Rio Grande Road Trip Part 1: Better Together?

So it turns out, planning a 3200+ mile road trip to meet with total strangers in a place I’ve never been before didn’t leave as much time for blogging as I expected. However, I have been sure to record my thoughts in a small journal along the way. Now that my trip is coming to a close, I’ll be dividing my thoughts from my journal into 4 entries to reflect upon. I’ll start with a reflection on the book that changed the way I look at activism, organizing, and strangely enough, my social life: Robert Putnam’s Better Together.

 

When I started my research on social capital, I knew I had to read Putnam, one of the most recent and most publicly lauded sociologists on the subject. I picked up Bowling Alone, as mentioned in the last blog post, a dense tome on the state of the crumbling social networks in the U.S during the 1990’s, but after reading the description of his follow-up work, Better Together, I decided it might also be worth a purchase. In short, this research project would not be the same if I hadn’t.

Better Together is a beautifully woven and surprisingly readable text, putting forth a much more human, on the ground, study of the social fabric of America than it’s statistically centered predecessor. What makes the book so stunning is that none of the ideas in it should be revolutionary, (The first chapter is titled “The most radical thing we do is talk to our neighbors”) but it’s persistent support of the value of community is a breath of fresh air in a nation that’s so incredibly centralized yet so very disconnected.

Though the book as a whole provides insight into a variety of different aspects of American life ranging from corporate culture to religious networks (and is definitely worth a read, not matter what you’re interested in), the chapter that stood out to me in relevance was the first in the book, which covered the efforts of Valley Interfaith to bring reform to the Rio Grande Valley’s infamous “Colonias” neighborhoods, rough settlements that toe the line between suburban sprawl and rural communities. What made Valley Interfaith’s work stand out was it began not with a proposal, or a fundraiser, or a political campaign, but with conversations. Through years worth of hundreds of small conversation groups, Valley Interfaith, rather than simply trying to paternally “fix” the Colonias, instead worked to identify and empower community leaders to come up with their own solutions. Through this grassroots approach, the Colonias have changed so much in the last decade alone, graced with sewage and newly paved roads. (Street lights are the current battle, but more on that later)

Some will look at this success and say “Hmm, maybe it is a good idea to sometimes go to the community for support first rather than elite institutions when trying to make change”. Going into this project, I was one of those people. However, that wasn’t the takeaway message Valley Interfaith wanted to leave. The “Iron Rule”, is what the organization lived by: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. The truth was in Valley Interfaith’s eyes, at the end of the day, even if they lost every single legislative victory, even if there support gave out and they had to close their doors, it didn’t really mattered. What mattered was that a community of leaders had been built. What mattered that even if Valley Interfaith packed its bags tomorrow and was gone, those social networks built by hundreds of hours of trust building conversations would still exist. This idea, though seemingly so simple, so obvious, has changed the way I view organizing. Today rather than seeing organizing as the act of solving a problem, I see organizing as the act of building and empowering communities (or as a sociologist would say building Social Capital)

Now I strongly encourage the many student activist leaders I work with to read “Better Together”, if only the first chapter and ask them to take time to think about how they could better focus on building a long term social community of support for their work. (And I’m working on trying to take time out of my weeks for more one on one conversations as well).

However, to simply read a book about building social ties is not enough. I had to see a grassroots network in action and thus, why I sit in a South Texas motel typing this blog post. More on that in part 2 of this blog post.