Posted by: MC | April 26, 2010

Community: A Change from the Disconnect


It is very counter culture in a weird way
to talk about all of us being good friends
and helping each other.
Rabbi Ariel Stone

I’ve just watched a man in his 60’s, I’d guess, getting on his bicycle.  Earlier he came into this café, his body bent nearly to 90 degrees, maybe 110.  He used a cane to walk.  He ordered, took his breakfast roll and coffee and left.  Maybe he sat outside to eat.  I didn’t see.  A few moments ago, he came back into view.  Bent near in half, he was rolling a mountain bike up to the bike stand at the corner.  He leaned it there while he slipped his cane into straps along its frame.  He stretched yellow bungee cords to hold the cane secure.  There was a canvas backpack on the handlebars.  He pulled out a hat and put it on.  Then he worked against gravity and perhaps pain to hoist the pack onto the table of his back.  He lit the cigarette in his hand, put it in his mouth, and gingerly lifted his leg up and over to get on the bike to pedal out into the busy street. 

People walked by as the man maneuvered.  I watched.  None of us offered to help, but that likely wasn’t needed.  With dignity, creativity, perseverance and necessity, this man was fine making his way.

In our country we are independent.  We respect that in one another.  We hesitate to embarrass anyone by offering to help when they don’t want it. 

We’re also often shy about stepping up to connect.  Sometimes we miss situations where we could be of assistance because we don’t know how to retain grace and cool while offering to help a stranger.  Somehow we lack that social skill.  It’s not a part of U.S. culture.  And no doubt there are those among us who just don’t notice, for whom it doesn’t cross their mind to see or help a stranger in need.

Then, of course, there are the hideous examples of how our capacity to ignore and detach unmasks a darker side of human nature.  It’s been 46 years since Kitty Genovese died screaming for help on the streets of Queens, New York.  The headline of the New York Times two weeks later read, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw the Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”  The story of Kitty Genovese became widely heralded as evidence of fundamental flaws in the social fabric of our country.

That was a long time ago, now, but the problem, both deadly and stark in its assault on the spirit of community hasn’t really gone away.  As recently as last week I happened on a blurred black and white photo among the squares stacked on the Huffington Post homepage.  In its lower right half was a large rumpled mass on the concrete of a sidewalk.  Above were vague forms of legs striding past.  The headline read something like “Sixteen walk by as hero lays dying.”  I know I don’t have that exactly right.  I went back to find the photo and read the article, but it was no longer on the page and no search attempts found it. 

In 1964, the New York Times couldn’t get to the story of Kitty Genovese for two weeks.  That’s troubling.  In 2010, the Huffington Post flips stories so fast it’s a challenge for anything to register.  Downplaying is downplaying.  And I played my part; I didn’t stop to read it the first time.     

Toward the end of April last year, which was toward the end of the first 100 days of the new Presidential Administration, I spoke with Rabbi Ariel Stone, a woman who gives her life and voice to fortifying community.  The Rabbi was among many of the 100 voices of EX:Change who spoke in various ways about the importance or relationship, family, community and our essential interconnection with every single other. 

We sat in the Fleur des lays Café near the windows.  Young children’s heads bobbed by, all in bright raingear.  Rabbi giggled and told a story of a batch of goslings she’d seen a few days earlier.  Speaking of the children and the small geese she said, “They know to cluster.  They want to,”

By coincidence, we had scheduled to meet on Yom HaZikaron1, Israel’s Memorial Day (4/28/09, 4/18/10).  “Today is actually a stunning day to ask about change.  Today for the 61st year, Israelis and all Jews everywhere recognize everyone who has died giving effort toward making change in the Middle East.  Which is to say, those who worked to bring a Jewish presence back to the Middle East in a sovereign way.

“On a day like this, when you look at how change can really be put into effect, it becomes interesting to consider how much change is a lot.  In the Middle East 61 years ago, change was revolution.  Change was foundational.  There was a new state on the map.  Change was complete.  And it carried the ultimate price for some people.

“What I’m hoping for Israel, for the United States and for all of society is something that serves also as a natural prescription for each of us.  I can attest to its importance myself.  Each and all of us need the ability to create a sense of family where we can’t necessarily bring our biological family.  Family beyond biology is such an important concept in terms of who you travel with day to day. 

“I don’t think we can assume that people will automatically reach out to connect, even though I’m convinced that it is the natural human default.  And, it can be frightening to think about teaching a deeper sense of connectedness and love in a group.  Anybody will tell you, people who try to do that get killed.  Martin Luther King.  Jesus.  People who stand up and say we just need to care for and love each other.  But it needs to be done even though it is very counter culture in a weird way to talk about all of us being good friends and helping each other.  There’s something that people don’t trust in it.  ‘You’ll take advantage of me if I open up and trust you.’  One of the things I am hoping in terms of change and this new Administration is that the part of Barack Obama that teaches connection and trust will have a chance to influence us for good.” 

Almost 100 days earlier, I had spoken with Bill Lanfri, a venture capitalist and philanthropist.  He took a different angle on community.  As he described the subtle causes and effects linked with the economic downturn he returned to a consistent theme.  Again and again he emphasized the idea of work having the purpose of supporting community wellbeing. 

“For too many years, too many people were busy being paid for activities that did not create value for the community.  When you look at what many of them did in those jobs, they were using their finance degrees, but all they were doing was moving money around.  It became a game to move money around in ways that no one had yet figured out were either of no value or damaging.

“Now, I want young people to be saying to themselves, ‘OK.  Finance is easy and I could go that direction and maybe make a bunch of money, but really that path isn’t there anymore so I get to take another path.”  They may become engineers.  They may become doctors.  They may become something else where they have to study harder and get clearer on how they can add value.  They may make contributions to the community that are rewarded with money as an indicator.  But that’s not the objective – to go get the money.  The objective is to add value, to create, to develop, to invent.  If you can do that, you can improve the way the world works.  Money and other rewards follow.  I think that’s going to be a very important change that occurs as a result of this crisis.”

Sue Klapstein is an educator with 40 years of professional service behind her.  She has spent her career supporting “puzzling and less fortunate kids.”  She is humble and knowledgeable both by nature and by the curriculum that has been her life.   In addition to learning from her “best teachers,” the kids and families she serves in schools, she has lately struggled with life-threatening illness.  Out of these experiences comes Sue’s perspective on change and community.

“We need a shared sense of looking out for one another,” she said, “Even people we don’t know.  It can be that if somebody falls down and you don’t know them, you still always stop in the street to help them.  We don’t really have that in our culture, right now.  I’d like to see a change where we recognize our shared humanity and naturally help each other more.

“It sounds kind of hokey, but I do think education is the way.  I’ve always thought that the schools’ main job is to teach children how to read and how to get along with other people.  That’s it.  All the rest are extras.

“One place I see potential for local change is with my graduate students.  They tend to be higher in socioeconomic status.  Not all of them, but on average they are.  When they go in the public schools and they see terrible poverty, injustice and all the rules we think are going to make everything alright.  I want them to be outraged and see instead how they can work to make it better for those children.  They mostly serve kids with disabilities, but I want them also to be thinking and working for all the less fortunate children.  I want them to be able to think back on the way it is now as how it used to be.  I want them to feel pride and satisfaction in how they’ve each taken part in making things more equitable and fair.”

Maybe one of the most immediate calls to community came from Bao, a homeless man in Portland.  Bao worked for Street Roots 2, the newspaper of street life and street people (EX:C blog, “EX:Change 2.0,” 1-21-2010).  The day we met in the coffee shop, he’d been homeless for about a year waiting for a decision in an unemployment compensation dispute with his last employer.  As we talked, he pulled out the letter he’d just received with notice of a resolution.  He would get his payments. 

In the time he’d worked with the paper, Bao had established the track record of selling way more papers than any of the other vendors.  The vendors buy papers at cost from Street Roots, a nonprofit benefiting street people, and then sell them for $1 at cooperating businesses and public libraries. 

It was late January, 2009 when we talked.  Bao had slept out in the snow the night before.  Today, as I write about community and caring for one another, his seems a good story for taking us to the urgency of this call for change toward connection. 

“I know I need to eat and all, but I’m really not worried about selling papers.  What I am really concerned about is getting this information out to the people.  Last night I gave six away down at New Seasons.  That’s my life project right now, because I’m on the streets.  I want people to know it’s hard for us out there.  George3 didn’t need to die.  And there’s 1000 Georges that are dying out there.  George didn’t need to die that night and neither did the guy who died last night.  You didn’t know that?  Yeah, the fire fighter announced him dead down on 6th Street last night.  Froze to death.  Shelter just turned him away at 10:00; found his body at 4:00 this morning. 

“There was no room.  He had no blankets.  He was about eight guys in front of me at the shelter.  Thin as paper.  Froze to death last night.  Found him dead this morning.  You didn’t know about that?  The fire department went down there and checked his pulse and he was dead.  There’s 1000 Georges.  George was just one.  There’s 1000 Georges out there that die and we don’t even know.  A lot of them have family.  George came from a good family.  He served in the military.  He served for this country – went to Viet Nam.  Came back all messed up.  That’s what happens.  That’s why I sell the paper.

1Yom HaZikaron.

2Street Roots. 

3George.  A homeless man whose death was publicized in Portland, OR as a call for community – much like what the voices here are calling for in the name of real change.


  1. k… first, i gotta say in all honesty that after the footnoting started, I didn’t read so much…

    “we don’t know how to retain grace and cool “… i like that line

    did read enough after the footnoting, however, to pick up on the part about how engineers rock, … which is true

    sayonara (is a fun word to say)

    great to be loved by YOU!

    • You’re right. Bagged a few footnotes. Thanks, sis! Engineers even know stuff about narrative flow. Go figure.

  2. A friend just sent this on e-mail: I just really enjoyed your most recent blog. It is interesting that you focused on the same story that I read about on MSNBC a few days ago. There was a 31 year old homeless man in Queens, New York who came to the rescue of a woman who was being attacked by a man with a knife. The attacker put the knife into the rescuer and then fled as did the woman. Many people walked past and saw the blood and the dying man but did not call 911. Some people even took pictures. There are not words to express my dismay after reading this story. The ones whom we should feel most sorry for are the people who didn’t help. Our homeless friend was noble and fine. If there is any justice, he will be rewarded. Even if he is just rewarded with our esteem and admiration. It should also be a lesson for all of us to be more conscious and alert to what is really happening around us as we walk through our lives.

  3. I saw that same story on Yahoo today. Lot’s of karma goin’ down.. damn volcanoes!

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