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’Tis the Season for Getting Neighborly

Building community is easier than you think



To raise compassionate, connected young people, we must build compassionate, connected communities.

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Most of us want to raise our children in strong communities places where they build memories and relationships, where they are cherished, connected, looked after and held accountable. We want to live in neighborhoods where instead of just exchanging pleasantries at the mailbox, we depend on each other, share stories and resources, and hold each other up during crises.

And yet the reality for most people is far from this “village” ideal. We are so overwhelmed by the demands of getting through each day that we lack the time or tools to build the deep, lasting connections we crave. Many cultural, historical and economic forces have brought us to this place of isolation and disconnection. But what can we do to buck those forces and build the kinds of communities we want to be part of? 

Here are a few ideas.

Meet everyone. (I know. Duh.) 

If you don’t know everyone on your block or in your building, make a point to introduce yourself. It can feel awkward to knock on someone’s door after six years of living down the street, but finding a time when it’s normal to stop by like dropping off a holiday card or treat can make it less so. 

Another option is to get everyone out at the same time by planning a neighborhood event. A weekend “play street” (seattle.gov/transportation/playstreets.htm) is a great way to counteract the hibernation urge that takes over during this time of year. Or try hosting a “get to know you” potluck or popcorn movie night. In warmer seasons, throw an outdoor ice cream social. 

Prioritize your neighborhood. 

We live in a culture built around going places. Specifically, driving places. Our neighborhoods become little more than access points to all of the other places we want to go. If you take advantage of what’s available in your immediate vicinity parks, community centers, small businesses, even childcare centers and schools you’ll be surprised by the richness right under your nose. You will meet and deepen connections with people who live near you. And you’ll spend less time in the car.  

Learn local history. 

Understanding the natural and human history of the places we live honors those who came before us and helps us better understand what is happening in the present. Make a point to learn all you can about your neighborhood and involve your children in this exploration. There are lots of ways to do it, from reading books and visiting institutions to attending local celebrations, participating in walking tours, and talking to elders. Even those of us who grew up in Seattle have a lot to learn.

Look past the mirror. 

It’s easy to make connections with people who remind us of ourselves. It’s harder to do with people we don’t seem to have much in common with. Get to know an elderly neighbor, the 20-something roommates across the hall or a person of a different faith or ethnicity. Building relationships across differences will help counteract the “parallel community” phenomenon so common in our changing city, and will develop the cross-generational connections that are so important for people living far from extended family.

Offer and ask for help. 

A great way to build community is to share skills and resources. If people in your neighborhood are reluctant to ask for help, you can get things started. If it snows and you have a shovel, clear a few extra walks. If you’re going out of town, ask people across the hall to feed your cat. The neighbors who helped you will be more likely to ask you for help the next time they need it. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even set up formal systems of exchange, such as a shared tool shed or a babysitting co-op.

Get outside. 

Walking anywhere, whether to a destination or just around the block, is a great way to feel connected to a place. It’s an opportunity to experience your community from ground level and spontaneously interact with the people you share it with. Plus, fresh air and exercise improve our mood and make us better neighbors.

To raise compassionate, connected young people, we must build compassionate, connected communities. We influence our communities with our daily choices and interactions. What will you do today to create the kind of community you crave?

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