Posted by: Robin A. Edgar | July 30, 2010

I’ve been thinking….

Although some recent “parties” are getting a lot of attention, I am glad I was not invited. Instead of coming up with constructive, compassionate solutions to help people in need, they are mostly stirring up unrest. That got me thinking about concrete solutions that we, the people, can actually do to alleviate our growing concerns.

After interviewing 100 people who survived the Great Depression in Charlotte, North Carolina for a multi-media project called “Personal Legacies: Surviving the Great Depression,” I learned one of the most effective keys to survival lies within the strength of the community. To make it through the hard times, families moved in with one another, neighbors shared what they had and looked out for one another. Recognizing that they were all in the same boat, people of all cultures and backgrounds worked together.

Another example of a peaceful community-based solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem came from my friend, Patricia Moore. A member of Charlotte’s United Religions Initiative (URI), an organization whose purpose is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the earth and all living beings, Pat sent me an article from the New York Times Magazine called The Integrationist, written by Russell Shorto. It described how one of Amsterdam’s former mayors, Job Cohen, eased tensions after the unfortunate hate crime was committed by a Muslim against one of Van Gogh’s relatives. Rather than attacking the Muslim community, Cohen encouraged his leadership to take the time to have tea with the Muslim people in their mosques. Unlike the right-wing, anti-immigrant actions of the Freedom Party, whose founder Geert Wilders  is currently facing trial in a Dutch court for inciting hatred, this simple act of communicating with the Muslims on their ground led the community toward a successful, compassionate solution.

As a participant and facilitator in the Fetzer Institute’s Campaign for Love & Forgiveness for the past four years, I have become keenly aware of how interrelated love and forgiveness are with compassion. The Institute believes that “the critical issues in the world can best be served by integrating the inner life of the mind and spirit with the outer life of action and service to the world.”  That reminds me of the old-fashioned custom of barn raising.

In early rural America, community barn raisings were part of a social framework based on interdependence. In response to individual or community need, neighbors would help newcomers construct the frame and rafters for a barn or volunteer to rebuild those structures destroyed by fire or other disasters. Although it is still practiced in Amish and Mennonite cultures here today, the similar concepts have roots in several cultures around the world:

In the Finnish custom, talkoot, a group of volunteers work together in villages or on rural farms for the common community good, like repairing a church, or assisting elderly neighbors or relatives. In urban areas, a talkoot may even be called to help friends move.

In Norway, the dugnader is practiced in rural areas as neighbors participate in house or garage building. In urban areas dugnad activities such as outdoor spring cleaning and gardening are practiced in housing co-operatives.

The Irish word for work group, meitheal, was traditionally used to describe neighbors in rural areas that worked with one another on farm tasks such as preparing hay or gathering the harvest. This spirit of community, where neighbors respond to the needs of each other, is carried over in modern times and a meitheal might be called for a gathering of neighbors and friends to decorate a house in exchange for refreshments.

In modern Philippine culture, the term bayanihan refers to local efforts to resolve a national problem. Based on the root word bayani meaning “hero” the term, bayanihan, is best illustrated in the classic Filipino tradition of carrying a house. As each man carries a portion of the weight, he becomes a hero as he lightens the load for others.

Found in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, Gotong royong, refers to one of the core tenets of Indonesian philosophy, the cooperation among many toward a shared goal. Since volunteerism is a significant cultural value, in Javanese culture there is a greater respect for those who contribute to the general village welfare than for those who accumulate material wealth.

Naffīr is the Arabic word used in parts of Sudan and the Middle East to describe the gathering of family members and neighbors for a particular task such as building a house or providing help during the harvest in the village. Once the project is accomplished, the group disbands. 

The Cherokee word, ga-du-gi, means working together toward a common goal to benefit all of the Cherokee People, such as building the community council house or participating in the traditional annual green corn harvest ceremony. Still practiced today, ga-du-gi means volunteer community service.

It makes sense that individuals around the world who are in need should be able to turn to their neighbors and community for help and compassion. As in the situation in Amsterdam, our government and community leaders can proactively meet those needs by being in touch with the diverse individuals in their community. Instead of holding rallies that tear down trust, we can hold work parties that meet immediate needs and build pathways for understanding and compassion.

What can I do you ask? Why not adopt my father’s favorite saying, “I kept saying somebody should do something and then I realized that I was somebody!” In my own neighborhood of about 100 homes, for instance, we started a list of able-bodies residents to call upon whenever an elderly resident in our small community needs assistance. The members of “Hands Helping Hands” volunteer to help with small household tasks that seniors cannot do themselves, like picking up prescriptions when they are ill or replacing light bulbs in ceilings.

Even just one person can make a difference. Take Willie Coleman’s example. I met this dynamic woman in the Charlotte community when I interviewed her for the Personal Legacies project. She not only actively participated in a community garden at the Wilmore Community Center, she also personally “adopted” young African-American girls and made sure they graduated high school. Others might do well to adopt Willie’s single-handed “child-raising” effort and mentor students in their underserved communities, especially during the current financial crisis.

Ah, but you say that strength is in numbers. That brings me to the movement. On October 10, 2010, individuals in communities around the world will participate in modern-day “barn-raisings” or “work parties” for solutions to our energy crisis. Under the slogan, “Get To Work”, the non-profit is organizing work parties to put up solar panels, insulate homes and schools, erect windmills, plant trees, develop community gardens and more. They hope their actions will send a simple message to our government and community leaders:  “We’re working–what about you?” 

That brings me to another community “work party” opportunity. In conjunction with, the members of the URI Project committee elected to raise funds and donations in order to plant native fruit and shade trees on the premises of homes built by Habitat for Humanity. Working together toward a common goal that benefits all of the people of Charlotte, URI hopes this example of cooperation among many toward will lighten the load for others. The trees will eventually shade these residences and thereby reduce energy consumption as they contribute to cleaner air and provide nourishment to homeowners and the environment.

As our former President, John F. Kennedy, once urged, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Know any barns that need raising in your neck of the woods?

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  1. Hi: Just wanted to drop a note to say that i am enjoying reading your blog–excellent writing and throughts. Much aprpeciated. Feel free to visit mine: All the best –Daphne

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