Last Saturday in Lincoln Square a neighbor of mine woke to discover neo-Nazi graffiti on his family’s garage door: “Make Weimar Great Again, SS” a misguided, Trumpified reference to pre-Hitler Germany, punctuated by a nod to Adolf’s infamous, murderous police unit.
My wife and I learned about it thanks to another neighbor who posted an early photo of the graffiti to our neighborhood group on Facebook.
Similar and seemingly related graffiti also was found on sidewalks and in front of a local church and elementary school: “Diversity is white genocide,” and “You will not replace us,” the white nationalist mantra that caught fire after the alt-right torch rally in Charlottesville.
Within 36 hours the garage was painted, the sidewalks cleaned and brightened by new messages of love and acceptance, and nearly 500 neighbors had gathered to help one another heal and make clear that hate has no home here.
The gathering was made possible because a neighborhood advocacy organization that, also via Facebook, was able to spread the word, attract volunteers, notify media, and post dozens of heart-warming photos on Sunday evening and into this week. Twitter and Instagram came in handy throughout as well.
The best part? My wife and I didn’t know most of our neighbors personally until Saturday. Herein lies the evolving power of social media to, ironically, re-tie the connections we’ve stopped making as a result of digital technology and ever-present screens.
Depending on your political leanings, your generational designation, or the current ebb or flow of your digital mood, this observation might lead you to click away, as few pieces of 21st century popular culture are easier scapegoats than social media networks.
But consider that your social networks need not be defined by your social media networks. The latter are tools; the former is the accumulated social capital—trust, reciprocity, cooperation—gained from their use. The good stuff.
The best civil-society minds today are laser-focused on social capital: what makes it, strengthens it, and breaks it. Their works sits at the intersection of sociology and government, as the highest-functioning towns, cities, states and nations often have one key trait in common: high levels of social capital in neighborhoods.
In a recent interview on Steven Dubner’s Freakonomics Podcast, Harvard University’s resident public policy guru Robert Putnam discussed these themes and made clear the connections:
Some parts of Italy are way more efficient than any state in America, and other parts of Italy are way more corrupt than any place in America. And the question is why? Why are some places better governed than others? It was the degree to which there was a dense, civic network in a community.
If there was a dense, civic network, so that people in those places behaved with respect to one another, in a trustworthy way, their governments worked better. And I dubbed that concept ‘social capital.’
Or, more simply, “social networks have value,” says Putnam. This lesson is directly affecting our work at the BGA, where new tactics to combat corruption and inefficiency are desperately needed. This means keeping an open mind, and understanding that while social media networks aren’t without problems—fake news, cat-nip ephemera, et cetera—they are still young and nimble platforms that can change.
Consider also that localized, life-or-death situations are becoming more manageable thanks to these networks. In Houston this week, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms became key players in the rescue effort. “These social media platforms have become de facto meeting points for thousands of stranded people as they reach out to their neighborhood groups and the outside universe for help,” reports Lauren Silverman on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Back home in Lincoln Square, the connections made this week with the help of social media only make us stronger should disaster hit. Those messages of hate galvanized us to capitalize on our online relationships, get out from behind our phones and come together as a powerful community engaging in neighborhood civics.
In doing so we confirmed not only our shared geography, but our shared values. Now that we’ve returned to our parallel lives, our proximity has new weight, new strength. Now when I walk by the garden unit on Leland Avenue and hear the sounds of horn and cello, I know that’s the neighbor who shook my hand Sunday and confirmed that hate is, at best, a fly-by-night visitor in our neighborhood.
What can you do? Start by joining your neighborhood group on Facebook—or starting one if it doesn’t exist. Depending on where you live, it could become the closest thing you have to a community newspaper. Make sure to encourage and protect positive, productive, welcoming dialogue in your group. And then, to borrow from the Chicago Transit Authority, if you see something, say something.