Putting Our Heads Together vs. Knocking Heads

Read Rob McKay and Ori Brafman’s recent post at Huffington Post and you’re likely to feel your pulse race over the transformative possibilities of grassroots action. “Progressives are forming more […]

Read Rob McKay and Ori Brafman’s recent post at Huffington Post and you’re likely to feel your pulse race over the transformative possibilities of grassroots action.

“Progressives are forming more and more community circles. They are beginning to organize around values which are rooted in face-to-face interactions and connections,” McKay and Brafman conclude after offering a host of examples ranging from “a sprinkle of church organizing, a dash of music activism, and a healthy dose of values-based organizing.”

McKay and Brafman say that this “go-small” strategy has a cumulatively enormous potential for an electoral win in November 2008 for candidates who embrace progressive policies.

Here at Rooflines, we’ve been nibbling around the idea of collective efficacy — what the forces are that are driving us apart or bringing us together to make social change.

Kari Lydersen took a hard look at whether planned mix-income development makes for genuine community across socioeconomic lines. So far, she says, based upon her reporting in Chicago about former Cabrini-Green residents, there’s little evidence that it brings people together in voluntary social interaction or civic organizations.

Maybe the loftier goals of social interaction and civic engagement take longer to achieve, but in Miriam Axel-Lute’s view, the most immediate objective is, and should be, economic:

…making sure poorer folk have access to the better amenities (from schools to better paved roads to stores carrying fresh produce) that tend to follow residents of somewhat higher income. (And I, for one, think the middle-income folks would probably be better off if the cheap diner and the hardware store and the newsstand were able to stay next to the Starbucks that move in.)

We know there’s something afoot in the zeitgeist, driving record numbers of people of all socioeconomic groups out to take a stand by casting a vote.
Does that mean, however, that they’re united in some way? That they can go forward from this moment to model a new kind of cooperative action that has staying power?

Putting our heads together — anthropologists say that’s what differentiates humans from our closest primate relatives.

But recent research by Robert Putnam seems to show that the more diverse our communities, the less likely we are to engage with one another—even with others most like ourselves. Putnam says in diverse communities, people “tend to hunker down,” separating themselves even from others of their own ethnic, religious, economic, racial, or other affinity group.

Putnam — who sparked a marvelous ongoing public conversation about the salutary effects of social capital with his earlier research that culminated in the 2000 book Bowling Alone — has now upset progressives with the apparently bleak take-away of his latest study: namely, that mixing it up economically, ethnically, and racially doesn’t make for a more vibrant public square, but rather for a more atomized, alienated populace.

Xavier De Souza Briggs, editor of The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America, has written extensively about the long-term economic and social benefits of housing mobility for low-income families, examining policies that allow them to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. He’s frequently applied Putnam’s perspective on the need to pump up America’s social capital to his own research.

But how does Briggs view Putnam’s latest finding? And what are we to conclude from McKay and Brafman’s reporting on the emergence of grassroots progressive “small circles”?

Does it simply reinforce the conclusion that human beings have a genius for putting their heads together, but only with those who most closely mirror their own background, worldview, and lifestyle? Is the takeaway that the human default mode, for which we’re hard-wired, is to knock heads with all of “them,” who aren’t “like us”?

If so, what is the effective progressive response?

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