Back at the end of Summer, we announced an effort called Ben Franklin Circles (BFC), an NCDD member org that we have some exciting updates on! Done in collaboration with New York’s 92nd Street Y, Citizen University, and the Hoover Institution, we are starting to hear the stories from these Circles and we will continue to uplift them on the NCDD blog over the coming weeks. Learn more about the grassroots development of these self-improvement talking circles, inspired by one of our founding fathers, and the ways in which these experiences have helped to build relationships and community. We encourage you to read the post below or find the original on BFC’s site here.
Why I Started a Benjamin Franklin Circle
Even just a cursory look at headlines these days brings forth an environment of “us vs them” and foretells a path toward greater divisions.
While our society has had a history of deep divisions, this somehow seems different. What seems different is that the people who make this country work – the teachers, the social workers, the police, the tradesmen, the small business owners, the big business employees, are now pulled into a colossal, epic struggle among themselves. We are letting go of the final threads holding us together – the threads that remain after television first brought our attention indoors instead of out; after social media took us from face-to-face contact even with our closest friends and families; after the hectic life style took away our free time to build community. We are now building walls all over. You said this, so I reject you. You believe this, so I will un-friend you.
“Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving-kindness, human understanding, and peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the forms of domestic and civil violence.” – Susan Vreeland, Art, Peace, Compassion
But, I’m an optimistic at heart who believes that people, deep down, are good and want to bring joy to others in order to create happiness for themselves. And so, this brings us to a small but significant action you can take. Benjamin Franklin Circles is a model that revives a model of community gathering created by one of our founding fathers (And yes, our founding fathers were not perfect. Some had qualities that are incomprehensible or even reprehensible to us now, but play along with me here.) These circles aimed to gather people of diverse backgrounds for self-improvement and community benefit. Is this not what we need more of today?
I decided to start my own Benjamin Franklin Circle to build more community connections as a means to strengthen our society and build its resilience against the onslaught of divisive forces. In the best practice of starting with yourself and close to home, I decided to organize this Circle among my neighbors, of whom, after 8 years of living here, I knew very few. My personal objectives were two: to meet my neighbors, and create a stronger community spirit.
We have no community listserv. The last neighborhood directory was published in 2010. In short, we all live our lives inside our homes, smile at each other if we’re walking our pets, but we don’t ask a favor of them or even know their names, nevermind invite anyone over. In thinking about the Circles, my first fear was that if I invited neighbors, no one would come. While that slowed me down for a few days, I realized that there was no other way to reach my objective than to invite people I do not know. And what’s the worst that can happen? People I don’t know will think that my initiative was futile. And what’s the best that could happen? I meet new friends and feel more a part of a community. From that perspective, my decision was strengthened.
With no email addresses or phone numbers, I decided to create flyers and distribute them. I printed out 150 flyers and placed them on door knobs. In the process of walking around the community, I met many people for the first time. I learned stories of previous community networks that no longer exist. I was encouraged by everyone for the needed initiative. One neighbor walked with me and shared with me her knowledge of the community as she was one of the first residents. Without a single response to my invitation, the first objective was being accomplished!
The first responses came to me shortly after I returned from the distribution with the following messages:
“I just wanted to let you know that I would love to be a part of your Benjamin Franklin Circles! I think it’s great that you’re starting something like this; as we both know the world could use a coalition of thinkers for the better.”
“It was great to meet you today! I’ve read your flyer, and would love to participate in the circle.”
Within 10 days, the deadline I had communicated, I had 10 people on the roster. We held our first meeting in November.
So, if you are wondering what you can do or if you are wondering if small things can make a difference, I share with you one of my favorite quotes by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
More connection, not less, is what is needed to help all of us bring forth our better selves. If we all make an effort, make some new friends and strengthen the bonds with those around us, that can only bring more good to the world.
Nanette Alvey spent the majority of her career in West Africa, managing education, health and training programs. She was recently Director of Leadership and Organizational Development at EnCompass LLC in Maryland. She continues to consult with international development programs and she’s working to strengthen US non-profits addressing economic inequities and racism in the Washington DC area. She runs a Ben Franklin Circle in Gaithersburg, MD.
You can find the resource on Ben Franklin Circles’ site at www.benfranklincircles.org/ben-franklin-circle-hosts/why-i-started-a-benjamin-franklin-circle.