From Donald Trump’s inauguration address, you’d think that the United States was a post-apocalyptic hell-hole, a battle zone of broken homes and communities, the detritus of an economic explosion. And you might start to think that it is all “carnage” and “pain” if you spend time in certain parts of this country, especially those places working to recover from the worst effects of globalization.
Even if you haven’t seen boarded-up houses, abandoned mines, or “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” you may have heard some of the ugly numbers. For example, my home state of Ohio leads the country in opioid overdose deaths and is last in funding for children’s services. Given that, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what’s in store for Ohio.
And yet, that’s such a limited perspective–folks in the Rust Belt aren’t just rolling over.
Two of my neighbors, Patricia Perry and Colleen Richards, are good examples of Rust Belt community activists. They’ve organized an annual rally to connect folks working to combat addiction, set up regular Narcan trainings, and advocate on behalf of addicts and their families. They’re not waiting to be rescued.
When Richards’s daughter Mykel first got hooked on opiates, Richards says she felt like she was alone in the fight. Addicts were and are treated like pariahs, she points out.
When help wasn’t there, Richards got fierce. When she knew Mykel was using, Richards says she would track her down at the homes of drug dealers. “I’ve been places most people wouldn’t go. I don’t care—I’m a scrapper.”
“Everybody is somebody’s child,” she says, “but maybe they don’t have a parent who can stand up for them or who knows how to stand up for them. I will.”
In mid-November, a source I’d been interviewing texted me at 10PM on a Friday night. He said he was ready to give up. He was tired of living as an addict. I found myself in an ethical quandary. As a writer it’s important to remain as objective as possible toward subjects, but as a human, as a neighbor, it seemed like he needed immediate help. I sent him the numbers for a suicide prevention hotline and told him to call. But I didn’t trust that he’d call it. So I asked if I could share his information with someone who might be able to help. He agreed.
I sent him to Colleen Richards and Patricia Perry.
I think most of us know a Colleen Richards, a Patricia Perry. They’re the kinds of people who do the hard work of building and nurturing communities. They are neighbors.
Harry Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, based out of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, believes that being a neighbor is an active endeavor, not a passive one. He’s spent decades thinking about the ways people take ownership of their communities and has written about what it means to be a citizen in a democratic country. He got his start in the 1960s working for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“In the richest sense of neighbor,” Boyte says, “it means to be in a place with other people who are different than you are.”
Boyte observes that today it requires intention to break out of our private bubbles to create public spaces, public neighborhoods. Institutions like public schools, congregations, and local businesses are eroding. We’ve lost, or are losing, these free civic spaces where people get together and argue and agree. It’s important to maintain them because that’s how we become neighbors; that’s how we organize.
“In my observation over the years,” Boyte notes, “the rhetoric and the practice of trying to build community aren’t too successful. It’s work that brings people together, not the desire to create community.”
The point is to do something together. In working together, he adds, people build power together and “experience a world where people are different so you get stretched, you get challenged. Working together over time on an issue is the best prejudice reduction mechanism, much better than a workshop.”
Boyte says he’s concerned that as a culture we’re letting democracy slip away from us. “It’s come to be about electing leaders and not about ourselves and what we have to do between elections, how to build a decent community. That is democracy…We’ve developed a very expert-centered culture where people want to be rescued. But building this community is our work,” Boyte says, “and no politician is going to do it for us.”
We often think of “neighbor” as a noun. The Oxford English Dictionary underscores this—indeed, most of the word’s modern usages are nouns. But there’s a verb form of the word, “to neighbor,” an active way of being in this world and in our communities.
Patricia Perry and Colleen Richards started out by doing the things that needed to be done and weren’t being done for their neighbors. I’m gonna guess that it hasn’t always been a straight line, and I’ll bet they’ve disagreed with each other once or twice. But through that work Perry and Richards have developed a relationship and listened to people who weren’t like them.
They’ve learned how to harness the collective skills and talents of their communities and local government agencies. They host Narcan trainings in conjunction with the local health department. They have the ear of the local law enforcement and have been avid supporters of Newark Police Chief Barry Connell’s Addiction Recovery Initiative, a program that allows addicts to turn over their drugs at the police station and offers placements in detox and, hopefully, rehab. Participants won’t face charges for possession and can back out at any point in the process. It’s a concept pioneered by the Gloucester, Massachusetts, police department in 2015 and supported by a national network PAARI of over 160 police departments.
Perry and Richards are part of a movement, a movement of scrappers.
They’re out there, the scrappers, around this country–even in the Rust Belt. But some folks don’t want to see them because they contradict predetermined narratives.
To neighbor requires scrappiness, for sure. It requires talking to people you may not like. It requires dismantling fences and walls. It requires complicated phone calls and conversations. And sometimes, it requires marching.
I’m down with the scrappers.
Scrappers get things done.