Coffee Shops, Beauty Shops and Resilience

Written by Community Solutions Senior Fellow Don Hollister

As I write this over one million households in Michigan are without electricity as a result of a record breaking wind storm. The governor of Michigan urged people in the affected areas to check on their relatives and neighbors, particularly the elderly or disabled, since it is estimated that electric power may be off for many days in some neighborhoods.

That got me thinking, how well do we know our neighbors? The process of checking in on their well being would vary tremendously on how much we already know about them. Information gleaned from casual conversation may suddenly be very important.

“Oh, she said that they would be out of town this week.”

“He gets a fresh tank of oxygen every Thursday”… or “he depends on an electric oxygen generator.”

In turn, your neighbor may be thinking about you. “Is he OK?”  And imagine if everyone down the city block or along the country lane was keeping track of each other. To a varying extent we do that all the time without thinking about it. Some neighborhoods are much closer than others and some individuals are more engaged than others. Of course, not knowing someone or only being slightly acquainted need not keep you from reaching out to see if they need help.  Yet in an emergency, in a time full of surprises, the level of mutual knowledge and of trust built up over the years makes a big difference in how well a community copes. This ability of communities to survive, adapt and grow in the face of shocks and stress is “resilience.”

 Resilience is a term that has gained new popularity, but there is nothing new about the factors involved. How can we be more resilient? There has been increased attention in recent years to emergency management, with fire departments, local police, hospitals and transportation agencies collaborating on local plans. These physical systems are certainly key in surviving a crisis; however, the social side of resilience generally falls below the planning radar.

If you value social resilience how can you strengthen it? How can you increase the social ties and goodwill in your neighborhood and wider community? People write entire books on that question, but it boils down to looking at your own life and the daily lives around you. Where do people bump into each other? When do people get a chance to chat? Do people visit with each other in the immediate neighborhood, across the fence, walking their dog, while putting out the trash, while watching their children play at the playground down the block? Some observers describe the home as the “first place” that you encounter people, family and immediate neighbors, the workplace as the “second place,” and a wide range of neutral social spots, such as churches, beauty or barber shops, coffee shops, bowling alleys, bars, and libraries as “third places” where people meet friends and make friends. Look for the places around you where people do visit and then ask how those patterns of interaction might be shared or expanded. Or look at the patterns in other communities and imagine what might be started in your own neighborhood. These third places, the occasions for repeated back and forth between individuals and families, are a template for relationships, for the weaving of social fabric, for the strengthening of resilience.

During the next wind storm and power blackout, it may well be your neighborhood church, local beauty shop or corner diner that becomes the field headquarters, literally and emotionally, for the recovery operations in your community.