Revisiting “Communities of Relatedness”

At the beginning of each new semester, I contemplate what more can be done to help students make sense of complex courses. This year has been no different.

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december 2021

A view from my side of the city – December 14, 2021

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For more than a decade, I taught courses about social welfare policy for undergraduate and graduate students. It was an arduous task, but often rewarding in unanticipated ways. Nonetheless, it took discipline to stay on top of often disheartening news about legislators’ continuing reliance on unexamined assumptions about economic inequality based on 16th and 17th century views of poverty in Great Britain –  The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601.

elizabethan poor laws

The U.S inherited the disparaging views of people who were poor. Even though there were distinctions between the “worthy” and “unworthy poor,” poverty was viewed as an individual problem rather than the result of structural inequalities that benefited landed aristocracy at the expense of those who served them. People who were unhoused and unemployed due to rapidly shifting social institutions and technologies were forced to migrate in search of work. When they arrived in cities, destitute and desperate, reduced to begging for alms, they were viewed as a threat and nuisance. Their circumstances were attributed to their laziness and immorality. Their “pauperism” was seen as a cultural class deficiency that was passed down through the generations. Only strict punitive laws and interventions would “save” them and their children.

We can see the same views playing out at all governmental levels in the U.S. today as legislatures argue who is deserving of “welfare” assistance. They willingly bail out banks and corporations while ignoring the situation for so many individuals and families who are unable to afford housing, food, and health care. It is important for students to know this history in order to critically analyze existing policies and work toward more socially just policies in the future. True, analyzing policy is not the most exciting work initially, but it can be rewarding to build partnerships to end and prevent unnecessary suffering.

I returned to an older post for ideas on how to help and inspire students and decided to share the post again. Sadly, the message is still relevant today.

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December landscape 16 2017

Communities of Relatedness

Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.

I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.

From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,

… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)

What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.

contrast collective vs strangers

What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.

contrast collective vs strangers 3

contrast collective vs strangers 2

As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.

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Work Cited

Jared Diamond (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W.W. Norton & Company.

15 thoughts on “Revisiting “Communities of Relatedness”

  1. Excellent forward-thinking and, as you note, still too timely.. yet always, educating folks on the reality of injustices’ starts –and of how they are perpetuated — is key. Thank you for all you have done (so far!). I’ve learned some incredibly important things, here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. WoW !!! Your words stirred me up no end .. as you said, nothing much has changed with regards views on poverty, and particularly class which has been the biggest division certainly in British society. I began to feel like the angry young man that I was. I’d like nothing better than to meet you for lunch and have a good natter with you. Stay safe, keep well and keep writing your ‘cracking’ posts. Love from over the pond xxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, dear Pat, it’s such a gift to hear from you! I’m not surprised you could relate to this post given your background and past work. Those of us in the unprivileged classes do carry passion for fair sharing and respectful acknowledgement. I, too, wish we could meet for lunch for lunch (or tea?).

      Thank you so much for your kind words. Sending love to you, dear friend, from the wintry Great Lakes! 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Community of Relatedness vs Collectivity of Strangers is so pertinent to polarization around public health measures right now.
    And your post also made me think back to when I lived in Maine. I don’t know if it’s still true, but cities and towns still had an Overseer of the Poor who decided whether you could get desperately needed assistance. There was a law against “bringing a pauper into town” based on the belief that one town would dump its poor in another town so someone else would have to foot the bill for help. It’s so interesting to me that you trace a lot of this back to Elizabethan England. Thank you, as always, for your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that this framework seems to reflect differing perspectives and values that affect how we see and treat others, Diane. It sounds as though Maine was a prime example, at least when you lived there. Such fascinating information! Not that long ago (1980s), Wisconsin tried to enact residency laws to make it more difficult for people who moved from Illinois to collect “welfare” because benefit levels were higher in Wisconsin.

      I appreciate your always thoughtful comments! Thank you. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes, Wisconsin vs Illinois. I think Maine has pretty good welfare coverage now, but back then when people couldn’t get medical care for their dying children, we would have to whisper “move to Connecticut.”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, once again you have spoken truth into the colonial void. Yes, so many of our social and ecological problems arise from industrializing Britain. Yet, so little analysis acknowledges this. Your discussion of this is splendid!

    We live in a privileged enclave, a situation that can be quite isolating but is currently necessary. Yet, contrary to expectations, many people within this insular community are actively engaged in challenging the growing darkness. Sadly, their ancestral ties to the first settlers largely stop them from understanding the colonial enterprise and its effects.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing such important insights, Michael. It’s surprisingly difficult to find trustworthy online information about the significance of early British views of poverty on the development of policies and practices in the US.

      After I wrote and published this post, though, I found a textbook in one of my bookcases that does a good job describing this influence. Here’s a citation in case you are interested – Josefina Figueira-McDonough (2007), “The welfare state and social work: Pursuing social justice”, SAGE Publications. Figueira-McDonough argues that “Poverty in North America grew in part because England used the colonies as a dumping ground, lowering the numbers of incarcerated and other undesirables in the mother country by shipping criminals, vagrants, orphans, and the unemployed overseas” (p. 95). Many struggled once here. Because the landed gentry feared they would join with African slaves in revolts, they were used as a buffer class and some became overseers of slaves on plantations. We still see the legacy of those “divide and conquer” tactics today…

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  5. Very good questions. How can we care about people most don’t see? How do the marginalized have their voices heard. My home is at the headwaters of the Columbia River. Many here think nothing of pollution, because it flows downstream and nothing is upstream from us. There will come a time it will matter. It’s happening now.

    Liked by 1 person

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