Photo thanks to Ellen Macdonald

We already know how to be independent, needing nothing from anyone, paying for whatever we want or need using hard-earned money that we spend our lives to get. For we were born into this society and taught that  this is what was normal and right.

But we’re lonely, depressed, and anxious, and our communities are falling apart, and people are shooting each other, so we’re ready to try something new. How do we begin to dismantle the illusion of independence and to shine the light on all that we have to offer to each other, all that we need from each other, all the things that we can only do if we are together?

Here’s one way: start a non-hierarchical community networking group like we did. It’s so simple and accessible, so locally-flavored and free, that at first it’s almost hard to believe. But we’ve been doing it for 25 years and I can tell you that it is solid, good, and true. And it turns out that there are a lot of these kinds of groups around the world, calling themselves ‘Freeskools.’ Though we are not connected to Freeskools nor their political philosophies, it’s good to know that, as always, good ideas are sprouting up in many places, each with their own local flavor.

We call our group Pleasant Valley (PV), after a now-defunct neighborhood schoolhouse that also served as a community center until the 1950s. We don’t have a building but we just call everywhere our community center.  I’ll tell you what PV people do for each other, and it might seem impossible to imagine this happening where you live. But I promise you, I live among human beings who are made of the same stuff as yours where you live: longings, hurts, passions, insecurities, gifts. Wherever we live, whoever we are and whatever life has dealt us, it is our birthright to connect, serve, and be cared for.

Photo thanks to Kristin Albertson

Our mission statement reads:

“Pleasant Valley is an intergenerational gathering of people who spend  time learning together in the spirit of a small village: sharing interests, resources, energy, and the gentle passing of time. We look to show the next generation a model for community involvement, intentional living, and homemade happiness.”

I’ll show you the bones of our group, and then I’ll share five simple steps for starting such a thing right where you live. If reading about what we do seems too good to be true, remember: we’ve been at it for 25 years and at the beginning it looked nothing like this at all. Also remember: times are different now. Our need to connect with each other is clearer and deeper than ever before, and we who realize the urgency are many. Here’s a shovel. Join the crew.

A Look at Our Group

We are comprised of about 100 households, all local within about a 30 mile radius of our town. We are of all ages, partnered and single, parents and not. We are lucky to have a number of elders among us, as well as young adults, teens, and everything in between. We have an email list-serve that is very active, because what people post there is so danged intriguing and inviting. We gather in real-time for potlucks, celebrations, camps, walks, and living room conversations about topics that interest us. Always, just the right people show up: the ones who saw the invitation posted to the group and wanted to come.  Always, we’re amazed by the simple power of being together. Nobody had to get certified, nobody gets graded, and nobody can’t afford it because there’s no money needed.

In regular life it can sometimes be hard to ask even your best friends for help, or to invite them to join you for an event, because you might not want to put them on the spot or to risk rejection. The listserv (or whatever group messaging platform is used) is magic because it casts out a broad invitation or request, putting no one on the spot. In this way we can know that those who do step up were personally compelled to do so.

Though our connections are initiated by the internet, they are all about facilitating local in-person connections. In this way it is quite different from many of the online engagements that pull us into relationships around the world. Of course those can be important too, but we’re realizing how important it is to nurture friendship among people right where we live; to share time, space, food. To meet eyes in real time.

What do people post on the listserv?

  • Needs
    • for stuff: borrowing a bike for a visiting nephew…crutches for a broken leg…an axe…a candy thermometer….
    • for services: rides…house sitting…pet care….
    • for help: to trap a squirrel stuck in the basement…to move a heavy couch…to bring meals, childcare, companionship, or songs to a someone who is ill or in some time of transition….

When I was responsible for desserts at my dad’s funeral 3 hours away from home, I asked my group if anyone would be willing to make something that I could bring up. I got an overwhelming response and filled my car with it all, some from folks I still barely knew. For the rest of my life I will be paying back my community for the love I knew through those cookies and bars.  

  • Seeking and Sharing Resources. (And when useful lists are co-created through our listserv, we compile them and someone puts them on our member-only website for future reference.)
    • help in finding local connections: to a plumber…a tailor…a childcare provider…an AlAnon group…a good place to find mushrooms in the woods….
    • ideas for how to do stuff: when to start seeds…how to trap a squirrel….
  • Offers/Gifts
    • giving away of things: size 7 children’s boots…queen sized bed…leaf mulch…extra tomatoes….

It’s so fun to play in the gift economy! As you can imagine, this is a very active aspect of the group, and members saying ‘yes’ to an offered item are asked to ‘reply all’ so the rest of the eager crowd can know it’s nabbed up already! Then, people find their way to each other’s homes to pick up their item, and in this way new friendships can begin. And the next time any of us sees the lucky recipient of the item that we too had wanted (or not), we can say ‘you lucky dog!’ and ask what the heck they’re going to do with that box of quilting magazines….

    • giving of services: people getting certified in some practice who are looking to put in hours for their practicum and are looking for willing ‘clients’…elders willing to read to children on a weekly basis….
  • Invitations
    • to small gatherings at homes or public places, either just to hang out, or to make something together, or to talk about something: making weighted blankets to help people sleep better…making crackers…talking about end-of-life issues…a disco dance party in a living room…to share a home-cooked meal that’s ready tonight, space for 3 at the table….

We also gather monthly for what we call a ‘Gather-All,’ a potluck at some home or public space. This is a laid-back chance to meet or reconnect with each other.

    • to seasonal celebrations: Halloween..Valentine’s Day…May Day….

Ours are non-commercial, simple, mostly oriented toward children and those who love to be with them.

    • to other cool ideas that occur to people: barter fair, food swap, all-ages show-and-tell day, a spontaneous trip to the river to see the migrating pelicans….

These are just a few of the infinite ideas that are flying around the world but in order to land anywhere need people who will gather. Because we have this landing place, we dare notice the ideas and imagine that that they could happen here.

  • Announcements  
    • of new members: they are asked to submit a photo of themselves so that we can recognize them when we next see them somewhere, and also 3-5 sentences about themselves so we know what they’re interested in and up to and where we might run into them about town. We want to know who’s out there on our list-serve, and doing this is a sort of initiation rite for new members that helps them to know that they are not invisible, that who they are matters to us.
    • about projects or businesses that our members are involved with: teens looking for odd jobs…new business owners wanting us to know what they’re dreaming and offering, because, if we know about it then we can consider supporting them. We might have been waiting forEVER for a local source for squirrel bait—now it’s here!  We do not have a rule saying that folks can’t tell us about the way they are making a living and invite us to help support them. This is all about helping each other’s lives to be good.
    • about goings-on in the wider community.  A meeting at the library on depression and anxiety, which had been a recent topic on the list-serve…a community open gym at the high school…a county-wide forum to support local entrepreneurs….

When we notice an event that we think others in the group might want to know about, we send it along. We trust each other to not overdo it.

  • Ideas
    • about books, podcasts, films we’re loving: often these posts hit a tender, alive spot and turn into long threads wherein we learn much about each other’s life experiences, and the conversation continues in both informal and random places around the community as well as in formally organized gatherings to explore further. Recently this occurred with the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari.
    • related to real needs felt: after a death in their family, someone posted a question about why we do death the way we do, and that lead to a many-years’ group exploration into the history and practices at times of death. Another time, someone posted that they wanted to learn more about ritual for life transitions, which caused conversations both online and in-person that have slowly led to more ritual in many lives.

 

As you can see, anything goes. Well, not exactly: our group does emphasize a desire to step away from mass consumer culture. There’s so much beautiful life to be lived together outside of that shopping mall of the mind.

How to Help This Happen Where You Live

I am certain that such a group can begin in any community. It can be any size and grow at any rate, slow or fast. The thing is, to begin. Here are five steps you could take.

Gather and Talk. Invite two or three people to gather to converse about this idea, or gather with folks from a group you’re already part of: a house of worship, a neighborhood, a school group, a club.  Invite them to join an experimental internet-based format for building local connections. Make sure it’s a format that they actually regularly look at. Explain that there is no obligation, no judging, no guilt! (How badly do we need places like that?) Different people will have different levels of participation that change over time depending on their life circumstances. What and how much the group does will evolve according to real needs, all in their own time. It’s truly all good.

Invite and Ask. Then, use yourself as the seed to plant the concept in the others’ minds. Use the group to make invitations to easy and fun things: to come for tea, to go out for a beer. When only one person can make it, call that perfect and amazing. Use the group to tell people about a little-known event that you noticed is coming up. Use the group to say that tonight is a full moon and you’ll be watching it from the bridge. And here’s the bravest thing: use it to help people begin to rediscover the reality and beauty of interdependence. Begin by asking for simple things that you’re pretty sure someone can help with: to borrow a hammer, to borrow some eggs. Starting there, you might just find your group a few years down the road group-sourcing some way bigger needs, like a months’ worth of childcare for someone whose husband just went in to treatment. Because We. Are. Amazing. And we love to serve each other, if only the walls can come down so we can see into each other’s lives.


Notice and Remember.
Once you’re ready, start inventorying your own interests and curiosities. What had you forgotten that you loved to do because it seemed that no one cared? You loved to make kites and fly them? You had wanted to learn to knit? You once were part a book group, back in another city? You’ve caught an idea from a book, radio, or screen and you wish that happened where you live? Send out an offer or an inquiry to your group. By now your friends who initially joined might have invited a friend or two more, and there might just be someone among them all who has been waiting a long time to teach someone to knit. There might just be someone who wanted to have a place to offer their gift without having to organize a formal class, take registrations, figure out a fee and a venue and insurance and taxes and all of the other requirements that can prevent so much sharing of skills. This is grassroots learning and sharing, the way it can always be if only we give ourselves permission and a community to do it with.

Be Simple and Slow.
At some point you might choose a name for your group, and you might make a mission statement, but don’t rush it.  Just begin by being together, and if those other things need to happen you’ll know because you’ll want to do them. Don’t become a non-profit or buy insurance or make rules. Keep it simple, deal with issues directly if they come up. Don’t call anything a failure; it’s all just for learning what works and doesn’t. Create a culture of YES: yes that was hard and we learned from it, yes to that crazy-seeming idea, yes let’s try something else, yes people are welcome even if they don’t know what they have to offer. to And though you are the one taking the first steps, keep in mind that unless you actively encourage the empowerment of each person, you could end up being seen as the leader in a way you’d never intended. Keep your ear out for things to suggest that others might offer or organize, to help encourage those less accustomed to asking, offering, inviting. ‘You need a ride to Minneapolis? How about posting it to our group?’

Gather and Play. Every once in a while, make an invitation that entices the whole group to gather. The best idea is often a meal together in a home or park. This might be the first time that newcomers who had so far just been watching the listserv dare step into real-time with the rest. Introduce everyone to each other. Make sure everyone is seen and welcomed and identified. Maybe this is a monthly gathering, rotating locations and hosts. Encourage the use of home-spaces, because seeing each others’ homes helps us know each other. It’s truly ok if they’re not fancy or clean, and you know it. Model that knowing by inviting others into your home, letting it be not-perfect.

That’s all. What it becomes is what You are, there where You live together. It arises from Your collective needs and dreams and gifts. You have made a container that’s just the right size and shape for what You are now, and it will organically expand to hold whatever is borne next of Your people, Your place. Once You make the container, anything can happen.

Think of a few people you can imagine asking. Make a little pool together, and trust each other to take a dip now and then. Then start opening your collective arms a little wider, and a little wider, to hold more people, ideas, dreams, needs.

We need something to happen. Make the vessel that can hold the many possibilities of You All. You have what it takes. You need what it gives. We need it, every one of us.

May our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and country be a-buzz, abundant, pollinating our need and our passion for belonging.

Liz Rog, is a longtime community-builder and song leader living in Decorah Iowa.

Big thanks to Randi Berg at Silver Moon Photography for sharing her many wonderful community-building photos! (all those not otherwise credited) You can follow her on Facebook