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Snowstorm Post-mortem: Taking Stock of Your Social Capital

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When I was on sabbatical in 2002, I attended a conference at Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, home to an amazing pastor named Kirbyjon Caldwell. The closing talk was given by a young pastor whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. He wanted to encourage pastors and church leaders to break the habits that lead to a sense of dependency in their congregations. To make his point, he shared a conversation he had with a member of his congregation who called to complain that she had been in the hospital for a week and no one from the congregation had come to visit her.

“You were in the hospital for a week and no one noticed?” the pastor responded. “I have to wonder, what does that say about your level of investment in our community?” He grinned impishly and continued. “Then I asked her, how many people have you visited in the hospital over the last year? How many people have you called when you heard they were ill? How many notes have you sent to let people know that you were praying for them in their time of need? I’m just saying sister, as ye sow, so shall ye reap!”

That story frequently comes to mind when I think about times when people need community—like this past week. At this time last week, the Washington, D.C. metro area was hunkered down, watching a storm drop “historic” amounts of snow on the area. And while we measured a mere 19 inches in our yard in Columbia, MD, there were areas not far from us that were buried under 30 inches or more.

Now, a week later, the post-game analysis has begun. Most of the conversation I’ve seen on line and in the newspaper has focused on snow removal (which seemed pretty bad, even by the low standards of the area) and the decisions to delay opening school until Monday (gotta say, I saw that coming). But I think there’s an additional question for each of us to consider after an experience like this one: how is my supply of social capital?

Social capital is one of the ways to talk about the goods that people accrue when they are part of a community. While it isn’t a perfect way to talk about the benefits of community, it is at times very helpful. You “pay in” to community by doing things that benefit the people around you. A blizzard gives us lots of opportunities to help each other by aiding a neighbor as they shovel snow, offering to bake cookies with a neighbor’s bored kids or hosting a neighborhood potluck.

So what about asking a group of neighbors to help you push your car out of a snow bank? Well, that builds social capital for everyone, because working together towards a successful outcome makes everyone feel more connected. But you can also drain your own social capital by not being grateful when people help you or by being a jerk as they are helping or by asking for help again the next day for the same problem when by that point you should know better.

Shoveling 30 inches of wet snow is no small task. Many otherwise able-bodied friends of ours needed help clearing their driveways and walks. Some had neighbors who were willing to help them out as a favor. Others had pre-arranged with a neighbor to pay for show shoveling. In both cases, our friends needed to have sufficient social capital to get help. They needed to talk to neighbors and build relationships with them prior to the storm in order to get help afterwards.

A few years back, I heard about a group that was organizing in Howard County to increase our level of “emergency preparedness”. I immediately remembered the crazy instructions that came out of the Department of Homeland Security some years back suggesting we all buy plastic sheeting and duct tape in case of attack by a chemical weapon. I braced myself for suggestions that churches run seminars on how to build bomb shelters in your back yard.

Instead, it turned out that one of the group's main strategies to increase our level of “emergency preparedness” was to help neighbors get to know each other. Who might need help? Who might be able to offer help? Working together to cope with a disaster builds social cohesion, but only if there is some connection between neighbors in the first place.

I saw some really great illustrations of the benefits of community this past week--people shoveling for each other, giving each other rides and hosting impromptu get-togethers.  My neighbors saved us from a garlic shortfall on Sunday evening. The residents of Merryrest Road off of Kilimanjaro here in Oakland Mills were particularly impressive. By Monday afternoon, those folks had plowed out about half their street—by hand.

So, how did it go for you during the storm? Did you need help at any point? Did you have enough social capital “in the bank” so you could draw on it when you needed it? Did you do anything to strengthen the sense of community in your neighborhood? Did anything happen that endangered that sense of community?


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Martin Downie

This is an excellent post Heather! I think we need to look past the emergencies to talk about this. One of the top reasons individuals join extremist movements is to feel included or wanted. Basically they seek a sense of connection and sometimes all it takes is a conversation with someone who bothers to take notice to make a difference. We need to know ourselves better. Unfortunately too many have too much fear to step in and simply say Hello. Emergencies like the snow storm offer an opening but we need to keep up the conversation once the sun comes out.

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