic as it may be, feels like the meaning to life, the reason why we are on the earth. For me, the scale of making the difference doesn’t necessarily matter, because I believe that small difference in the day-to-day leads to a better society and better world.

So I grapple with how to teach this to my son. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, because he’s already of the age where he rolls my eyes and stops listening as soon as he feels a lecture coming on. My son is very visual and loves metaphors and visual images that he can wrap his mind around. So, I’ve tried to use metaphors in my conversations, and there are two that he has grabbed onto and I feel his made an impact.  I’d like to share the two expressions/metaphors that have seemed to make a positive impact on my son thinking about his actions in the world:

1. Six Degrees of Separation – I explained that no one is a stranger, because we are all connected by six degrees or left. I visually drew an image, gave him an example, and off he went with this one. He has now told me that he told his teacher that she is his friend because of ‘six degrees of separation’. When his Zadie came to visit and showed my son that his car had been keyed by someone, Mo said “Why would anyone do this? Don’t they know about six degrees of separation?” This concept has been sticky.

2. The Ripple Effect – another visual image, of dropping a stone in a placid lake and the ripples of water that expand moving outwards affecting the entire lake. I gave an example of a simple action, like smiling and saying hello to someone on the street, and how that makes them happy so they make someone else happy and that person makes someone else happy, etc etc. Mo loved this image and totally buys into the important of small actions. He refers to it now and I believe it has helped him to reflect on his small day-to-day actions.

I want to live my life authentically. What this means for me is that I want my values (what I see as central to community development) to be imbedded in my work, my parent, my friendships etc. This has been challenging indeed and a continuous internal dialogue. While these little conversations with my son are small moments in my day-to-day life, they feel large when I see the spark lit in his mind and I see his small actions of kindness.

City Spaces where community is found

I’ve been thinking about how and where community is found and the spontaneous spaces in the city where people meet and gather and find common ground. I’m especially interested in spaces where community bridging happens, where people who otherwise wouldn’t meet (coming from different walks of life) find meaning together. I live in a big city, where its easy to be anonymous amongst the 2.6 million others passing by, so when community spaces open up, it can feel, quite frankly, magical. Here are three urban commercial spaces where community building happens, sometimes when we least expect it:

1. Coffee Shops – Oh, I love the coffee shop, not just because I love coffee, but also the community vibe. As a mom of two kids, both who love to wake up really early (in the 5:30am-6am range), the coffee shop has been my sweet salvation many times as I show up bleary eyed, kids in tow, desperate for caffeine. And of course, I have met lots of other moms at coffee shops early in the morning, bonding over our fate of being awake too early. Even before kids, I have always loved the coffee shop and whenever I go to a new city, I like to find a cool coffee shop to sit and people watch (and eavesdrop on local conversation). Coffee shops have a historical connection to political organizing and democratic conversation, where community has discussed the issues of the day. This still continues with the Conversation Café concept (http://www.conversationcafe.org/), where anyone can attend and join the conversation.  

2. Bars – As much as I am up early in the morning, I also love to go out at night and be part of the nightlife. Because of my kids, I don’t go out as often as I have in the past, but in the past, I have spent lots of time meeting others in bars, especially through playing guitar and singing and going to Open Mics all over Toronto. The Open Mic scene is definitely a place for community building, where anyone with a song to sing can show up and sing and be heard. My fav bar for Open Mic performing and hanging out has always been the Free Times Café (http://www.freetimescafe.com/) at College and Spadina, where I have shared the stage with many amazing performers. Currently, I’m enjoying the Kareoke scene at a bar where I can walk to from my house, meeting the nicest crowd of people who love to sing and are so encouraging, I am not afraid to try singing any song. The Kareoke scene is a bubble where no matter who you are and what your day job is, you can transform into a star for the night.

3. Shopping Malls – I’m not a big shopper at all, so haven’t spent much time in shopping malls. However, I have come across community forming in malls when I have least expected it. I work by a shopping mall that looks dated and derelict and doesn’t have great stores in it. I happen to go into it at 8:45am because the closest Toronto Public Library is located in the mall (and I am a passionate super-user of the TPL!) and while no shops are open, the parking lot is full and the food court is FILLED with people, maybe 100 or so people, chatting and laughing and sitting with their coffee (McDonalds and Tim Hortons is open). The scene is definitely seniors, and I don’t know if they all know each other and decide to formally meet there or if this is spontaneous or not. What I do know is that they are happy, and they are using the food court as community space. I also know that when I sit down with my coffee (waiting for the TPL to open), they all want to chat with me too, and include me in conversation. Interesting indeed! I know that Mall Walking has become a big health program for seniors, using the mall space for organized walking. This is interesting, transforming a commercial space to a community space focussed on improving health.

I know there are other spaces all around us where community building is happening, spontaneously and magically. I know the opportunity exists all the time, when our commonalities trump our differences,  and when we really see each other, not as strangers but as friends. These moments, if we choose to be open, make this city feel like a village.