In the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, the New York Times published a piece by David Brooks called “The Nature of Poverty” in which he noted that the solution to the poverty and hopelessness that underpinned the riots was not simply in more jobs or more money. “The real barriers to mobility,” he wrote, lie in “the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” Brooks also paraphrases Jane Jacobs, noting that “a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.”
“Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired,” Brooks concluded, “life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.”
What do we do?
Many decades ago, anthropologists noted that humans tend to gather in three-generation households and that a primary role for the grandparent is to pass along the basic ideals and mores of their culture. Grandparents, the thinking goes, are why we have civilization. That basic familial structure seems to have eroded across American society, and especially so in our poor urban neighborhoods. The question must be asked: What can we do to re-energize the three-generation social unit in these neighborhoods?
Perhaps a hint can be found in the Occupy movement. In Present Shock Douglas Rushkoff noted that this social movement, which gained national attention by publicly demonstrating against the economic excesses of the military-industrial complex, is like “a form of play that . . . is successful the more people get to play and the longer the game is kept going.” It also has elements of the “free university” movement of Boomer days:
“Both online and offline spaces consist largely of teach-ins about the issues they are concerned with. Young people teach one another or invite guests to lecture them about subjects such as how the economy works, the disconnection of investment banking from the economy of goods and services, possible responses to mass foreclosure, the history of centralized interest-bearing currency, and even best practices for civil disobedience.” (p. .58)
Imagine a similar not as a short-term protest, but as an ongoing cross-generational engagement within neighborhoods. The goal would be to use current issues to stimulate inter-generational conversations about a wide range of topics, from the kinds of personal skills usually passed down by parents and grandparents to understanding the impact of broad social issues on the local neighborhood. The purpose would be to rebuild a sustainable cross-generation conversation that is essential to guiding young people into a vital community life. An approach like this would need a home base and governance structure that would help ensure its long-term stability in the neighborhood, one that guaranteed that everyone’s issues get discussed, but that also pushes to consensus and, where needed, action.
Such an approach would not replace the family structure, but should be designed to complement it, guaranteeing that young people have access to conversation with neighbors of other generations who can form a kind of extended family within the neighborhood.