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Friday, April 6, 2012

I Am Human Because I Belong



"I belong to a greater whole
so I am diminished when others
are diminished by oppression
or treated as though they were less than who they are.
"It is not 'I think, therefore I am.'
It is 'I am human because I belong.'
I participate; I share
because I am made for community."

—James A. Joseph, former Ambassador, Testimony:
"What AmeriCorp Can Teach America", 2003



Relationships matter. This is the central theme of social capital. The idea that social networks are a valuable asset relies on positive interactions among people that build communities. As people actively build communities, they commit themselves to each other as they knit the social fabric. People who invest their time, efforts, and resources into social capital believe that social networks foster a sense of belonging through their active, concrete experiences. The trust, tolerance, and reciprocity practiced in these experiences can bring great benefits to all.
"Trust between individuals thus becomes trust between strangers and trust of a broad fabric of social institutions; ultimately, it becomes a shared set of values, virtues, and expectations within society as a whole. Without this interaction, on the other hand, trust decays; at a certain point, this decay begins to manifest itself in serious social problems… The concept of social capital contends that building or rebuilding community and trust requires face-to-face encounters."

(Beem, C. The Necessity of Politics. Reclaiming American Public Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999)

To be quite honest, the multitude of separate small communities within the county have relied more upon the traditional Appalachian traits of proud independence and isolation than upon cooperation and mutual support. Despite their apparent similarities, Scioto County communities have resisted many efforts aimed at encouraging them to speak collectively with "one voice." Nothing is wrong with maintaining village pride and encouraging a degree of partisanship; however, the benefits of belonging to a more substantial, particular group (a county coalition) are denied to those who choose to be non-members.

The tight social and geographical connections of the past -- distinct villages, separate school systems, individual physical boundaries -- have largely contributed to most Scioto residents understanding "their county" as a hodgepodge of very distinct and "happily different" townships with its courthouse and its business district (now, largely defunct) located in that "city slicker" place known as Portsmouth.

Each division of the county has established its own symbols and markers of boundaries that serve to define who is welcomed "in their community" and who is not. Defining these boundaries places some people within, and some people beyond the line. The definition of "community" has become, in many ways, an exclusionary act.

So, what have been the truly significant accomplishments achieved by the cooperation of the entire county? I believe they number very few. Each village has maintained its own existence within the confines of its geography. And, the residents will tell you that "this works perfectly well, thank you." Living in Scioto has traditionally meant you hail from the 'Burg, the West Side, the Furnace, McDermott, New Boston, or Town or you are a Jeep, an Indian, a Falcon or have a similar close relationship with any of the other small villages or districts.

To me, it is apparent: the fact that people live close to one another does not necessarily mean that they have much to do with each other. This has often been the case in Scioto County. It is the nature of the relationships between people and the social networks of which they are a part that can be one of the more significant aspects of community.

Author Robert Putnam says, "For most of us, our deepest sense of belonging is to our most intimate social networks, especially family and friends. Beyond that perimeter lie work, church, neighbourhood, civic life, and [an] assortment of other “weak ties.”
(Putnam, R. D. Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 2000)

Why am I stressing the necessity of building a larger, county-based community that practices the principles of social capital?  Connection and interaction both widen and deepen what we can achieve and make possible the greater significance of our individual character. A sense of belonging to something large enough to create positive change and the concrete experience of participating in social networks can bring significant benefits.


You see, it could be argued that we should be focusing on enhancing the quality of social networks rather than on creating or strengthening individual communities. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

Elizabeth Frazer puts it this way:

"On occasion or at such times members experience a centered and bounded entity that includes the self as such; they engage in exchanges and sharing that are personalized; the orientation to each other and to the whole engages the person and, as some are tempted to put it, his or her soul. It is from such occasions that ‘the spirit of community’ or ‘sense of community’ is achieved. Here I think we have the ‘pay-off’ of community… In the relation of community concrete patterns of material social relations are felt to be transcended… [T]he aspiration to community is an aspiration to a kind of connectedness that transcends the mundane and concrete tangle of social relationships."


(Frazer, E. The Problem of Communitarian Politics. Unity and  Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999)

I believe Scioto County is beginning to benefit from community interaction.I also believe it would behoove all of our citizens to consider the rewards offered by engaging in the practice of social capital.

So, I will ask you: "Do you think all needed change in Scioto County could be more feasibly accomplished by investing in social capital? Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do the residents of the county need to develop more trust between its numerous communities and social institutions?

2. Should the county, as a whole, work to better tolerance among its traditionally segregated people and advance a better spirit of equality and common dignity?

3. Instead of fostering strict independence, should the townships and villages of the county encourage reciprocity among groups (a mutual or cooperative interchange of favors or privileges) to build stronger social bonds?




How Long Before We Totally Disconnect?

Robert Putnam warns that our stock of social capital, which he calls the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.

We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

(Putnam, R. D. Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 2000)


Individuals can continue to grab their own little stones of awareness, toss them into the pond of discontent, and see a lot of unsystematic tiny ripples come forth. Or, these same individuals can gather in a large, significant group of same-minded people, join together to catapult strategically an enormous boulder into the murky waters, and create a swell of enormous proportions.

With 80,000 or so people who share common problems and concerns, the county should pool its resources and attend to preserving the fabric that runs through every Scioto village and hamlet. It seems logical to expect the citizens to do more together during the year than attend the fair, the River Days parade, and swap meets.


Do It Anyway
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.

—Mother Teresa, Meditations from a Simple Path

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