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Dare to Create 'Beloved Community' in Public Schools and Urban Neighborhoods

Guest Blogger:  Diane Miller

Diane Miller headshot.jpg"Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not 'How can we make community?' but 'How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?'"  
~ Henri Nouwen

Reading this quote, I thought deeply about my family's experience of community in urban schools. We purposefully chose public schools to nurture our family's heart for learning and living in a globalized world. While friends researched getting into the "best" academic centers, we only looked in our neighborhood. We valued development of community, character and creative abilities equally with academics. We wanted a school with the potential to develop all of those life skills and a location we could walk to.

Now, in our high school season, we have learned many lessons, both good and hard about diversity, privilege, ethnic lifestyles, and immigrant challenges. Our experience also shows a major shift has occurred in our school systems. The fruit of individual academic capacity is now valued far above all other skills.

This was most evident in applying for high school. Getting into a "top" city high school was dependent on test scores only, with no consideration for character, community building or creative skills. Many students with those gifts are now left behind, because they might not test well or struggle sitting in classrooms all day.

It appears that the following three American cultural shifts have contributed to an erosion of holistically nurturing our children and their community-giving hearts:

1.  Loss of neighborhood-based community
We have become a commuter culture, traveling out of our neighborhood to jobs, extra-curricular activities and now schools. We go, seeking the best of everything, and transportation takes us there. This constant "going and doing" of one's life activities outside a home neighborhood strips children and adults of a deep sense of belonging anywhere.

 It also leaves many with no margin to know, let alone care about their neighbors next door. Commuting also limits children from walking to school, having kids to play and do homework with, or meeting other caring adults near their home base.  Don't we all still need to feel part of a geographic-based home community that provides nurturing, accountability and hope?

2.  A competition culture
We have developed a hypercompetitive society perpetually seeking "the best." What happened to the idea of "enough"? Constant focus on the best creates egocentric values promoting even higher levels of competition. It produces "supply and demand" scenarios, again leaving more behind. Those without transportation or higher education cannot equally compete or have access to jobs or schools, even though they have the necessary God-given skillsets.

It is a vicious cycle continually nurtured by job competition and even higher education levels. This competitive nature also contributes to polarization, creating an "us vs. them" scenario. Those who have many choices begin to believe that what they know, worked for, or believe in to be the "gold standard" for everyone. This mindset erodes a posture of asking questions and dialoguing to understand and develop community interdependence and/or collaboration, both in our education systems and everyday lives!

3.  Caring at a safe, comfortable, non-sacrificial distance
We need healing relationships, bridging chasms of both ethnic and economic differences in America. Poverty has many roots but is largely sustained by a lack of caring relationships with nurturing friends and neighbors.

For instance, I mentor at a high school where students have to complete a thesis project to graduate. Seniors are partnered with professionals to mentor them through this project to final presentation. Many of the students live in neighborhoods where they have never met someone who works in the field of their chosen project. Their connection with a professional is a big life-changing experience—for both the student and the mentor!

What could happen if those professionals took other, bigger steps, maybe even a lifestyle choice of moving into a neighborhood with an under-performing school, living out an avocation of mentoring where they live?

I dream of new urban neighborhoods in America where we live economically and ethnically blended. Where all have voice, choices and work together to promote healing, interdependent community and giving hearts within principled pluralism. Where every parent, teacher, and school creatively collaborates for the entire community's good. Where kids safely walk to school and do homework together. Where neighbors want to stay in their neighborhood to be available to mentor and model good life values.

Dr. King challenged America to this lifestyle in his 1959 speech before the Youth March for Integrated Schools:

"Whatever career you may choose for yourself—doctor, lawyer, teacher—let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity ... You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater Nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."

Dr. King called this ideal the "beloved community."  What U.S. neighborhood could become this holistic model of interactive collaboration, molding loving hearts and standing as a tangible model to the rest of the world?  Dare we create this movement?

DIANE MILLER is a board member of Teachers Who Pray, a community activist, and parent of a high school student in the Chicago Public Schools. She grew up in a small, all-White farm town in the Midwest and now passionately promotes community development through ethnic and economic diversity in neighborhoods. 

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