Want to Start a Local Revolution? Ask a Kid This Question

Neighborhood Walking, Walking, Neighborhood Walks, Community Building, Community Building for Kids

This morning on our walk to school, I asked my daughter Molly what her hopes were for our neighborhood. 

The first thing she mentioned was how she wished there were sidewalks up Danger Hill and along Steelhammer Road, to make it easier and safer to get around our neighborhood.

Second, she said she wanted to write to the homeowner’s association in the neighborhood right next to ours, to ask them to allow non-HOA members to enjoy their park, which includes a lovely pond. 

Third, she talked about wanting to do a neighborhood barbecue so all the neighbors at the top of Danger Hill can get to know each other better.

That question — “What are your hopes for our neighborhood?” — is a simple but profound one. In fact, it could be the start of something special. I’ll explain why, first by talking more generally about hope-full conversations, then focusing more specifically on conversations with kids.

1. In a fast-paced world, that question encourages folks to make space for hope.

Life is often too fast and overly full. Many of us are so busy just getting through another day that we don’t take the time to examine and articulate our hopes. Or perhaps the challenges of life have ground us down so much that it feels futile and even foolish to hope in the first place. 

Hope is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. Psychologists believe it is an “undervalued and underappreciated” predictor of success. Talent is important but talent alone won’t get us where we want to go. “You can have the best engine in the world,” says Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “but if you can’t be bothered to drive it, you won’t get anywhere.”

Hope doesn’t just put us in the driver’s seat. It affirms that we were there all along. We have skills, ideas, and agency — especially in the neighborhoods we call home.

There is an insidious inertia to The Way Things Are. Initiating a conversation about someone’s hopes is an easy but powerful way to break through to The Way Things Could Be.

2. In a fragmented world, that question reveals common ground that was always there.

What also happens in hope-full conversation is that we discover we have shared dreams for our shared place.

I may have very little in common with the woman who lives next door. She may be totally different from me in her politics, religion, personality, age, life experience, etc. But if we discover through conversation that we both have a passion for helping women escape domestic abuse — or for better schools, more walkable neighborhoods, for the homeless, or for a strong local library — then we become potential collaborators, maybe even the vanguard of a nascent local movement.

My next-door neighbor and I now share common ground…both literally and figuratively. And those differences we’d let keep us apart all that time now become either irrelevant or, more likely, sudden advantages.

And even if we don’t discover a shared hope, this conversation has revealed something precious to each one about the other.

The active neighborhood practitioner will discover that the more she has hope-full conversations with people in her community, the more she is able to facilitate new and exciting connections. She knows that Hilary and Summer each dream of starting a STEM camp for girls, and so she introduces them to one another. She knows that Erin and Ryan have both been privately harboring dreams of starting a local community foundation, and so she invites the two of them to coffee.

Follow the child?

As important as it is for adults to have conversations about our hopes, we shouldn’t stop there. In fact, maybe we shouldn't even start there. Maybe we should start by talking to our youngest neighbors.

When I asked Molly, “What are your hopes for our neighborhood?”, it encouraged her to dream about what life could be like in her neighborhood. And it affirmed that her voice matters. The neighborhood hopes of an 11-year-old are no less valid than the hopes of a 41-year-old. Maybe they’re more valid, in a way.

Why do I say they are more valid?

For one thing, I remember reading somewhere that if we designed our cities to be livable for people ages seven and seventy, they would be livable for people of all ages. 

For another, Molly didn’t get to pick where she lives. Her mom and I made that decision. And so shouldn’t we listen carefully when Molly describes her experience of the neighborhood from her kid’s-eye-view?

I also love how specific Molly was with her answers. We adults can be so abstract with our hopes. We hope for neighborhoods that are flourishing, resilient, connected, strong. But what does that mean? In contrast, Molly’s answers were practical and actionable. She wanted a neighborhood she could walk without trudging through someone’s grass or skirting the side of a busy road. She wanted to respectfully enjoy the beauty of a pond just a few blocks from us. She wanted to get to know her neighbors — maybe especially that house with all the kids she’s been too shy to introduce herself to yet.

Finally, what I’ve learned from my community development work is that one of the greatest predictors of whether a young person will return to their rural town after college or a career-change, is whether they were given, from the earliest ages, a sense of ownership in that town. I obviously don’t know where Molly’s life journey will take her. But, wherever she goes, I want Molly to have an unshakeable sense of the promise and possibility here in Silverton.

So my encouragement to you is to have a hope-full dialogue with your own children and/or with the children who live near you. Maybe start by asking what they love about your neighborhood. But then ask what their hopes are for your neighborhood. The conversation that follows is guaranteed to energize and inspire.

Note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog.