Under construction: more-connected communities

They have come from around Los Angeles - from different faiths, or no faiths at all; some 80 people - to sit in the auditorium of a private Muslim school and deliberate over a burning question:

Should "the Center for Exquisite Balance" - a small band of believers in an obscure, alternative religion - be granted a conditional permit to build a huge center for worship?

During the course of the meeting's two-hour debate, questions and accusations about religion and faith bounce around the room. Participants meet one-to-one and in small groups, discussing their own religious encounters and their experience of other faiths.

By the end of the hearing, the entire group gathers in a large circle, and each person offers the one question he or she will take away from this debate. No one offers answers to the questions, which include: How diverse is my own religious experience? Can we make judgment a positive thing? Can people of different beliefs be in the same heaven? What do we value most?

Welcome to an evening with Cornerstone Theater, a Los Angeles-based performing company that

has been using theater as a tool for community-building for the past 16 years. The "hearing" they have staged on this recent Friday evening is pure fiction. But it is also a means to an end: honest dialogue.

Cornerstone members have performed this play at several venues around the city over the past several weeks. Cast members playing roles mingle with the audience, using the play's device of a "public hearing" as a means to spark impromptu conversations and discussions among the people who've come to see the play.

Part of a festival of faith-based productions that has been in the works for three years, "Zones" has unexpectedly taken on an added urgency in the nation's post-Sept. 11 environment.

Civic activism - will it last?

"Among the communities I've been working with, I really do feel more of a hunger, not only to make connections, but to assert those connections publicly," says Bill Rauch, the group's artistic director.

"When you ask about the impact of world events on the work we do, in terms of hope for building bridges, bridges that last," he says, "that's on our minds every single minute here at Cornerstone."

Mr. Rauch and his colleagues are not alone. All across the country, grass-roots activists, community leaders, and cultural observers are grappling with the remarkable aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks - a surging desire for connectedness and a willingness, not seen in this country for decades, to engage in civic life.

It's a change in attitude, say these activists and experts, that holds powerful possibilities for community-building and social change.

But at the same time, they warn, this sea change of sentiment could simply fade into memory if nothing is done to harness it and put it to work at both the grass-roots and national levels.

"This is where we have the opportunity to shore up civil society," says the Rev. Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. "We've demonstrated [since Sept. 11] that we can work together, that we can collaborate. Groups that didn't know each other in the past are now going to regard each other as colleagues, if not friends.

"But how do we create sustainable programs of activity that can rebuild our civil society?" he asks.

Experts note that some national programs are already in place, which can provide institutional outlets for individuals who want to pitch in. They also welcome signs of leadership at the national level, such as President Bush's proposal that American children raise money for Afghan children and his speech calling on Americans to get involved in their communities.

Some observers say they wish the president would do even more to focus attention on community-building. But they also are quick to point out that some of the most effective change will happen at the grass-roots level, as individuals take greater responsibility for building bridges in their own neighborhoods and towns.

"We have to turn [these feelings] into habits of the heart," says Amitai Etzioni, author of "The Spirit of Community" and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. "I think people should look in the mirror. Once we can [say], 'I did the best I can,' then we can start pointing the finger at other people."

Metropolis St. Louis is one of many grass-roots groups around the country whose members are looking in that mirror. Started in 1997 as a way to attract and retain young professionals in the city of St. Louis, the organization now includes more than 1,000 members of all ages who engage in a variety of social and civic activities, from park cleanups to tutoring.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, says president Melanie Adams, more people have been calling Metropolis to find out what they can do to work on community issues. Metropolis members are considering a number of projects that involve closer collaboration with other community groups, including setting up an old-fashioned "welcome wagon" neighborhood service, and trying to develop policies for improving public schools.

Committing for the long term

"I think we have a great opportunity," says Ms. Adams. "Because people are starting to look back to community, and they're realizing the importance of knowing [their] neighbors. Everyone is asking, 'What are the ways to keep this community feeling going?' "

Experts say that historically, events such as floods or earthquakes always trigger a sharp increase in civic-mindedness and increased benevolence. But as tragedy recedes, they say, those feelings ebb, too.

Even in Oklahoma City, where citizens were drawn together in the wake of the bombing of the federal building, divisiveness has begun to creep back into civic affairs, according to Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Project. The project, based at Harvard University, focuses on developing tools and strategies for civic re-engagement.

"Obviously, we hope that this [current] civic spike is a long-term trend rather than a short-term trend," says Mr. Sander. "But the key determinant to that is going to be whether Americans start changing their daily practices based on their changed world views.

"More Americans now are reexamining their lives, everything from what's safe to what gives their lives meaning," he says. "But the data we have from most of these disasters show that unless people put in place real changes to their lives, such as volunteering on a daily basis, or mentoring a child, then this civic spike is unlikely to persist."

Sander suggests that one way to encourage more civic involvement would be for every nonprofit organization in the country to create a "9/11" position. Individuals looking for a way to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks could serve as volunteers in those 9/11 positions, or could donate money to underwrite the cost of hiring someone to fill the job. He's hopeful that the Internet can play an important role in spreading news about which grass-roots efforts are working where.

"My hope is that we can find things that can be repeated," he says. "This is an important period of exploration for Americans who are involved, to share what kinds of approaches seem to be working, so that other Americans can try the same thing."

At least one organization has already begun spotlighting community activists and their work. Under an awards program announced just prior to the September tragedies, the Ford Foundation has singled out 20 grass-roots leaders from some 3,000 nominees, among them Bill Rauch of Cornerstone Theater.

"Leadership for a Changing World," as the program is called, includes financial support for the awardees and is intended to focus attention on their work.

Finding effective solutions

"There was a feeling out there that there really are no solutions to the problems we face," says Melvin Oliver of the Ford Foundation. The leadership program, which was developed over the past four years, is meant "to antidote that view. We know from our continuous work throughout the world that there are amazing people and organizations out there who are tackling these problems in an effective way," he says.

"We need to understand how they do it, what kind of qualities they bring to it. We need to make them models for people to aspire to, so that we can have generations of those leaders to come."

Still other experts say they hope the nation's current mood of goodwill - and the disappearance, at least for now, of "hyphenated" Americans - can help lead to a renewed national dialogue on larger community issues such as race relations.

"It's one of those rare moments in history when things are molten enough that a learning curve can get started," says Jim Sleeper, a newspaper columnist and author of "Liberal Racism."

Even before the terrorist attacks, he notes, the country's cultural conversation was changing, as more and more experts and critics began to explore how to broaden the dialogue beyond ethnocentric concerns and racial grievances.

"It's not that those things don't count," says Mr. Sleeper, a liberal who has criticized the left's obsession with multiculturalism. "It's just figuring out that other things count, too. Some of us think we have to work overtime on identifying a few of our common bonds, on what keeps things going."

What happened on Sept.11, he says, "scrambled the categories, the lenses through which many of us have been accustomed to viewing these things. It forces people to go inside and say, 'What do we really stand for?' "

Mr. Franklin, of the Interdenominational Theological Center, agrees. "We've discovered a common ground, which is the basis for dropping the hyphen," he says. "The new terms of conversation are community and citizenship and character."

But he says there's no guarantee that lasting change will result from recent events and the emotions they have triggered in Americans. That kind of change takes long-term commitment.

"I'm hoping it's not just a blip," says Melanie Adams of Metropolis St. Louis. "I'm hoping that even if the whole thing is solved tomorrow, that people will still realize the importance of [being involved with] their communities and their neighborhoods.

"I hope people see the benefits of that," she says, "of how it makes a better community for everyone."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.