Forming 'Communities of Safety'
What does it mean to be a community in the face of both immediate and abstract concerns over safety?
This month, I am compelled to respond to a timely, heartfelt letter that community member Melinda Schmidt wrote in last month's Connection. As a preface, one should note that Schmidt penned this immediately after the presidential election and the protests downtown.
"Once the protests subside," she wrote, "I would like this rage to continue and turn into something productive. How is Portland planning to fight to keep our community safe for everyone? I want to know what I can do to help as an ally. I want everyone else to know what they can do as well."
Before responding, I wanted to talk with Schmidt, so I asked Connection Editor Hannah Rank to reach out to her. Rank has yet to hear back from Schmidt, but encouraged me to respond anyway.
Three large themes — community, safety and action—jumped out at me.
There's a presumption of "community" here. It's a concept I've grappled with before in this space.
I'm not sure we have a community to identify with. In the end, we have friends, family and neighbors. Do they fit our definition of community, particularly as most of us so loosely use the word? Exactly what "community" does Schmidt call upon us to protect?
Ideally, a community, to be worthy of its name, would keep itself safe, which is perhaps what Schmidt means when she refers to herself as an "ally" and to readers as "everyone else" seeking guidance.
Next we need to ask — and this is why I wanted to talk with her — about the specific dangers she sees as a threat to the safety of our community. Deportation? Hate crimes? Harassment? Riots? Racism? Earthquakes? Fake news? Global warming? Reckless drivers? Loss of Social Security? Poverty? Dementia? Unemployment? Homelessness? Life-threatening illness? Lack of health insurance for pre-existing conditions? Nuclear war?
The list goes on and varies from person to person, both in content and priorities. And it can change with time, election results, aging and forces deep beneath the surface of the Earth.
Keeping even this staggering array of dangers in mind — if that is even possible — how do we begin to provide safety?
That gets to the last theme: What do we do?
The answer begins with us as individuals. How are we preparing ourselves and those nearest to us? (It's perhaps easier to think in terms of emergency preparedness kits and first-aid training.)
Ultimately, we can't do this alone. We must build a real communities.
Today, we mostly have what are better described as communities of interest: daycare cooperatives, food co-ops, "Friends" committees (trees, parks, watersheds, etc), booster clubs, PTAs, neighborhood associations. Some even utilize "virtual communities."
To what extent do they address dangers such as those listed above?
Certainly we turn to the police and firefighters to provide some measure of safety, but are government agencies really considered "communities," even with their laudable efforts at community outreach?
So, what we can do to form "communities of safety"?
Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NETs) are a partial answer, but they have hardly been effective organizing presences. Unfortunately, they are organized by "neighborhood" as the city defines the term. I've maintained that NETs need to be organized by clusters of neighbors, somewhere between 12 and 20 contiguous households.
One unrecognized benefit of forming such clusters is that we get to know each other. We share our needs and knowledge and come to rely on each other, to respect each other. Potential dangers such as racism, deportation and religious prejudice have a way of dissolving when we come to know each other and work together.
Here I'd add that we shouldn't be influenced by a fragmented, often fear-mongering media in forming opinions about others. The most reliable medium is your relationship with the world around you. Get to know and be part of it.
In an era in which truth itself has been devalued, who and what are we to believe? I suggest that media literacy is the place to start.
Faith communities can be sources of strength, particularly when our values are threatened. The life of the spirit includes reaching out and helping, not just to members of our congregations, but beyond.
Questions faith communities must ask themselves: Do we contribute to divisiveness, and, if so, how should we change? How can we build unity among all peoples?
Whether part of a "faith community" or not, invest your energy to help make this world of individuals and communities safer.
As Melinda Schmidt asked, "I want to know what I can do to help as an ally. I want everyone else to know what they can do as well."
Thanks, Melinda, for asking.