Yes, amazing community organizations exist everywhere. But it’s hard to argue that we’ve yet reversed the culture-wide ennui generated by the increasing digital isolation of modern life–our local communities are not what we once imagined them to be, or even what they actually were.
Community seems harder to wrangle than non-equilibrium thermodynamics
In general, people think that these big community problems are too big for them; better to handle your personal business, ensure your own and your family’s survival. After all, you may be able to help one person or bring a few people together temporarily, but what about the great mass of people suffering around us? How can we foster community when we have so much daily BS to deal with? It saddens me that the whole enormity of it all makes the likes of quick microwave dinners, cigarette breaks, and reality TV each seem like a relief compared the weight of daily life. Whether we think about it consciously or not, we know that something is wrong, and we feel powerless against it, least of all because we can barely define it.
Any good investor (and we are all investors, of attention and money, every day) knows instinctively not to chase returns in a field in which they have no experience. This is a huge problem for investing in communities from the bottom up: if it’s not clear that invested resources can be marshalled for a planned return (of any kind desired), if control can’t be maintained at a risk-reducing level, it makes no sense to invest in the neediest people around us, even day-to-day, at an intuitive or subconscious level.
But here’s what we miss: resources truly invested into a community are multiplicative, in ways that are rarely factored into direct returns. When we spend 5 bucks at McDonald’s and 90% of that goes right back to corporate headquarters at the end of the day, with the only community benefit being that a cashier has a minimum wage job.
In contrast, every dollar spent helping provide a backstop for a diverse community of artists, bicyclists, entrepreneurs, musicians, techies, etc, circulates back within that community, and creates new neuron-like connections with each gift, loan, investment. Within communities, transaction type appears to matter far less than the simple velocity of resources.
Risk worth taking
I was drawn to leave my beloved Bay Area and take a gamble on downtown Vegas (ha. ha.) by a confluence of life factors. Primarily, the immediate draw was to have the proximity to help with a legal and financial fight to save my family’s nearby hot springs from a ruinous bureaucracy, but I also saw the low cost of living compared to SF as a great opportunity both for my next startup’s bootstrapped runway, and to test ideas I had been assimilating especially over the last year, including some that fundamentally challenged how people in a community should interact with each other, and with money.
Essentially, I resolved to foster a kind of loose, community-driven, modern commune as a backstop for members of the tech, sustainability, and arts communities that seemed left behind by all of the sudden energy and money flying around in downtown Las Vegas. But I had no idea what that should look like, so I just set the initial conditions and let it develop organically into a dual-house melting pot of meetups and co-working and parties.
I knew going in that I wouldn’t have much to work with: a small chunk of money (mid-5-digits) extracted from my last company–a network of environmental blogs–by handing the keys to a friendly CEO. But I resolved to manage it all in order to push forward for 6-9 months or so, on all fronts: help the hot springs, foster community, and start my new startup. I’d like to think I managed that cash well, and if it weren’t for unplanned expenses around last-ditch efforts to save Pah Tempe, I’d like to think I’d never have written the title of this post, and our experiment might have continued quietly at least through the summer, and possibly even fallen ass-backwards into to financial stability.
Despite the fact that it has unquestionably been a personal drain, watching the joy of new community connections forming in the little corner of downtown Vegas I’ve inhabited since late last year has made me realize that it was a sacrifice unquestionably worth making; given the skills and confidence I’ve been given in life, I’ll be fine wherever I end up. But what about all the people in the still-decrepit part of downtown Vegas, and all the places like it? Those who don’t know that they’ll be fine? Or worse, who know that they *won’t* be fine without some help? Forced to sit, disempowered, under the permacloud of daily survival — these circumstances are even harder to bear when your seat is in the front row as money and ambition ebb and flow around you.
A back of the napkin calculation of value
It may be impossible as yet to draw definitive conclusions about how the money I spent created a return on true community, but it’s clear that the essentials of rent, utilities, food and party supplies necessary to provide informal community spaces far surpass the brightline of a minuscule investment with mega returns in community connections, especially when bootstrapped with the express knowledge that no capital is on its way to fund adding a ‘wow’ factor to what you’re doing; in the case of bottom-up community building, the ‘wow’ factor comes in the wonderment that such pulling together of community is even possible at all with such a small resource base backstopping everything.
In the end, cash for rent, food, and other survival necessities for a small community core were basically all I did or could provide to help put people in a position to grow and connect in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have; so be it. If it empowered any of them to make their lives better and their immediate community more vibrant and inspired toward greater ground-up change going forward, that seems infinitely worth the effort, given the financial resources that are poured into creating community in a top-down way every day, and the questionable efficiency of visible return on improvement in people’s lives that such a strategy tends to provide.
Don’t get me wrong; if you’ve got the resources to throw at it, by all means, go for it and brute-force that bitch with as much control and patience as your intellect can wield. I didn’t, so I looked for another way to leverage what few financial resources I could bring to bear.
My time as a community organizer may not amount to more than a mini-scale experiment, a blip of action in a particular place and moment in time. But the value created for existing members of the community on a return-on-community-per-dollar basis? I’d put that up against any operationalization of a metric for ROC in anyone’s spreadsheet, and that’s good enough for me.
So, maybe I went broke being a community backstop. Knowing what I know, I’d spend it all pretty much the same way again. I know you’re not going to go out and do the same thing, but just know that it’s not as scary as it seems.