There’s that saying: It takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a community to build a house — at least it did for my family.
It was 1953 on the southern outskirts of Raleigh. My grandfather had died of a heart attack and my grandmother was left with eight school-aged children.
The rural Wake County home they’d been living in came with my grandfather’s job running an orchard, and once he died, the family had to move out. But to where?
My grandmother’s best option for keeping the family fed seemed to be farming out the kids, sending them to various relatives and friends Down East to work in hot fields of cotton and tobacco. The work would have been brutal, the poverty crushing, and the family separated.
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Until community happened. My mother’s community, anchored by the Inwood Baptist Church off Lake Wheeler Road in south Raleigh, gathered around my family like a shield, and then they got to work.
Church members donated land, tradesmen donated labor and other community members donated all the material it would take to build a small three-bedroom, one-bath home for the family. The work didn’t have a fancy name like Habitat for Humanity. There was no Jimmy Carter. It was just friends and family and community coming together to help a mother and her children in need.
And, it was completely free. My grandmother was able to keep her kids together, and get most of them through some form of higher education and on to better lives.
If you look around at studies and surveys, or just ask around to friends, we don’t live in communities like that anymore. Recent polls have found that only 31 percent of us think “most people can be trusted,” only 26 percent have volunteered for anything in the past year and only 8 percent of us had worked on a community project in the past year.
Lately, I think about my grandmother and her community a lot as I help the place I work, the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State, get ready for our upcoming Emerging Issues Forum, ReCONNECT to Community, which will focus on civic engagement.
On Sept. 17 in Asheville and on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel, we’ll bring together some of the nation’s and the state’s leading thinkers and doers on rebuilding community. We’ll hear from New York Times columnist David Brooks and top elected officials. But we’ll also hear from communities across the state that are making real progress in re-energizing civic engagement.
Some people have asked us: what’s the return on investment on that? I don’t know that you can put a dollar figure on it, but let me tell you about the generational ripple effects such a “reconnection to community” has had on my family.
I had an aunt who grew up to run a factory in China, and my mother served as a laboratory director at Rex Hospital by the end of her career. My brother works as a computer programmer, I just had a cousin graduate from East Carolina University with honors and I’m sitting here writing this column.
However, it’s not just about job titles or economic opportunity; it’s about the way my family’s lives have been and will be richer and full of more options for generations to come because of the decision that one community made so long ago. It is the way my family members are in better positions to be the helpers for others in need.
That is the power of community. We lift ourselves up when we lift everybody up and we can’t do that if we’re not talking and connecting with each other.
It’s not 1953 anymore and it might not be so easy to know most of our neighbors, but we can learn new ways to know a lot of them, and our lives and communities will be richer for it.