The GRASSTRONAUT dream is to be a centralized resource for grassroots arts people to share their stories, write and learn. Part of this is about bringing in voices that have already been collected into books, zines, videos, podcasts, etc. This series will be heretofore known as HOMEWORK.
“That place has a good vibe.”
“I feel really safe in that space.”
“The scene sucks.”
Ever feel like you had a feeling about a community– at shows, online, in your town– but couldn’t exactly say why? Hi. Meet Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. This book by Robert Putnam does an incredible job of breaking down what exactly makes communities healthy. What we mean when we don’t feel good in a space. Why certain scenes seem to just “die” without any real big bang. And, most importantly: what we can do to keep our communities strong.
You can peruse the book a little bit on Google Books. Keep two things (among other things. Don’t forget everything.) in mind: This isn’t written specifically for arts communities, and is written specifically about American communities. It’s easy to make the jumps to apply these lessons to your own worlds, but I just wanted to make that note.
I’m kinda cheating. This book has been a huge resource for the work we do at the Museum of Art & History, which is why I picked it up. But! Fear not its irrelevance! I found myself bringing it up again and again in GRASSTRONAUT interviews. It’s important to know the things that make our small worlds healthy by name. When we know those, we have a better chance of keeping them alive.
Three big ‘ol takeaways from this book! And how they may apply to us:
1. SOCIAL CAPITAL
The “currency” of what makes our communities healthy. It’s the value placed on how connected we are with one another. The more social capital we have, the better off we are. This can be built through volunteer programs, forums, timebanks, photobooths, weekly shows, outreach, dance parties– anything that moves us to connect with each other.
There are two major ways to build social capital. One of them is BONDING, where likeminded groups (knitting circles! crossfit enthusiasts! broccoli purists!) get together and feel more together because of their likemindedness. This might seem narrow, but it’s actually really important to building an overall healthy community. Think about ladyfests, PoC-only spaces, or locals-only venues. Spaces like these are crucial not only because they offer the chance to connect with people like you, but also because they are safe enough to grow inside of.
The other way to build capital is through BRIDGING, where groups that wouldn’t ordinarily connect get to connect. Putnam says that if bonding is “sociological superglue,” then bridging is WD-40. This happens when Silent Barn partners with North West Bushwick Community Group to facilitate a conversation about right to housing in New York City. Or when all-ages noise space Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis hosts Orchestrating Diversity, a youth empowerment program that teaches orchestral performance to local kids.
I’m not done with the book yet. Hopefully there’s no final chapter about why tickling pigs on Sundays at 7:32PM is crucial to building a strong community. But honestly, I don’t know if I’m beyond trying that.