We Americans are becoming an isolated bunch. The Conscious Community Campaign is trying to do something about it.
When Richard Flyer was studying for his master's degree in biology in the 1980s, he would look at a forest and see that the trees and the forest ecology system are self-organizing and interdependent on each other. This is the natural way for a forest to survive. Once those connections break down, so does the forest.
Now co-owner of Northern Nevada Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center, Flyer sees that same breakdown—and the same result—happening to people and their communities.
“We live in fear and insecurity,” he says. “We're a scattered mess. We have no other purpose than shopping—shopping is our singular vision. People depend on things and not each other.”
He decided to do something about it, helping to start the Conscious Community Campaign in Reno in May 2003, focusing first on supporting local businesses.
“People weren't really aware that we were coming from a bigger idea of building community,” says Flyer, a man of average build, brown hair and expectant eyes. The campaign is adding that layer now in a more obvious way by connecting people to opportunities for service and goodwill.
The sense that America has become increasingly isolated over the past few decades has been the subject of a number of academic works, including the somewhat controversial Bowling Alone book, released in 2000 by Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam. Another is a study called “Social Isolation in America” published in June 2006 by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam uses everything from declining numbers of kitchen-table card games, to less voter turnout and fewer bowling leagues to show how America is not the land of joiners it was a few decades ago. He points the finger at a number of things, including suburban sprawl, more women in the work force (reducing their volunteer time and energy) and more time in front of the TV. We text message, e-mail and telephone—but we don't interact fact-to-face like we used to, argues Putnam. Sociologists have disputed some of Putnam's evidence (PTA attendance is down, for example, because other offshoot groups have formed). But the sentiment rings true for the book's many readers.
The “Social Isolation&Rdquo; study strengthened Putnam's argument. It used comparison data from national social surveys conducted in 1985 and 2004. The results included the depressing statistic that almost half (43 percent) of Americans feel they have either no one or just one person with whom they can discuss important matters, and that person is often a family member. Eighty percent of Americans in 1985 felt they had at least one confidant who wasn't a family member; now only 57.2 do. The blame, say the authors, lies generally in more hours at work and longer commutes.
Some say, “What do you mean? With Internet, e-mail and cell phones, we're more connected than ever.” The authors found that while those technologies help people stay in touch, the connections formed tend to be wide but weak, and “some services and emotional support” depend on proximity.
Effects of this disconnection, the study warns, can be health risks associated with loneliness and increased crime rates related to neighbors no longer looking out for each other.
Getting the message
On a late September Saturday, hours before the first rains of autumn began to fall, roughly 800 people wandered over the lawn and amphitheater of Bartley Ranch for the Conscious Community Celebration. There were performances by the Nevada Bluegrass Project, the Nevada Youth Opera Chorus and others. People gave testimonials of their work with the Conscious Community Campaign. A small farmers’ market and booths for getting involved were set up. Kids with painted faces made arts and crafts.
Also attending were Patricia Garcia and her husband and children, who just moved to Reno from Las Vegas a few months ago. Garcia came to the event because her daughter was singing in the Nevada Youth Opera Chorus, but she says she felt she “was meant to be here” when she heard the campaign’s message. “Ever since we moved to Reno, I feel such a community here. In Vegas, there’s no community, except in church. This message wasn’t about church at all, which I liked.”
It’s not against church, either—it’s not against anything, says Flyer. It’s only for creating connections. He explains, “If we want peace on this planet, we have to have peace in our nation; to have peace in our nation, we need peace in our communities; to have peace in our communities, we need peace on the blocks of our neighborhoods; to have peace in our neighborhoods, we need peace in our families; to have peace in our families we need peace in our hearts. That’s the foundation.” That can’t be legislated by politicians, says Flyer. He says that only through love—not the sentimental kind but the kind Dr. Martin Luther King talked about—will we find peace in ourselves and in our communities.
As Flyer has shown, when members of the CCC describe what they are and what they do, a number of loaded words come flying out: spirituality, peace, connection, community, love—words that carry the baggage of many philosophies and beliefs. But the campaign isn’t about beliefs, say organizers.
“We’re just trying to connect people based on virtues and values—not on politics or religious beliefs, but on how we want to live and who we want to be,” explains Terry Bertschinger, a bright-eyed woman with short red hair who coordinates the campaign’s “Goodwill Teams.”
One way to say what the Conscious Community Campaign is, is to say what it’s not. It’s not hippie; it’s not protesting or demonstrating against anything; it’s not political or New Age or religious or touchy-feely, though aspects of those things might be found. It’s not even about being “nice,” but about being authentic and sincere.
“I think most people are discontent whether they know it or not,” says Flyer. “We live in fear. We want authentic relationships, and that’s in decline.”
Stream of consciousness
So how to build it back up? The Conscious Community Campaign attempts to do it in small, some might even say quaint, ways.
Goodwill Teams: These are groups of people who get together once a month to talk about how they’re practicing goodwill, be it volunteer work or letting someone go ahead of them at the grocery check-out. It’s kind of like a goodwill support group. “But it’s not a do-gooder type thing,” says Bertchinger. “It’s really about growing, with a big focus on personality and spiritual growth.” The next meeting is Oct. 19 from 7-8:30 p.m. Call Bertchinger at 852-7123 for details.
Service Activities: Sometimes group members come up with service opportunities. For example, one member heard about elderly people in a trailer park, who were facing fines if they didn’t control their overgrown yards. So a group of volunteers came and did that for them.
Get to Know Your Neighbor Day: Organizers are hoping this will be, at least, an annual event. The kick-off this past August was a “mass” potluck party of more than 50 potlucks and block parties in Reno.
Caroling: A neighborhood-based Christmas caroling event is being planned for December.