“We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” – Mother Theresa
Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s the perfect day to think about love. I’m not thinking about romantic love, although I’m all for that too. What I’m thinking about is something I’m convinced we need more than ever right now – love for our communities.
In the last few years we’ve seen housing prices plummet, jobs become scarce, and retirement accounts evaporate. Many of us and our friends and neighbors are suffering. Many more fear a bleak future. But I’m convinced we will thrive. How? By building community.
An increasing number of people are starting to talk about resilience rather than sustainability, about investing locally and learning (or relearning) the skills that will help us succeed in a different kind of economy and a different climate. Humans have the ability to get through tough times. We’ve done it before. And it only works when we do it together.
Here are six ways you can invest in your community this Valentine’s Day:
1. Get to know your neighbors
For the first seven years we were together, my husband and I were nomads. We lived in seven different houses in two different states. We had a lot of different neighbors, few of whom we knew very well. Then we bought a house and got a neighborhood. Now we know the majority of our neighbors. We borrow ingredients from each other. We talk in our yards and driveways. We swap babysitting and gardening tips. We go for walks together. The neighborhood kids play outside – laughing, climbing trees, and riding bikes and scooters up and down the block – until sunset. When my old nomadic ways surface, the first thing that I think about is our neighborhood. How could we leave this?
Getting to know your neighbors doesn’t just help you buck the troubling trend toward social isolation in the U.S. It helps you build the kind of wealth that people seem to take for granted these days – friends. When a neighbor had to foreclose on his house, a bunch of the neighbors showed up to help him move. He ended up renting a house down the street. “I can’t leave these people,” he mused while he watched a neighbor load furniture into his truck.
Want to get to know your neighbors and not sure where to start? Sit on your front porch. Walk and ride your bike through your neighborhood. Have a yard sale. Take your headphones off. Talk to your neighbors. Attend a community meeting. Check out i-neighbors.org.
2. Buy local
The New Economics Foundation, a London think tank, compared what happens when people buy produce at a grocery store versus in a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. It turns out that when people shop locally, twice the amount of money stays in the community.
When you buy from local businesses, you not only support a local business owner. Local businesses tend to buy from other local businesses, so money flows where you live rather than exiting for corporate headquarters. Moreover, local businesses are usually located in city centers rather than the fringes, encouraging customers to use people-powered or public transportation to get to them. And since they usually rely exclusively on local labor, you help to employ your neighbors. Local businesses are also what make our towns and cities unique.
3. Join a CSA
How can you support a local farmer, eat ultra-fresh vegetables all summer, and get to know the people who grow your food? Buy a CSA share. You usually pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season, which helps farmers have cash flow when they need it the most.
We’ve bought CSA shares over the years and have had great and disappointing experiences. One year, we ate a lot of Asian pears. So make sure you know what to expect. Here are a few questions you might want to ask before you sign up: What does the farm grow? Is the produce organic? How big is the standard share? What happens if you’re on vacation? Does the farm do home-delivery or will you need to pick it up? Do you get any extras, like eggs or flowers?
Be ready to plan your menus around your weekly produce box. You might see some produce that you’ve never eaten before, but most farms send out a newsletter with cooking tips and recipes to help introduce you to the exciting world of kohlrabi, garlic scapes, and mustard greens.
4. Volunteer your time
For many years, I thought about volunteering, but I was convinced I didn’t have the time. Then I changed my definition of volunteering. I used to think of being a volunteer as something you needed to sign up for, go through an orientation, and wear some kind of badge to do. Quasi-employment. Certainly formal opportunities abound to help out at food banks, libraries, literacy centers, schools, animal shelters, parks, nature centers, and other agencies if you have the time and inclination. But maybe you already work full time or more than full time? Or maybe you care for your kids all day and can’t get away? Well, there are plenty of informal ways to volunteer your time to your community that are easy for most anyone to squeeze in.
Here are a few ideas: Bring a bag and gloves with you on walks and pick up garbage. If you see ripe fruit on a tree going to waste, ask the property owner if you can pick it and donate it to a local food bank. Ask an elderly neighbor if you can help with chores or shopping. Donate books to the library and gently-used clothes to shelters or thrift stores. Share your talent or skill with your neighbors by donating a craft or piece of art to a charity. The idea is to give a little bit of time to bettering your community each week.
5. Be courteous on the roads
Aggressive driving and road rage are on the rise in the U.S. In one survey New York claimed the prize for having the most aggressive drivers and Portland, Oregon the most courteous. But all cities have ample room for improvement. AAA reports that, “At least 1,500 men, women, and children are seriously injured or killed each year in the United States as a result of senseless traffic disputes and altercations.” Driving a car can make people feel more isolated and protected, encouraging them to act in ways they normally wouldn’t. That probably explains all of the horn-honking, gestures, and fist-waving going on out there.
We can improve our communities immeasurably by simply being courteous on the road, whether we’re motorists, cyclists, or pedestrians. If you find yourself getting angry behind the wheel, like 60 percent of commuters report they often do, here are a few ways to prevent road rage: Get enough sleep. Give yourself more than enough time to get to your destination. Slow down. Don’t get in the car when you’re upset. Listen to upbeat or relaxing music when you drive. Relax and breathe.
If you’re on a bike, don’t forget to be visible, ride defensively, and always follow the rules of the road.
6. Be kind to strangers
“Hi,” my son chirps every time we pass someone on the sidewalk. Each time, it makes me glad. It’s easy to focus on the not-so-good things we inevitably role-model as parents – the slipped swear word or a proclivity toward chocolate chip cookies. But if our kids see us being friendly, chatting with neighbors, and being polite in the grocery store and post office, we’re teaching them something that has the power to change the world – kindness.
Researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis have demonstrated that a single act of kindness can influence dozens more. In an experiment, they divided participants into groups of four, gave each person 20 credits each, and asked them to secretly decide what to keep for themselves and what to contribute to a common fund. Then they distributed the credits and mixed the participants into different groups. If just one person contributed a generous amount to the common fund in a round, his entire group contributed more in the next round, showing that kindness really can go viral.
How do you show your love for your community? I’d love to hear about it.