“When the world seems large and complex, we need to remember that great world ideals all begin in some home neighborhood.” —Konrad Adenauer
The coronavirus has triggered a disruption of ordinary life most of us would’ve considered unimaginable a few weeks ago. Some jobs have vanished as if by a cruel magician’s trick; others have mutated beyond recognition. Parents have become school teachers, while school teachers struggle to find how best to continue practicing their profession from behind computer screens.
At a time when our level of stress has increased geometrically, the resources to which we most often turn to rest and recharge have shut down—restaurants, bars, sports arenas, theatres, clubs, even churches. We’re worried that even the basic necessities of life will be difficult or even dangerous to obtain.
At the same time, however, something splendid is also occurring, something that happens in America when terrible events confront us: without being asked or directed by any official body or under the supervision of any organization, individual citizens are using social media and creativity to identify and address each other’s needs.
Take my neighborhood, for example—the Park West neighborhood of Montpelier, Vermont. Despite the upscale name, we’re a blend of families and individuals of diverse income levels, ages, talents, and needs. Some of us are elderly. Some are battling cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Many of us have children, some with severe disabilities. Most of the time—very much in the tradition of Vermont—we’re private folks who keep to ourselves. But—again, very much in the tradition of Vermont—when our neighbors need help, we quietly and sincerely offer it.
A few days ago, a neighbor from a few blocks away sent an email to several of the people she already knew in the neighborhood, suggesting we develop a systematic way of looking after each other, letting our neighbors know what challenges we were facing and what kind of help we could offer. Within a few days, we set up a private group Facebook page and a listserv to facilitate communications. We have a private database providing our contact information and indicating what help we can offer or might need.
Members of high-risk groups now have someone willing to get them groceries or pick up prescriptions without endangering their health; folks on limited incomes don’t have to cut back on groceries in order to pay to have them delivered. The EMT and health care workers among us can find safe, familiar faces to keep an eye on aging parents and children while they’re busy taking care of others. Parents suddenly thrust into the role of teacher can swap ideas and strategies. Some of us have extra supplies to offer that can help others out.
People who didn’t know each other’s names two weeks ago are actively helping each other. One woman has, for a week, met students of a variety of ages on a quiet cross street every afternoon, taking them for a lively, half-hour walk, everyone keeping at a safe social distance. This not only gives the children much-needed exercise but also helps provide an atmosphere of normalcy that is important to preserve, especially for the young.
A Self-Governing Tradition
Such independent, self-organizing responses to the recognition of a local need are, and long have been, common in America.
During his tour of America in the 1830s, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by what seemed to him a distinctly American trait—how neighbors banded together to solve problems rather than following the European model of relying on some established, centralized body to take the lead. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed:
Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations . . . . Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association. I have come across several types of association in America of which, I confess, I had not previously the slightest conception, and I have often admired the extreme skill they show in proposing a common object for the exertions of very many and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.
An unforgettable example of large-scale, yet local, spontaneous organization is offered by the Cajun Navy, which set sail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On August 30, 2005—just two days after New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city’s 1.3 million residents to evacuate—80 percent of the city was underwater, stranding approximately 60,000 people who’d been unable or unwilling to leave. Thousands of people were marooned by bacteria-laden floodwaters up to 20 feet deep, leaving citizens trapped, often on rooftops, without access to food or water.
With city, state, and federal rescue efforts initially overwhelmed, Louisiana State Senator Nick Gautreaux sent out a desperate plea through local television and radio, asking anyone who owned a boat and was willing to volunteer for this dangerous, difficult task to meet up at the Acadiana Mall in Lafayette. He prayed that a couple of dozen good people would respond. Instead, waiting patiently in the mall parking lot were more than 350 boats and their volunteer crews.
The danger these volunteers faced was extraordinary—filthy floodwaters filled with debris, horrid little islands of fire ants eager to sting, and poisonous snakes, not to mention terrified citizens who might mistake them for looters and shoot. “If you’re afraid of death, possibly you get shot or killed, then this is not a place for you to come,” Sen. Gautreaux warned. “And I will tell you,” he later told CBS News reporters, “there’s not a person that turned around.”
Ignoring government officials’ demands they abandon this wildly dangerous endeavor, the eight-mile armada of Cajun Navy vessels sailed by into New Orleans, where they saved thousands of lives.
Lt. General Russel Honoré, the Louisiana native who headed the federal response to Katrina, recognized the Cajun Navy for the extraordinary work they did as first responders in the wake of Katrina. “In reality most people are saved by neighbors and volunteers after a disaster than are saved by organized rescue people,” Honore observed.
Local Expertise Often Trumps National Intervention
Increasingly, the philanthropic world has come to share Tocqueville’s and General Honoré’s insight: that the most efficient and effective philanthropic efforts are almost always local in origin and focus. This is the antithesis of the assumption that governed most 20th-century philanthropy—that the larger and more centralized a charitable effort was, the better it would serve those it aimed to help because of its expertise in areas such as top-down goal-setting and supply chain management.
Clearly, some problems are best handled by governmental or large nonprofit organizations. But increasingly we are realizing that, for most problems, the assumption that bigger is better is by no means always the case. Because of their size, large organizations must be structured bureaucratically and rarely respond nimbly to dynamic situations.
Most importantly, however, centralized organizations lack the most precious resource local associations have—local knowledge.
Even the most gifted, experienced professionals coming into a new community will have a learning curve to become familiar with local needs and solutions. Local people come to local problems with an invaluable knowledge base of who in the community is most likely to need or provide help. We know who owns the local lumber yard and furniture store, who’s got a wheelchair they can spare, and where you’re apt to find people who have a few free hours and a willingness to help.
My neighbor began organizing our Montpelier Park West Group precisely because she had that kind of local knowledge. As a physical therapist, she’d worked with a number of us in the community, either through her private practice or through the public schools.
Today, the popularity of email and social media—especially Facebook—prompts an expansion of our definition of “neighborhood.” Many of us spend a good deal of time online, connecting and reconnecting with family and friends and, often, creating friendships and ties as strong as those we enjoy offline. It’s no longer unusual for us to number among our closest friends several people we’ve never “met” in the traditional sense but who nonetheless we have come to know through extended exchanges via email or Facebook.
When the residents of our online neighborhoods identify a need, we combine forces to address them using the technology that binds us together. Some of the help we provide is formal: we set up kickstarters to help each other defray the overwhelming medical bills of one neighbor’s brother or to provide another’s daughter with the funding she needs for a demo record to launch her promising career in music.
Online neighborhoods can also offer rapid, informed assistance in response to a common emergency. Just as my Montpelier neighbors are working together to combat COVID-19, so, too, are some of my online neighborhoods creating informal associations in a manner Tocqueville would find familiar.
Consider, for example, the current shortage of respirators for hospitals treating patients whose lungs the virus has attacked. Through Facebook and email, a friend with decades of successful experience as a bioengineer is combining intellectual forces with other field experts in an open-source project to rapidly develop such a respirator.
Tocqueville’s words again come to mind: “What most astonishes me in the United States is not so much the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings as the innumerable multitude of small ones.”