Mission: Community

April ushers in the vibrant colors of springtime (finally!), but it also sounds the first notes of our community’s festival season. The Mission Creek Festival is here! Highly anticipated for its stellar lineup of musicians and other artists, Mission Creek is always an enjoyable showcase of the cultural vibrancy of our home.

Iowa City’s festivals provide a level of top-name entertainment and cultural experiences uncommon to a community our size. Access to artists like Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Brian Evenson and Hannibal Buress, all part of this year’s Mission Creek lineup, is always a point of pride and reason for excitement. And who doesn’t enjoy hearing local and regional greats like Dave Moore, David Zollo and William Elliott Whitmore?

While it’s a wonderful opportunity to experience the talents of artists, one of the most important benefits of festivals like Mission Creek is community building. Individual performances do not build community as much as the social capital fostered and strengthened by the festival itself: Showing up to a concert is great, but becoming involved and engaged is the stuff of community. Although attending a performance does give us an opportunity to commune with our neighbors and meet new friends, our festivals build social capital in much deeper ways, too.

Iowa City’s festivals offer us the opportunity to enjoy and learn from the talents of our neighbors. Mission Creek’s banner music program has grown to include literary and culinary events, a new film program in collaboration with FilmScene, a youth program at the Iowa City Public Library and a tech and innovation conference. Go ahead and enjoy Philip Glass, but be sure to also interact with community members on the program: the local ed-tech entrepreneurs of Pear Deck; the brilliant chefs of Motley Cow, Trumpet Blossom, Leaf Kitchen, The Mill, Augusta and Devotay; local storytellers at Was the Word; and the UI undergraduates releasing the new earthwords.

The act of organizing an event like Mission Creek nurtures social capital, too. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (2000), says that social capital encompasses “features of social organization, such as networks, norms and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” Behind that dry language lies the point that when people come together for a common purpose, community is fostered. Following on that definition, in the essay “Building Social Capital,” retired Iowa State sociologists Jan and Cornelia Flora say that strong community is built when there is “a focus on process, rather than on ends only.” Based on the ideas of Putnam and the Floras, it seems that the process of putting together Mission Creek—the collaborations that must happen to make the festival—builds more social capital than the individual shows themselves.

Minimalists and conservatives sometimes claim that organizations like cities and businesses should focus on their basic functions: The job of a city is to provide streets, sewers and public safety; the job of a for-profit business is to make money for its owners or stockholders; anything beyond is at best a distraction and at worst an illegitimate use of stakeholders’ resources. A community-oriented perspective sees it otherwise. The late sociologist Philip Selznick, who cogently defined the elements of community in his book The Moral Commonwealth (1992), says that “the more pathways are for participation in diverse ways and touching multiple interests … the richer is the experience of community.” For Selznick, those pathways for participation occur primarily through a community’s institutions.

I’m glad, then, that many of the local public, nonprofit and for-profit organizations (including the city itself and our own Little Village!) that sponsor and help organize programs like Mission Creek believe it’s important to be part of building our community’s cultural and social capital by fostering its pathways. Our institutions’ participation can take a number of forms: from businesses and individuals contributing the funds to make the programs possible, to retailers transforming their shops into art galleries with festival installations, to the city allowing space where anyone might spark an impromptu concert.

I thank those in our city and in our business and nonprofit communities for the wisdom to create and support the social infrastructure that makes our vibrant common life possible.

Thomas Dean is starting to feel festive.

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