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The grace of social inventions

By       Message Craig K. Comstock     Permalink
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It's social inventions that make the difference between an okay town and a great one. Fortunately social inventions aren't restricted; they can be freely reproduced.

What, for example? Here are seven examples from a town in southern Oregon, which is on many lists of the best places to retire. Yes, the area has theater, hiking trails and a river for rafting, but its big grace is a rich network of social inventions.

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Start with the sharing of true stories. Once every season an organization called the Hearth sponsors an evening, now attended by hundreds, at which six ordinary people tell about episodes from their lives. Each participant gets ten minutes, with live music at the beginning and end of the evening. All proceeds from the $5 ticket are given to a local charity. The most recent theme was "borders." Could be done anywhere.

The town also has an arts center, where there are open studios that can be visited, a gallery, a community classroom, a ceramics workshop, walls for photography. As a result, the artists are no longer isolated, have another venue for their work, can teach kids and their parents. The center is supported by renting studios, selling objects, receiving grants.

An international organization, the Mankind Project is especially well represented in this area, perhaps because its co-founder lives here. MKP sponsors a "training adventure," which lasts for one very intensive weekend plus an integration series back home. Among its local activities is a circle of elders. Since "integrity" is a big MKP virtue, when I was looking for a builder, I favored someone who had done the training.

Some of the social inventions came out of a circle of guys organized by Bill Kauth. They called themselves the "relentless optimists" and still meet weekly. One of their inventions was an annual "Abundance Swap." In the frantic shopping season after Thanksgiving, people are invited to bring items they'd be happy to receive as gifts and, after walking around the tables in a cavernous hall, to take anything they wan while somebody else takes what they broughtt. Despite the name it's not the usual swap, at which two people exchange items. You give to the community, and take what catches your eye.

The town and a number of others are thick with "heart circles," based on a book by an early member of the optimists. Just as the Hearth offers true stories, heart circles supports the vulnerability necessary for truth-telling.

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On the north edge of town is a pride of separate homes and of condominia where retirees can "age in place," rather than disappearing into isolation or going prematurely into a nursing home. The development includes a dining hall, activity rooms, and a bus to take residents to town for shipping.

Just one more example: when the plight of returning veterans became evident, a couple engaged Michael Meade to lead a workshop for them, a workshop where they wrote poems about their experience. Then they read poems to a audience of around five hundred townspeople. The workshop and evening are the subject of a documentary film, shown around the country.

I could also mention a center for restorative justice, a computer-based community bulletin-board, a "new tribes" movement, a "peace house," a food coop, an institute for senior education, a weekly "ecstatic dance," a major and successful electoral campaign for the exclusion of genetically-modified crops, a sustainability center at the local university, and other social inventions.

What each of these initiatives had in common was a champion and the help of volunteers. European visitors to the U.S. in the 19th century such as Alexis de Tocqueville praised the voluntary associations they found here. Any group could form, choose a name, open a bank account, and begin operating without permission from anybody.

In contrast, totalitarian states organized from the capitol. For example, in the former USSR you were supposed to petition the center (as Moscow was called), a rule broken, for example, by a guy I met on a visit to Moscow, Gennady Alferenko. In the distant Siberian city of Novosibirsk he had organized an association of dance enthusiasts. Later he wrote in the main national newspaper for youth asking what social needs could be met by volunteer effort. This prompted an outpouring of letters. It was one beginning of civil society in what became Russia. Meanwhile, Gorbachev rewarded Alferenko by putting him in charge of exit visas, which, in turn, led to citizen diplomacy exchanges with the US.

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We have many freedoms which are sometimes more assumed or bragged about than acted upon. The freedom to start voluntary associations is what led to each of the examples above.


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Author of two recent books, Enlarging Our Comfort Zones: A Life of Unexpected Destinations (2016) and Gift of Darkness (2015);producer and host of "Like Wow," a TV interview show about "people doing something admirable," with many episodes (more...)

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