With every crisis, there is opportunity. The good news is that we have abundant opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s because we face multiple crises – climate change, continuing racism, a growing income gap, and the breakdown of community. And now, we are confronted by a pandemic! I believe that the pandemic provides opportunities to address all of these crises and that our Vashon-Maury community is well-positioned to help lead the needed transformations.
Eric Klinenberg wrote Heat Wave about another silent, invisible disaster 25 years ago that killed more than 700 Chicago residents. He studied two adjacent neighborhoods with similar demographics and found that one had a death rate six times higher than the other largely because it lacked social connections. People didn’t know who needed help as their neighbors died behind closed doors.
Even on Vashon, where our sense of community is still relatively strong, there are many individuals and families who lack connections. The pandemic provides multiple opportunities to reach out to all of our neighbors and build a stronger community where we live:
- Call, e-mail or leave a note with neighbors who may be feeling isolated and vulnerable to check on their welfare and assure them that they are not alone.
- When we go to the store to stock up on supplies, get some for our neighbor who may be fearful of going out or has no means of transportation.
- Develop a neighborhood pantry of basic food and household items.
- Host a little free library now that the public library and bookstore are closed.
- Create a Facebook page so that neighbors on our street can stay connected and informed.
- Use social media to organize virtual scrabble games, happy hours or sing-alongs.
- Support local businesses by ordering take-out, buying gift certificates, and sending tips to musicians who are streaming concerts via Vashon Events.
Of course, it is crucial that we provide support in ways that are safe by practicing physical distancing and good hygiene. This crisis calls for clean hands and open hearts.
Our island is well-positioned to take these measures because VashonBePrepared has already facilitated the organization of more than 200 Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations. This is the perfect time to activate these NEROs not only to address the pandemic but to build new, stronger and ongoing relationships. The research shows that strong communities are a key source of care, safety, health, resilience and happiness, all of which will continue to be needed after the pandemic has passed.
Advancing Social Justice
Klinenberg’s other major finding from his research on the Chicago heat wave was that African Americans and poor people died disproportionately. Similarly, inequitable access to health care, housing and paid leave make marginalized people more susceptible to the coronavirus, and that’s bad for everyone’s health. We must insist that all people get the immediate help they need with this pandemic and rededicate ourselves to working towards an equitable society.
On Vashon, Standing Up for Racial Justice and other organizations are working to address injustice, but there is so much more to be done. Vashon has been identified as the least racially diverse place in King County, so we need to find ways to be much more welcoming. Workers who provide us with basic services are finding it impossible to afford to live on the island despite the good work of Vashon Household. We must do much more to secure living-wage jobs and affordable housing. Grocery clerks, restaurant workers, and caregivers are here for us during the pandemic; we must have their backs as well.
Slowing Climate Change
The pandemic is changing the way we live. Fewer people are flying, more are working from home, and we’re finding it more difficult to buy things. All of this reduces our carbon footprint. We’re slowing down, enjoying nature, and have more time to reflect: How can we maintain these more sustainable practices? How can we strengthen our local economy and be less dependent on the global supply chain?
The Whole Vashon Project Catalog is doing a great job of identifying the many amazing organizations, businesses and individuals that are working to preserve and enhance our beautiful island environment as well as promoting practices to slow climate change. Vashon could well be a model for sustainability, but we need to come together across all sectors – agriculture, arts, business, education, faith, human services, recreation, environment and everyone else to develop a holistic vision that we can collectively work towards. The coronavirus pandemic is reinforcing the fact that we are all in this together.
Jim Diers is the former director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, author of Neighbor Power, and an international consultant on community building.