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November 13, 2017 Community Connections

Show up and speak up for a stronger community

Katy O'Leary Bannister

Being part of a strong community means showing up and speaking up. A community is so much more than just buildings. It's the connections and bonds between people. And the stronger those bonds and connections, the stronger the community is.

In Susan Pinker's book, “The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter,” she explains that from birth to death, human beings are hardwired to connect to other human beings. Face-to-face contact matters; tight bonds of friendship and love heal us, help children learn, extend our lives, and make us happy.

I think I knew this at age two. I have been happily showing up and speaking up since I could talk. According to my mother, my first word was “Hi.” As she tells it, I would stand in the corner of our fenced yard and yell “Hi” at anyone who passed by.

Of course, one could argue that, as part of an already crowded family, I was shopping around for a better situation. Regardless of my motives, many years later, I essentially say “Hi” for a living at a nonprofit organization that supports communities.

In this role, I continue to find that talking to strangers can also be fruitful. Several years ago I was running late for an after-work reception. It had been a long day and I was tired. It was important that I go, however, because I wanted to meet a particular high-profile individual. The reception was to welcome him and several other newcomers to town.

When I got on the elevator, there was just one other person. I said hello and asked whether she was headed to the same gathering. Yes, she was. Then I shared that I was there because I hoped to meet a particular man. “That's my husband,” she shared, “and I would be happy to introduce you,” which she did — in the way only a spouse on a mission can do.

Thanks to my father, I was raised with the motto “If you don't ask, you don't get.” This is arguably another byproduct of an overcrowded family, but as a result, I know how to speak up and ask for what I need.

The acts of showing up and speaking up can take a variety of forms. Even though we all know that face-to-face communication is much richer than interacting through social media, it's almost counterculture these days. Why not post, text, conference call and Skype instead? Because we can't really hear each other, or connect fully with one another when technology separates us.

On a Saturday morning a few years ago I started to text a friend, whom I see infrequently, with a spontaneous dinner invitation for that evening. Halfway into my text I decided to call instead. She answered the phone, declined my invitation and asked for a rain check. Granted we weren't face to face, but I could hear something in her voice that I would not have sensed in a text. When I asked her what I was hearing in her voice, she shared news of her cancer. Wow. How long would it have taken me to learn of her diagnosis had I texted instead of actually having a conversation?

Going beyond our friends and talking to strangers is a proven strategy for strengthening our communities, too. Pinker points out that looser in-person bonds combine with our close relationships to form a personal “village” around us, one that exerts unique effects. Not just any social networks will do: We need the real, in-the-flesh encounters that tie human families, groups of friends and communities together. 

I recently watched author and stranger enthusiast Kio Stark talk about the benefits of talking to strangers for “beautiful moments of genuine connection.”

“When you talk to strangers, you're making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life — and theirs,” said Stark.

Let's consider the important communities in each of our lives. Then show up and speak up to strengthen them. As the mayor of Dr. Seuss's Whoville said, “We've got to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth … for every voice counts!” Indeed, every voice does count.

Katy O'Leary Bannister is Leadership Greater Hartford's senior director of development and membership.

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