Talking it Up in Binghampton: Conversation as the Foundation of Community Building
Photo credit: Peri Gildersleeve
One of the most important things you can do if you want to build community is find ways to help your neighbors talk to each other. I know this may seem obvious, but it can be so easy to not talk to each other. We live within a culture that encourages us to build privacy fences, sit on our back patios instead of our front porches, and drive our cars whenever we need to go somewhere. It’s rare that we get an opportunity to sit with the people who live around us and just talk.
So, a big part of our work at Center for Transforming Communities is helping the Shalom Zones host gatherings where neighbors to come together and have conversations about the things that are important to them. Because of our commitment to Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), these conversations often center around inviting our neighbors to share their gifts, skills, and passions, as well as their dreams and aspirations for the future. The relationships built through these conversations form the foundation of each Shalom Zone and the broader Communities of Shalom movement.
Recently, working alongside the Binghampton Shalom Zone, I’ve had the opportunity to experience just how powerful these conversations can be – especially among neighbors who otherwise can’t talk to each other.
Binghampton is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city of Memphis. That’s something that the neighbors there celebrate – that people from diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds live together, peacefully, in the same neighborhood. One of the challenges that comes with this, though, is that people in Binghampton don’t all speak the same language. In fact, walking down Merton St on a nice afternoon, you’re likely to hear people speaking half a dozen different languages – English, Spanish, Swahili, French, Vietnamese, Arabic, and others.
When the leaders of the Binghampton Shalom Zone wanted to host a community dinner and conversation in March, one of the first questions that came up was about whether we would be able to overcome some of these language barriers. Through some very dedicated volunteer organizers from the neighborhood, we knew we could have some English-Spanish translators help facilitate conversation. Though it wouldn’t be representative of the full diversity of the neighborhood, we decided to start there – translating between English and Spanish.
More than 60 people attended that gathering (We had planned for 30!), and we filled 2 hours with conversation. Volunteer translators sat at each table and helped the conversation flow between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Binghamptoners, and I quickly realized the energy and excitement coming from each table was rooted in this special opportunity for neighbors to sit and talk with each other.
Several weeks later, we invited the participants from that gathering to come back together for a neighborhood asset-mapping workshop. Despite terrible, rainy weather, people came, and again we had volunteer translators present to help with English and Spanish. This time, we added a translator who could help with French and Kinyarwanda, allowing us to communicate with several new neighbors who had just immigrated from Congo. As we worked through the asset-mapping activities that morning, I quickly realized that, again, the energy and excitement in the room was coming from the opportunity for people to sit and talk – to communicate in a way they hadn’t before. I could tell that the participants were enjoying the activities we had planned, but what they really wanted – more than anything else – was to have a conversation with their neighbors. (As I walked around the room, I even overheard participants at one table using the time between activities to get a quick Spanish lesson.)
Last month, the CTC staff read a chapter from a book by Robert Putnam called Better Together: Restoring the American Community. In the chapter we studied, Putnam looks at a group of community organizers working in rural Texas who practice what they call “relational organizing.” Their approach relies on bringing together small groups of neighbors for conversations – conversations about their lives, the challenges they face, and their visions for the future. When one of the organizers was accused of being too “radical” and “dangerous,” she replied: “The most ‘dangerous’ thing we do is talk to our neighbors.” She’s right – today, talking with your neighbors can be a radical thing. But I think it's the foundation of any meaningful, lasting community change.