You can’t just fake community, you have to build it with actual trust and connections. This is something I think about a lot because my kid goes to a very diverse school. It’s a relatively poor public school that one day, not so long ago, opened up a Montessori stream within the school to run in parallel with its regular classrooms. So, between its mainstream school families and its Montessori school families it now has this super diverse school population – there are hippies, army families, surgeons, homeless parents, grandparents with custody, teenage parents, drug dealers, a quite famous street artist, Christians and Muslims (and atheists), Aboriginal families and recent immigrant families, and lots of overlap between groups.. and all these different cultural backgrounds just bobbing about in the population there. It is fascinating, and it mostly works very well as a school community, although it must have been a hell of a transition for the old school community when it first started taking in Montessori families.
There’s still some caution between various groups of parents but overall it’s very cohesive. I think the secret to its cohesion is not so much its warm school spirit, though there is some of that, but more that everyone is forced to tolerate one another because no one particular group of parents is big enough to dominate the school culture. Long may that balance be held. (And it may be difficult to do that, because the Montessori stream has been very successful in attracting students). But we’re also all sharing space and having repeat interactions with one another, so we have to get on with tolerating one another, too. And we’re all doing something annoying to someone in that school population.
The moment that stuck out for me was the time I saw one of the mothers standing and breastfeeding her three year old in the middle of the school grounds in front of everyone. No big deal for me, at the time I was still secretly breastfeeding my own three year old at home, but this school isn’t a particularly ‘crunchy’ school, believe me, you’re just as likely to see a parent feeding a can of Coke to their kids. Everyone has to try and tolerate one another so no-one bothered scowling at the breastfeeding, they got on with their day instead. Maybe parents have had enough to do with this mother before that they also saw her as an ordinary person in their school rather than an Extreme! Breastfeeder!
I don’t know for certain.
Anyway, having my kid at this school has made me realise how much I am otherwise absent from my local community – I work and socialise mostly in the inner-city, for instance. Now suddenly, I have got to know and care about families in the local community whom I otherwise would never have met. And suddenly, I am aware of prejudices and stereotypes in myself that I didn’t admit I still carried. Classism, it runs deep.
This interesting article in The New York Times about people trying to help one another in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy talks about some of these issues. Basically, you can really fuck this ‘community’ thing up easily and hurt people with your big opinions if you’re not really part of a community.
As volunteers with the makeshift relief efforts have applied their own rules on how to dole out relief — telling people where to wait and enforcing limits on how many blankets or food items storm victims receive — some have entered the more fraught area of applying their own values to those they are helping.
As she gave out diapers and cases of infant formula to storm victims, Bethany Yarrow, 41, a folk singer from Williamsburg who has been volunteering with other parents from the private school her children attend, said she was shocked by the many poor mothers in the Arverne section of the Rockaways who did not breast feed. The group, she said, was working on bringing in a lactation consultant.
“So that it’s not just ‘Here are some diapers and then go back to your misery,’ ” she said.
That sort of response has rankled Nicole Rivera, 47, who lives in a project in Arverne, where the ocean sand still swirls up the street with every passing vehicle. “It’s sad, sometimes it’s a little degrading,” she said as she stood in line in a parking lot waiting for free toiletries.
Ms. Rivera said that she was thankful for the help, but that its face — mostly white, middle- and upper-class people — made her bitter.