On the Neighborly Community

“Help put away the chairs.”

This was one of the first pieces of advice I remember on how to forge relationships as a newcomer to a community. 

I have worked in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, but most of my working life has been in higher education.   My first full-time work in higher education was as an AmeriCorps Vista member, at a small private liberal arts institution, Emory & Henry College.  I helped grow and lead the College’s service-related programming and went on to spend several years there as a full-time staff and faculty member.  

I was incredibly fortunate as the College was at the forefront of thinking about what it meant to be an engaged institution.  I worked with two colleagues and mentors who were good people but also influential thinkers in the emerging field of place-based scholarship, Tal Stanley and Steve Fisher.  

They both championed the significance of small, simple acts of helping out, not simply as service, but as a way to forge connection with people, to join in the shared life of a community.  Indeed, they both would reject the belief that service, in itself, was a good.  Instead, engagement was about learning a place, its history and rhythms, its cares and concerns.  This included, its undercurrents and deeper stories, as Arlie Hochschild might describe it.   Such learning required an attitude of humility.   

Lately, I have been thinking anew about humility, and about neighborliness, considering questions like:

  • What is a neighborly community?   
  • Have we lost the arts of neighborliness?
  • How do we create and sustain a neighborly community?
  • Does it matter?
  • Why? 

My feeling is that we have lost some part of the humble practice of neighborliness, or have dangerously narrowed its meaning and import.  This is an opportune time to practice retrieval, to recreate the arts of neighborliness and consider our role in democratic society.

John Dewey was an early twentieth century scholar and thinker who wrote extensively about education, schools, communities, and government.   He championed the notion of learning through experience.  He also wrote about democracy, suggesting that it too is best learned by doing through an on-going practice. The practice of democracy takes place in homes and schools and institutions.  He described it as the “neighborly community”, an idea he placed at the very heart of American democracy (Dewey 1927, 213).   

Much has been written on Dewey’s work, but I take from it that the meaning of neighborly community is deeper and wider than friendliness. It encompasses shaping our neighborhoods, groups, associations, institutions, and schools to reflect democratic practice in action.   That practice is not simple.  It is often over-simplified.  It includes a concern with two aims that are both important, but sometimes are placed in direct contrast or conflict –the individual, and the collective.  

The neighborly community is the arena for working out these tensions in practice and of shaping places and neighborhoods that support both flourishing individuals and flourishing communities:

  • By flourishing individuals, we mean respect for all individuals and for differences, as well as the active support for individuals to flourish, to attain self-efficacy and grow their capabilities to pursue health, wealth, and well-being, among other desired life goals.
  • By flourishing communities, we mean respect for the place and for common good, including active support for people in a place to flourish together, to attain collective efficacy, to be able to work together to pursue common aims and goals.

The neighborly community spreads beyond our own street and is bigger than our block.  The neighborly community is a place of practice.   Dewey’s notion sets the stage a bit to explore the questions posed above.  

There is a paradox here in that being neighborly is not insignificant, but it is insufficient to building the neighborly community.  We can be friendly to our neighbors, and create an atmosphere of neighborliness – lending yard tools, hosting barbeques, sharing baked goods, helping with pets or children, demonstrating care.   These are significant and meaningful practices.  But, they are also woefully insufficient in enabling us, as citizens and inhabitants of a place, to practice the arts of democracy.  

Dewey’s ideas, and this paradox of neighborliness, are grounded in the very heart of our nation, and in early ideas about democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America drew from the French diplomat and thinker’s extensive travels in the early 19th century United States.  He noted the tension between individualism and community.  Tocqueville felt that individualism was among the greatest potential threats to democracy.  Individualism meant focusing too much on one’s own interests, inhabiting a narrow circle of friends and family, creating a type of separated mini-society, and disengaging from the interests and concerns of greater society.

Tocqueville’s caution was scarily prescient, as the rise of polarization and partisan extremism in the United States has been attributed to just this form of narrowing individualism.  Freedom in a democratic society does not mean that we are simply free to isolate, withdraw and self-segregate, but rather that, “real freedom demands participation in political life”.

For that, we need to recover the notion of a neighborly community that extends beyond our immediate context.  Like Dewey, Tocqueville also emphasized the role of education, the need for an educated citizenry to identify with and understand issues and concerns beyond their individualistic concerns and interests.   Localized democratic practice, in groups and projects and organizations, is a central means of this education.    So, how can we today bend our associations and institutions towards a deeper kind of engagement with crucial, collectively shared public concerns?   

We all have a role to play in advancing this kind of democratic practice, and higher education institutions can and must be better exemplars.  In 2019, state policymakers in Virginia charged the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University with leading an effort, with assistance from other higher education partners, to assess the problems facing rural Virginia and identify recommendations for improvement.   Our office at Virginia Tech, working at behest of the University President, helped organize and lead this response.  We co-authored a policy paper that was probably a bit too self-congratulatory in tone and relatively unimaginative in solutions.  It did describe some of the challenges in Virginia, and highlighted some of the inequalities and differences across rural and urban places.

The initiative established a collaborative multi-university workgroup.  As one result, we helped to develop a virtual conference series, under the theme Vibrant Virginia.  The first event in our series included state and national-level economic policy experts as well as a panel of University Presidents.  The panelists emphasized the importance of higher education institutions in economic recovery.

Still, what was not so explicitly stated is that higher education is failing in many ways and we can and must do better.  Engagement with communities is often siloed, sporadic, or superficial.   Longer-term partnerships and projects that address more systemic challenges is too frequently stunted by real and perceived needs for revenue generation and funder-driven interests. 

Affordability and access to higher education are serious impediments for more and more students and families.  And once students arrive, colleges are increasingly complicit in advancing a more instrumental, market-influenced brand of learning focused on career as opposed to a more instrinsic, humanistic, approach grounded in calling, vocation, and human flourishing.

So, how can higher education entities better model the ideal of the neighborly community?

As Ernest Boyer wrote, “…the scholarship of engagement means connecting the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems, to our children, to our schools, to our teachers, and to our cities” (1996, p. 20).  Human interaction and old-fashioned neighborliness is one means to this type of connection.  

Back in the late 1990s during my first semester at Emory & Henry College, I organized an on-campus Volunteer Fair for community organizations to meet with potential student volunteers.  The event was wrapping up.  The advice about engagement was fresh in my mind- “help put up the chairs”.  So, I helped some of the community members carry boxes and banners to their car.  

One of those I assisted was a guidance counselor at a nearby middle school.  She spoke to me in a way she might not have earlier, “Scott, I come to these kinds of events every year. We get a few good volunteers and weʼre grateful. But, we have so many students on free and reduced price lunch, our community is struggling, drugs are a big issue at our school. We need a different kind of help.” 

That discussion led to other conversations, as we learned from and about each other. Her school and community needed more partners who took some shared ownership in exploring problems and partnering in solution-seeking.  To the College’s credit, we responded with a number of initiatives over the next few years:   new afterschool and summer programs, annual youth leadership summits, a community youth center-space.  Not everything we tried was lasting, or even successful.  There were some conversations and issues from which we shied away. 

Still, the anecdote, and the attempts to more fully deploy a set of responses to significant community challenges resulting from ongoing conversations with members of a community illustrates one way to enhance college-community engagement.   More recently, my colleague, Anne Khademian, and I published a paper in the journal, State and Local Government Review, for their special issue on the rural-urban divide.  

Our paper focused on the role of higher education in better responding to rural-urban divisions and advancing shared prosperity.  We were looking for larger-scale, state-level responses often led by research universities or foundations, that represented big ideas for change.   And we found several of interest, including a few that we profiled in our paper, such as reCONNECT NC and Alliance for the American Dream.

Yet, reflecting on my early experiences and my work with communities since that time, I am reminded that bigger is not always better and that a community partnership is a form of neighborliness.  An often referenced Wendell Berry quote comes to mind here,  

“The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”    

For me, this quote is one of the best ways to understand what engagement means. It also informs how we might think differently about democracy.  To breach the divides between university and community means, I think, to see the shared work of democracy, to see that the problems of community are relevant for scholars and for the more broadly defined university community, and that there is a common work of public problem-solving to be undertaken.   

As Dewey put it, “…the idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state, even in its best. To be realized, it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion” (1954, 143).