“Now what?” asks the cover of Little Village’s last issue. The same question resounds across the country and even around the globe. In the wake of an election that was an eruption of deep cultural fissures in our society and that has created perhaps the most uncertain future I have ever known, the often-asked question of how to move forward has rarely, if ever, been more significant.
Fifteen years ago, I started this column based on a set of principles. For me, those principles have remained steadfast and have guided my decisions regarding what to write about, how to live and how to understand the world. I believe that those principles provide the best hope for our world, and, especially now, they are worth revisiting.
At the heart of “UR Here” is the belief that our most important commitments and best field of action are in our locality. “Here” is where we best build relationships because “here” is where we live in direct community with others. “Here” is where our care is most needed and most powerful, and where our understanding is deepest. In a globalized world where borders are becoming both more meaningless and more contentious, building a compassionate, sustainable and resilient locality creates the best ground for thriving, inspiration and resistance.
A focus on locality does not mean insularity. In fact, the opposite is the case. Many who write about place emphasize a concentric circle model. We are not to build walls around our locality, but rather root ourselves deeply in the ground we know and love. Doing so, we best interconnect with the ever-widening spheres in which we are all implicated and must participate. At the center is our dwelling place, widening out to our neighborhood, our community, our region, our country, our world and even into the realm of spirit.
At the heart of community is social capital: the networks of mutual support and reciprocity that sustain and enhance our society and power human flourishing. Both bridging and bonding social capital are critical. Bonding social capital brings us together in our commonalities — we feel a sense of unity in our common characteristics and like-mindedness. Of course, if all we have is bonding social capital, we can easily end up with the racism, xenophobia, nationalism and hatred of the other that so threatens our country at this moment. That is why we also need bridging social capital — the reaching out to each other across differences of all sorts, the building of linkages that promote understanding and facilitate broad social cohesion.
Rarely in our country’s history have we suffered such yawning cleavages, fueled by increasing geographical sorting and wealth inequality. We need the warm, tribal “fraternité,” but balanced with the more generalized mutuality of “égalité.” We cannot have “liberté” without both. Bridging social capital is harder to build than bonding, requiring more intentionality and more reaching outside ourselves. But it has never been more important than now to bring everyone to the big table that is our culture and society.
Our social relationships are obviously essential and inescapable. But in the end, our most important relationships are with the natural world. All we are, all we have and all we can become ultimately comes from the abundance of nature. We are in the midst of a catastrophic environmental crisis caused by human hubris and willful ignorance. We cannot care for each other unless we also care for the world that births and nurtures us. And that ethic of care is most potently cultivated and applied in our local places.
The only way to heal our social and cultural fissures is by finding common ground. The only way to heal our planet is to understand how our mutual obligations and mutual fate lie in caring for the earth together. The core of the commons is knowing what we share and making sure all have equal control over and access to it. Clean air, water and soil are the most typically understood commons and indeed are the most foundational. But good health, economic opportunity, cultural expressions and celebrations, social power and much more are also commons that require fair governance and access, and that sustain and enrich our lives. To find common ground, we need to start with the commons.
The concept of “home” has been a more recent addition to my lexicon that underlies the principles for this column. Granted, the idea of “home” can come with its own baggage, but I have become interested in deepening, not changing, the concept of “place” from the perspective of “home,” which better captures the rich human element of our interdependencies and obligations. “Home” encompasses the idea of belonging, of membership, and it carries with it the responsibility of care in a ready way. All of the principles I’ve articulated above — from the commitment to the local to our broader global interconnections — are inherent in the concept of home. A sense of belonging in the world must be available to all, and our care — of each other, of our communities, and of our natural world — is what fosters and nurtures it.
“UR Here” is not a political column. If I have tread into the realm of politics, it has usually been as an avenue to discuss and apply the principles I’ve articulated above. I acknowledge that our current moment has unleashed cultural, social and political forces that are antithetical to nearly everything I’ve said here, and I in no way downplay the grave threats we face. And I know that national and global action are critical, too. At the moment, I’m not entirely sure how “what now?” should be answered. But I do know that our best hope is in the strongest possible recommitment to being here.
Thomas Dean is here. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 211.