Connecting With the Community
As a local real estate blogger, I’ve been blogging about Frederick Maryland for over 7 years, highlighting how our beautiful city is a great place to live, work and play. After calling Frederick County home for almost 25 years myself, there are three things that stand out to me about our community, and those three things are what I blog about:
- Frederick is a vibrant, active and friendly community.
- Our county is a draw for small businesses: those “Mom & Pop” enterprises, and hard-working entrepreneurs who want to do what they love and create something of their own.
- Frederick County is full of caring people; it’s the headquarters of almost 1000 charities, and 1500 non-profit organizations in total.
After years of interviewing and telling the stories of these caregivers, community instigators and entrepreneurs, it occurred to me – They are all individually living their own truth (in the famous Gorilla vernacular) and although they are all doing it differently, they are telling the same story – the story of Community. Their stories are woven into a tapestry that is Community.
What is Community?
I’m glad you asked, as the topic has been large on my mind for several months. I’d like to ask your indulgence as I wax poetic on the topic. (and I’d love to hear what you think!) Bear with me as I get a little geeky for a moment…
The word Community has been handed down to us from the Latin roots: Cumul, meaning “to gather together”, and munus, meaning “gift”. Hmmm. “The gift of gathering together”. Keep that in your back pocket for a minute, we’ll get back to it.
I feel that so often in today’s fast-paced hectic society, what we see is a pseudo community, or, let’s bring in some French vocabulary… a faux community. When we (I’m taking license here to refer to that indiscriminate number that usually means “many of us”) refer to any issues regarding “gathering together”, we seem to be happy to spout out sound bites. Catch phrases like “buy local”, or “everyone should give back!”, or my personal favorite, “Corporate America sucks!”. What do they actually mean anyway? I’m not sure I can jump on board if I can’t agree with a premise. And I can’t get to a premise unless I dig a little deeper.
After several years of conversations with good Frederick people, I’ve wanted to dig deeper into all of these issues, and I find that they all swirl around the common thread – Community. What does it really mean to be part of a Community? And even more importantly, what does it mean to not just be a member, but to really connect with the Community? It seems to me that answering that question will bring clarity to all the issues and sound bites swirling around the periphery.
Remember those days when people used to sit on their porch, wave at their neighbors and have a conversation over the fence? Remember when you were a kid and you couldn’t get away with any shenanigans because everyone knew you and someone was bound to tell your parents?
Yeah, me neither. I don’t remember that… I think that was our parents’ or grandparents’ memory. I’m not reminiscing or reaching back to something that was, because I think those days are mostly gone. I’m actually reaching for something else, something that works for our world today. Something that you might even say works for Frederick Maryland, today, 2014, not 1914.
In a book by James Gleick, The Information, I read some statistics that got my attention. In the last 25 years, the occasion of family dinners (one of the most basic instances of Community) is down 43%. Club membership is down 58%. Dinner parties are down 35%.
At the same time, social media use has exploded. People are “gathering in community” in the online spaces in a brand new way. If Facebook was a country, it would be the 3rd largest country. One in five couples today met online, the most basic element of Community. (If you haven’t seen the “Social Media Revolution” on YouTube, it’s enlightening.)
I don’t think that Community is dependent on the “times in which we live”. I think the “times” we deal with can be used to break it down. I don’t think technology is the culprit in breaking down Community, either. I think technology can be used to break it down. You can see where I’m going here… We are the culprits. We break down Community.
Let’s get past generalities and talk about Frederick. Let’s talk about our Community, how special it is and how we can possibly keep it that way.
When I’ve interviewed small business owners in Frederick County, time and again I’ve been amazed at the common threads. Somewhere in their formative years, most entrepreneurs have been influenced by family members who made a life by “doing their own thing”. They grew up with values that include self-determination and ownership. Is it nature or nurture? I don’t know. But it truly is an influence that runs deep.
Another thread that I see is passion. Entrepreneurs are always passionate about what they do. It makes sense that to make a life, it takes a great amount of passion. Entrepreneurial ventures are more than just a job: they are indeed, a life. After all, why would a person assume such risk to do something that doesn’t intrinsically move them.
The third thread that I see is that, by necessity, local small businesses are involved in their community. A successful small business owner is always reaching out to the community, building relationships and listening, making sure that they are really providing goods and services that their customers want.
Another way that many Frederick businesses reach out to the community is through the many fundraising events that take place. I can’t honestly compare our city to other places, having lived my adult life here, but I find that Frederick businesses are a generous bunch. Any given day, I can find a business sponsoring a charity or an event, giving a portion of sales, or serving with their own hands in a local non-profit. I don’t know if it’s the sign of the times… but it is social enterprise right in our midst.
Just some top of mind examples: Rita’s Bike Night: raising money for many medical needs and cancer funds; The Giving Point Project at eXp Realty: agents giving money to the charity of the buyers or sellers choice; the many downtown shops and businesses who give a portion of their sales to local charities; Roy Rogers and Chick-Fil-A: countless fundraisers for local groups and families in need. And Seed of Life, not only feeding local children, but creating opportunities for service for local teenagers. The list could fill a page.
In the strict definition of social enterprise, an organization’s social aims are the primary goal and profits are secondary. The reality of social enterprise in our society is that there are many levels of the philanthropic element. Some businesses add charitable giving to their business plan. On the other end of the continuum, there are organizations that are completely owned and organized by the community.
Regardless of where the business fits into that broad spectrum, being a part of the community is a growing trend for modern business. Businesses that also promote a better community are becoming more prevalent. There is a growing expectation by consumers to do business where they know that their purchase will make a difference in their community.
The Need Only Grows
As I’ve interviewed several representatives from local non-profits over the years, strangely, I’ve seen many of the same entrepreneurial threads … the passion, the intrinsic drive and the satisfaction that comes from doing something you feel you were born to do. And again, I see the same outcome: the Community is stronger. Instead of seeing parallel threads between businesses and non-profits, I see the threads interwoven. I see a tapestry forming.
Over the last several years, I’ve been learning about a trend in the non-profit world. Unfortunately, (or maybe in the long run, fortunate?) the funds that they used to receive from the government have been drying up. One local non-profit spokeswoman told me that the $16,000 amount that they received in federal funds from 2012 was cut to $4,000 in 2013. That was the money that they had budgeted to fund their outreach, which then raised over ten times that amount. That’s a 75% cut. “That took some scrambling and creativity to figure out,” she told me.
Whether it’s sequestration, furloughs, deficits, right, left…. I don’t want to get political here, I just want to state the facts: government funding is drying up. Very soon, the checks will bounce. It’s a fact of life in 2014.
So what will happen? Who will take care of those in our community who have legitimate needs? How will the funds be raised? Who will even have the funds? Before we head down a dark street, I’ve already been learning about of some of the answers to these questions.
Local Community Is the Answer
According to many local non-profits, like Team H.O.P.E., a local non-profit raising money for people to get screenings for breast cancer, going local is the answer for the future of caregiving. Vicky Weldon, a spokeswoman for Team H.O.P.E. explained to me that over 2 years ago their organization broke ties with a national breast cancer non-profit, (not for any negative reasons) to focus on the needs in Frederick County. All of their fundraising efforts are local, and all of their help goes to Frederick County residents.
In the two years between Oct. 2011 and Oct. 2013, Team H.O.P.E has donated $87,500 to the Doris Marie Warthen Fund, established in partnership with the Frederick County Health Department’s BCCP Program (breast and cervical cancer program), Community Radiology Associates and with Dr. Julian Choe. As I write this, the BCCP program is currently out of funds, and without local support, many people would go without care.
Even more compelling, the funds provided by Team H.O.P.E. are utilized not only when the government funds with the BCCP Program have been exhausted, but also when women or men, who are either under insured or have no insurance at all, who have turned to the BCCP for care, are not eligible for their program, because they are either under 40 or exceed the low income guidelines set for the program.
Team H.O.P.E. are just one example of the local charities who have made relationships in the community, and brought the business and charity world together.
They have woven their own tapestry and are making a difference locally. They are proving that the Community is the solution to many of our problems.
I Want to Be Part of the Tapestry
Many of you may be reading this and may think… “I’m not an entrepreneur, nor a non-profit. I barely have time to keep my own children in shoes. But I want to be part of the Community. What can one person do?” Well, I have some ideas.
I’m not going to say, “You need to buy local.” I don’t really believe that anyway. Sometimes you need to go to Walmart. That’s what the budget demands. Besides, the local super box store is employing many of your neighbors. They are helping to support their families by working there. Why would you want to indirectly hurt them by boycotting their store?
I’m also not going to jump on the “evil corporation” bandwagon. See above paragraph.
I’m not going to say, “Everyone should give back!”, mostly because it’s a free country and I’m not into telling people what to do. Also, because some people simply don’t have it to give.
Being a real part of the Community, connecting with people, as opposed to being part of a pseudo- or faux community, is something that takes an investment. It can never happen by adopting sound bite solutions. After all, you can shop at all the right stores and give to all the right charities and still not be a part of the Community. You can be just as disconnected as if you lived in Timbuktu.
At the risk of creating another sound-bite, I believe the answer to connecting with the Community is found in a conversation. A conversation in which people really listen. And by listening, I mean more than just hearing.
I know, let’s all hold hands and sing together. Before you tune out, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Being a part of the Community, connecting with people, taking part in “the Conversation”… that all takes involvement. Personal, intellectual involvement. Asking questions, listening and learning. And yes, disagreeing.
It takes time out of your day. It takes time away from thinking about yourself. It takes a bit of focus that many of us are not used to… focus on the person in front of us, whether they are the checkout girl at the supermarket, or whether they are the shop keeper at the new local store.
It takes time to listen. Listening to someone’s story. Listening to their passion, whether it’s providing the best lawn mowing service in town, or the best children’s toys, people have a passion. Whether it’s raising the funds for breast cancer screenings because their mom died of breast cancer, or whether it’s providing a place of shelter and training for abused women; people have a passion.
Sometimes listening to someone’s passion is the best gift you can give. There are a lot of people doing brave things. Whether it is taking the risk of entrepreneurship, providing goods and services for customers in a fickle economy, as well as jobs for your neighbors; or whether it is meeting the needs of the less fortunate among us; providing escape and safety for those to whom life has been unkind; the Community is where the answers will be.
Whether you listen, give money, give time, share a story, volunteer, or simply spread the word, being a part of the Community is the beginning. In connecting with the Community we’ll be able to not only be a part of a solution, we will most likely be enriched ourselves.
You know that saying, “the right answer is usually the simplest answer?” In my mind it really is pretty simple. You can’t do everything, you can only do something. And no one can tell you what that “something ” should be. The only way you’ll find out is by taking the time to have a conversation.
Appreciating “The gift of gathering together” is central to the conversation which brings us into the community. For those of you who read this far, thanks for your time.
**For an excellent read: Communities Vs. Networks