Getting to know your neighbors - a step toward fostering community

In wake of Tucson's mass shooting, it's one thing we can all do to look out for each other
2013-03-28T00:00:00Z Getting to know your neighbors - a step toward fostering communityOpinion by Barbara Russek Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson is still healing from the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting and one of the lingering topics is: Is there anything we can do to help prevent another such tragedy in our city?

According to authors Tom Zoellner and Daniel Hernandez Jr., who participated in a discussion at this month's Tucson Festival of Books, the answer is a resounding yes.

Both speakers emphasized the importance of close-knit neighborhoods and community to foster a safer Arizona.

Community is a simple word but a complex concept, one that appears to be rapidly disappearing here. As Zoellner wrote in his 2011 book, "A Safeway in Arizona," according to a 2009 Gallup poll only 12 percent of respondents strongly agreed that "people in our (Arizona) communities care about each other." Those polled were much more enthusiastic about the beauty of Arizona and the number of its parks and hiking trails.

Another disturbing statistic from the book: In one study Arizona ranks 48th in the U.S. of those who say they trade any type of favors with their neighbors a few times a week, such as borrowing and lending tools, watching kids and the like.

Both speakers provided solid reasons for this grim state of affairs.

Zoellner spoke of the great number of newcomers who move to Arizona every year. Yet, according to city planners with whom he spoke in Phoenix and Tucson, for every three newcomers to our state, two people leave. This revolving door of humanity is practically a recipe for social and physical isolation.

Hernandez, who wrote the recently published "They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth," grew up in a tight-knit Hispanic community. He added that many of those who settle here are immigrants, who bring with them their own language and culture. This can easily create an "us-and-them" mentality, he said, rooted in suspicion and fear.

On the other hand, he spoke of being welcomed by the Jewish community since the shooting and invited by families to Shabbat dinners, where a good meal has been the entrée to good conversation and greater understanding.

Many folks have asked Hernandez in the past two years how they can better connect with their neighbors. As a response, he asks a simple question: Have you invited them over for dinner or coffee? The answer is usually silence, with eyes cast down. He strongly encourages that important first step.

Zoellner added that in Tucson and Phoenix there are few walkways where neighbors come out and enjoy that little schmooze with one another that leads to a feeling of connectedness. Most people get from point A to B alone in a car, avoiding eye contact with neighbors and feel they've done their civic duty by offering a courtesy wave to acquaintances from within the safe barrier of steel and tinted glass. At most they exchange a few pleasantries at the mailbox.

Another important point Zoellner made is that so many people come to Arizona from big cities, looking for wide-open spaces. Isolated pockets of humanity do little to foster a feeling of community.

A member of the audience asked if the world of computers, smartphones and social media has led to social isolation. Hernandez said the technology is a double-edged sword. On the downside, too much time spent in front of a computer can lead to feeling awkward in face-to-face communication. On the positive side, tweeting helped Hernandez notify the world that Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head on that awful day, was still alive after many news outlets had reported her demise.

Are there other reasons neighbors keep to themselves? Maybe some folks can do only so much, which is caring about their immediate family and closest friends. Others think good fences make good neighbors. And maybe a few fear that doing one favor for a neighbor will obligate them to many more.

In his book, Zoellner speaks of Giffords' desire to bring back a little of the "older mythic America … a real interdependent community of people joined in common purpose instead of a random assortment of leisure seekers and luxury consumers wanting to be left alone."

The benefits of this inclusive way of thinking are many - shared conversation and laughter, mutual help, a feeling of belonging. And in cases where extremely aberrant and/or intimidating behavior is observed, action can be taken, even anonymously, that could potentially save one or more lives.

We all know the importance of protecting our natural resources. Both authors emphasized that nurturing our human resources also must be a priority.

Email Barbara Russek at Babette2@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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