Want to fix America’s woes? Start by getting to know your neighbors, researcher says

Author Seth Kaplan and his new book “Fragile Neighborhoods.” —Photo courtesy of Seth Kaplan

Author and researcher Seth Kaplan has some advice for Americans on how to address the country’s most vexing problems.

Get to know your neighbors. Then get to work making the community you live in better for everyone.

“Stop thinking that the best use of your time is to advocate for something in politics, or advocate for something far away,” said Kaplan, author of a new book, Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One ZIP Code at a Time, in a recent interview. “Look for something close to home that you can do. You have to think of real people and real places and how you contribute to them.”

Kaplan, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University who studies so-called fragile states around the world, believes that politics and advocacy matter. But he thinks too many Americans neglect the community right outside their door — to their detriment and the detriment of their neighbors.

Humans are innately social creatures and have long maintained close ties to the people and institutions in their immediate communities. Today, Americans have largely abandoned that approach, instead choosing to form community through more distant networks of friends and colleagues with similar interests, often online, with less involvement in the place they live.

That’s one reason, Kaplan argues in his book, that American society has become fragile.

“Beyond the home, we don’t belong to place-based mutual aid societies, ethnic clubs, civic organizations, or religious congregations the way our grandparents did,” he writes. “We don’t have the kind of close-knit relationships with our extended family and friends that we used to have, or interact much with our neighbors, leaving many without a support system to call upon in a crisis.”

Far-flung networks have helped many people get ahead, Kaplan said, but it’s rendered them materially rich and relationship-poor. People in crisis are more likely to turn to a smartphone app than to a neighbor.

“That may help you for one problem or two problems,” Kaplan told Religion News Service. “That doesn’t make you feel secure as a person. It makes you feel anxious. It makes you feel vulnerable. You’re afraid to show people that you have a problem, and that’s not a healthy way to live.”

Many religious groups in the United States have tried to adapt to a network-based social structure by abandoning a parish model of congregational life, replacing their houses of worship, with close ties to community, with a consumerist faith that focuses on providing spiritual content but not building a “thick” community — one where people bond deeply and share tasks and rituals. 

Worshippers instead get a sermon and programs they like but aren’t tied into a community where they belong outside of weekend services. Kaplan believes American faith communities have thinned out.

“For the most part, religion is very thin,” he said. “It doesn’t think of itself as having a large community-building role. I think this is a mistake. It weakens belief. It weakens the sustainability of religion.”

Kaplan has both professional and personal interests in promoting place-based community. He has spent much of his professional life in the broken places of the world, from Somalia to Bolivia to Sri Lanka, where governments are falling apart and humanitarian crises, conflicts or catastrophes are commonplace.

Ironically, he said, while those states are failing, their local communities are not. People often have deep social connections despite the chaos around them.

Things are different in the U.S., he said. When people learn he studies fragile states, they often ask him about America’s own fragility, given the country’s polarization and disunity. Kaplan tells them that, yes, the United States is fragile, but not in the way they think. America has free elections, thriving businesses, ever-advancing technologies and a higher living standard than almost anywhere else in the world.

America as a state is doing fine, Kaplan contends. America’s communities are not.

“It’s American society that is in trouble — from gun violence in Baltimore to teens committing suicide in Palo Alto to the opioid crisis in Appalachia,” Kaplan writes. “Our families and communities suffer from social problems that shock the rest of the world, and ought to shock us: family disintegration, homelessness, school shootings, racial animosity, skyrocketing rates of loneliness and depression, and deaths of despair — alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide.”

Addressing the country’s social woes, Kaplan argues, must involve rebuilding the country’s neighborhoods and social capital.

Religious leaders and institutions have a role to play in that work, but they need to build trust before they can build community. In the book, he profiles several religious innovators, such as Life Remodeled, a community organization in Detroit that grew out of a church founded by a pastor named Chris Lambert in 2007. Life Remodeled began refurbishing houses, assisting local schools and generally bettering the church’s neighborhood. By 2016, the nonprofit, whose staff was mostly white, took over a closed-down community school in an area with many Black families and converted it to a community opportunity hub.

When the deal was announced, neighbors reacted with anger, as Kaplan recounts, concerned that a group led by a white pastor and other outsiders had taken over a community asset, with little local involvement. That led Lambert and other leaders to meet with local groups and begin a slow but steady process of earning their trust.

That kind of trust-building takes time, said Kaplan. “It would not be successful if no one trusted him,” he said. “It would not be successful if the people in the community did not have some stake and feeling of ownership in what he was doing.” 

Kaplan has also experienced the power of place-based community in his own life. He recounted growing up uneasy in a middle-class New Jersey suburb. His parents, who were Jewish but not practicing, were divorced and he struggled socially at school.

“I had relationships that were characterized by mistrust, stress, and frustration, leaving me with an overriding sense of insecurity,” he writes. “And while my material needs were always met, I frequently felt socially uncomfortable, even vulnerable.”

As an adult, he found what he’d been missing by becoming part of an Orthodox synagogue and living in a closely-knit community. It’s a neighborhood filled with joy, he said, filled with friends and neighbors whose names he knows and where people look out for each other in ways large and small. When a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, he said, the neighbors rallied around her. When one of his kids fell and cut their chin, his wife took the child first to a nurse who lives nearby before heading to an urgent care center.

That kind of support can’t be bought, but only comes through human relationships. That’s a lesson he hopes religious groups will remember — urging them to become countercultural by returning to their community-building practices.

“You cannot be like everybody else,” he said. “People of faith can offer not just a vision of a sermon once a week and a few services, but an alternative vision of flourishing that involves strong community.” 

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