My friend and colleague David Tisel wrote this essay and published it on Facebook this spring, and it circled around many of our friends for a few weeks. It still comes up in conversation pretty regularly. David left Oberlin a year before I did, and just after many friends and I had walked the stage, this nudged its way into my inbox, (really, David, your timing was perfect). I’m really excited to have the honor of publishing it here.
Building Community in an Age of Mobility
David Tisel, 27 May 2014
Since graduating from Oberlin College last year, I haven’t written any essays. You could consider this a final paper for my freshman year of post-college life. My goal is to put together some stories and thoughts from this last year to share with friends, to get a better idea of how to build community in an age of mobility.
Building community was easy for me at Oberlin because the place is set up for it. You see the same faces in classes, on the street, in the library, at parties, at concerts, at rallies … also it’s a college of 3,000 in a town of 8,000 that’s just a few square miles. Although the transience of students does compress the time that most student communities exist—they flareup and die out every academic year—the place is still, for the most part, conducive to building community.
One year after graduating, my best friends from Oberlin are scattered thousands of miles apart. Most of my friends don’t really know where they live, which is to say they might move in the next year. It’s some kind of diaspora. Globalization has made mobility easier and more common, especially for the world’s affluent. Internet and cheap flights mean there’s a ton of people who aren’t really ever in one place. As a side note, mobility and privilege are obviously linked, but the relationship is more complicated than I really want to get into here. Let’s just say that while the economically privileged are mobile, not all who are mobile are economically privileged. (1)
So since I grew up with white, educated, professional parents, there’s an expectation in my culture that I’ll bounce around multiple places in my 20s. I think it’s almost as pervasive as my grandparents’ cultural expectation to settle down and get married in their 20s.
So I’m in an age—and at an age—when mobility is the norm.
It’s easy to feel isolated in a flurry of mobility. My craving for connectedness, coupled with my desire to experience different places creates what philosophers call a dilemma, or problem. If I “settle down,” I can put down roots and “really feel connected,” but then I’d be “missing out” on “experiencing the world.” Is there a way out of this dilemma? Can you have your cake and eat it too? I don’t know but I like cake.
Things that I have done to build community
I’m lucky that I live in a city with lot of people that I already knew. D.C. has a ton of Oberlin grads, and I have some extended family in the city. I also recently learned that I am a self-diagnosed ENFJ, which means, among other things, that I reach out easily to people that I’m not already besties with. Both of these things has made building community that much easier. But I also did some things that I think have really helped the process. Here’s a few of them.
I found a place to live.
Let’s start with one that’s pretty important on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When I moved to D.C., I lived with my grandparents in the suburbs for about a month. Although it was great to see more of my grandparents, it was really hard to see friends because it was far away from the metro, I didn’t have a car, and it took more than an hour to get into the city by public transit. So I decided that if I wanted to work in D.C., I should find a place in the District of Columbia.
The first thing I did when I decided this was I went on Facebook. Hashtag millennial and all that. But really, I searched on Facebook “friends that live in Washington, D.C.” and then I messaged all of them to ask if they knew of any places where I could live. In retrospect, this was anawesome strategy. Although the majority of people said no, one of my friends set me and Lena (my partner) up with some of her friends, and soon enough the “friends of friends” became “friends” and we lived in the same house.
There’s a million reasons why living with friends—or friends of friends—is better than living with Craigslist randos. First of all, I’ve heard tons of horror stories about Craigslist randos. But also, living with people you know is more conducive to building community. In the absence of a shared campus, houses have been the main convening points for building community. Living with friends makes everything easier. Enough said.
We made up some new traditions
I was a co-oper and head cook at Oberlin for the last two years. Also I love pizza. Many of you can see where this is going.
About a month into living in D.C., Lena told me she wanted to celebrate Shabbat with some friends. I said I wanted to make pizza. Hence was born the best cultural fusion imaginable: pizza Shabbat, the coming together of two classic Oberlin Friday night favorites. Generally speaking, every 2 or 3 weeks we have 5-20 people over and we make a ton of homemade pizza with fresh dough. Sometimes Lena lights the Shabbat candles and people say a prayer or sing songs. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but there’s nevertheless a hint of holiness around the whole thing.
Pizza night has become an awesome way to see some of the same people in the same context of eating and drinking regularly. What more could you ask from new traditions?
I plugged into some things that were already here
The Keep, another group house in my neighborhood, hosts “Delightful Hour” every month or two, in which friends drink “grog” and sing sea shanties. The singing is serious business, and the grog is bad. It’s awesome.
I also joined a reading group that I found online. We meet every month to talk about articles in Jacobin, which is a leftist magazine. There’s a spin off book club that’s just reading Marx’s Das Kapital, which obviously I joined. The discussions in both groups are awesome, and I’m wondering why I would ever pay for grad school when I can get free education like this.
I love sports and I don’t care who knows. So I found people who play soccer every weekend, and I play basketball at local courts now and then.
One thing that’s been a challenge is to find people to play music with. I play guitar and sing and I was in some bands at Oberlin. I think I could try harder to find people to play music with here. It’s something I want to do.
I took a lot of bus rides
Greyhound. Megabus. Bolt Bus. Amtrak. Marc Train. There’s alot of places you can go for cheap. I’ve had a great time exploring U.S. cities with friends who live there, and showing friends around in D.C.
Doing social justice work in a place that “isn’t yours”
I’m doing an Americorps VISTA year at an affordable housing nonprofit that creates and preserves permanently affordable homeownership housing in D.C. Specifically, I’m working with limited equity cooperatives and tenants’ associations to preserve permanently affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods. This is work that I find meaningful, interesting, engaging, and difficult. I’m lucky to be doing it.
Also, I’m a college-educated, upper middle class white young professional living with 4 other people who could be similarly described, in a working class, historically black neighborhood in a city that’s experiencing rapid gentrification, displacement of longtime residents, and housing price pressure for working and middle class people. Am I part of the problem or solution? Can it be both?
There’s really two things I want to talk about here. The first is about how to be a good neighbor and the second is about how to do social justice work in a place that isn’t originally or permanently yours. I think that the former is about limiting the extent to which you are “the problem” and the latter is about how you can try to help people without causing more problems.
It’s worth noting that I can’t afford to live in the parts of the city that aren’t “transitional” neighborhoods. So my living here is my choice, but I made it in the context of the same crazy housing market that’s screwing poor people in this city. That said, living anywhere comes with responsibilities to the place you live.
When I think about how to be me (young white professional newcomer) in the place where I live (working class, majority-minority neighborhood) there’s some things that I can change and some things I can’t change, and most of what I can change boils down to being a good neighbor. I’ve found that, for the most part, if I respect my neighbors, they will respect me back, regardless of, or even despite racial and class tensions. So here’s some things I try to do, and I’m not perfect at:
- Talking to everyone like they’re a real person;
- Not using black slang or pretending to be from the working class;
- Telling neighbors in advance if we’re going to have a party, and turning down the music at midnight;
- Saying hi to people on the street;
- Talking to my immediate neighbors when I see them on the stoop or porch or deck;
- Obeying traffic laws (I’m actually terrible at this on my bike) and being polite on the bus (I could be better).
The second part, about how to work for social justice in a community that’s not originally or permanently “yours” is more complicated, and it’s something I’d love to talk to people more about. There are pragmatic challenges, like gaining respect from local people if they see you as a newcomer, and ethical issues, like, are you misleading people if you’re working as an organizer on local issues while knowing that you might pick up and leave before seeing them through?
I think, again, it all depends on how you do it. If you’re an organizer, are you doing leadership development so folks can continue to organize after you leave? Are you teaching people at your organization and making a permanent mark? If you do these things, and if you keep in mind that you’re not the expert about the community you’re serving and you keep an open mind, I think most of the ethical problems are mitigated. A piece of Jewish wisdom comes to mind, taught to me by Lena: “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
There’s a side question of the ethics of claiming a neighborhood as “yours” even though you haven’t been there that long. I personally believe that my new neighborhood is “my neighborhood” and I’m working to make it better. I don’t think this necessarily comes at the expense of longtime residents also claiming this as their neighborhood. I think it would be hard to do good work for social justice without feeling connected to the place you’re doing it, even if you’re not originally from there. It all gets back to building community in an age of mobility.
Making life plans
There’s a lot of pressure out there, often pulling you in different directions. I already expressed the tension between pressure to settle down and pressure to go “experience the world.” I’ve also experienced opposing pressures to professionalize / be materially stable (make money, do something where you sit at a desk) and to work for social justice (which implies doing something radical, with people, not for the money, etc.). Finally, there’s a tension between “building your career” or even “finding a job,” and building community, or living with the people you love.
The one thing I wish I could tell myself a year ago is that it’s OK to build your life around the people you love at the expense of building your career or finding a job. I didn’t have the courage to think like that last year. Luckily for me, my partner Lena did. Shout out to her.
I don’t know if I can follow my own advice on this one perfectly, but I’m going to try to think of building my life around friends, family, and the people I love as a legitimate and worthy thing, even when it’s at the expense of building a career. This is an important thing to remember as someone who’s ambitious and wants to change the world yesterday.
As a corollary thought—it’s OK to build your life around friends even if they aren’t your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner. Does your romantic partner have to be the only person you’re willing to make sacrifices for or build your life around? Let’s rethink this. Dean Spade wrote a good article that discusses this more deeply.
Some last thoughts
I wanted to reflect and write about my last year, and my attempts to build community in an age of mobility. There’s definitely more to explore here than I wrote, especially about organizing mobile communities for social justice. And about keeping in touch with friends better.
I think my biggest challenge and lesson from this last year is to expand my time horizon. Until now, I’ve been living in a world of deadlines and fixed schedules. Outside of academic institutions, time works differently. I had good friends move away from the U.S. for a year, and I sort of thought they were gone forever. Many of them are returning now.
One good thing about building community in an age of mobility is that there’s always a chance that you could be reunited. So here’s to seeing you again. You’re always welcome in my home, wherever that is.
(1) Although it is true that all fathers are sons, not every son is a father.