The V Word

By Brenda Krause Eheart, author of Neighbors,
The Power of the People Next Door 

Deborah Finck, Executive Director of BUILDING OHANA,
a Neighborhood Where Love Lives

I (Brenda) met Janice in her 70s, a woman raised in foster care and immersed in abuse and poverty for much of her life. She moved to Hope Meadows soon after six-year-old Ben joined his new adoptive family there. Like Janice, Ben had spent most of his young life in and out of foster homes. Both struggled with emotional problems. Neither knew how to trust.  But somehow, in the daily life of our neighborhood, they found a connection. That connection turned into love. 

 When Janice died seven years later, Ben read this poem at her memorial service:

I love to spend time with Grandma
When we fish, she baits the hook.
She listens to me when I talk.
And she helps me read my book.
She gives me hugs and kisses.
And eats popsicles like a kid.
 I’m really sad that she is gone.
I love her as much as I ever did.

Labeled by social services and society as “vulnerable” all of their lives, their relationship turned the V word—and all of its negative connotations—upside down.   

Social scientists, self-help gurus, and poets have devoted much attention to defining the word vulnerability—and for good reasons. First, we rarely want to claim it, preferring to think of ourselves as strong, independent, capable of rising above our difficulties. But vulnerability is universal, a condition inherent to every aspect of existence. We are vulnerable to threats from the outside and inside of our lives, from war or gun violence to disease and disability, from conditions chronic or acute, from injustice and abuse to the loneliness of aging, dying. We are vulnerable to loss and even to the fear of loss, of our loved ones, our health, our minds, our hopes for the future and our sense of place in the world. 

It is pointless to deny it. What we can do is understand it in ourselves and in others.  We can reframe what it truly means to be vulnerable, thereby seeing the opportunities within it. Because it is something we all experience, our vulnerability can indeed be the connecting point from each one of us to another—no matter how different or divided we are. In a world where a global pandemic, threats to democracy, and an unimaginable war of violence and aggression in Ukraine form the tapestry of our daily experience, we are able to more clearly recognize that vulnerability is not something other people endure. There is no “them.”  Only “us.” 

The V word: a double bind, a self-fulfilling prophecy

In the US, approximately 37 million adults live alone, several million others reside in some form of institutional and foster care, and over half a million Americans live without permanent housing. For these individuals, vulnerability is often intensified by loneliness and isolation in the absence of close and caring personal relationships, and yet these connections are rarely included as essential components in our traditional health service models or in the philosophies governing them. Our social safety net has been mostly designed to provide a margin of security and protection for the weakest among us, the poorest, the least able or powerful. Resulting policies, programs, and practices often reinforce negative attitudes: that vulnerability implies weakness and helplessness, and even moral failure; or that the “clients” who receive them are “the problems” needing to be “managed” or “fixed.” 

These views, generations old, carry with them the damage inherent in judgement. Such notions can create shame in the people needing help, but also a vulnerability-resistant attitude that keeps many of us from taking risks and reaching out to others when we most need it. By the time Ben and Janice had moved to Hope, they had learned that people were not to be trusted to help them, or even to not hurt them. Our social safety net had not been adequate to help them find connection and purpose, feel needed, or know that they belonged. It took a lot for them to open their hearts and minds to one another, to need one another—but they took that risk.

In doing so, Ben and Janice were strengthened, not because their challenges miraculously disappeared, but because they belonged to a community where deep and reliable relationships were primary. In this context, all manner of personal suffering was eclipsed as everyday people went about the daily business of neighboring—of caring about each other, helping each other, and enjoying one another. As one older resident of Hope said, “We don’t have time to think about our aches and pains. We are too busy doing for others.” Sure, people still needed their doctors and therapists, but their daily lives were meaningful and rich. For Ben and Janice, the safe and caring friendship they formed was a remedy for isolation and despair—a recipe for living.

Through intentional neighboring, the over one hundred residents of Hope Meadows came to understand and acknowledge that meaningful and caring relationships—built over time and based on familiarity, trust, and shared experience—offer a proven antidote or anesthesia to the many difficulties we all face. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in his book, Together, writes: “Strong relationships are what matter most. They improve health, enhance our performance, and enable us to rise above differences of opinion and ideology to come together and take on big challenges as a society. Human connection is the foundation on which we build everything else.”

To truly address vulnerability in both thought and action, we must roundly embrace the importance of strong relationships, as they are key to building compassion for and commitment to others. We can no longer afford to think of vulnerability as the “V word,” with all its negative meaning that demeans others and puts us all at risk. Without strong relationships, our human troubles will only multiply, fostering fear, isolation, division and even, as we currently witness, violence. What’s more, our fragmented service systems will continue to bend—or even break—under the weight of impossible expectations, ultimately contributing to the loneliness, isolation, and lack of self-worth so many experience. 

To reframe the meaning of vulnerability is to accept it in ourselves and in others; and, to see it as a gateway to building caring relationships where judgements dissipate and trust grows to strengthen our human capacity for healing and community. Janice, Ben, and their many neighbors at Hope are the proof of that. 

In an intentional neighboring community, everyone leads the way.

I’ve spent a lot of time with organizational leaders over the past thirty years, and there’s one thing I know. Leadership can be a heavy burden, especially when the work of leaders is accomplished from on top of the mountain. That, I imagine, is lonely work.  

I was lucky. When I served as the executive director of Hope Meadows, I was the “leader” of a neighborhood of children, parents, and seniors—not an organization in any typical sense of the word. We were an intentional neighboring community, a village of residents from every kind of background—some who had actually run large corporations and knew a lot more than I did about leading an “organization.” (Retired, they were living at Hope in order to care for one another as extended family.) My board of directors had put me “in charge” of the community I had founded, and of a small administrative, maintenance, and professional staff—an assistant, a grounds keeper, some therapists, social workers, a bookkeeper, etc.. But there was nothing “top-down” about Hope Meadows— and nothing traditional about my “leadership.” 

It would have been impertinent of me or my staff to believe we could lead this community in any kind of traditional, authoritative way. Our goal was for all of us— both staff and residents—to establish a sense of connectedness and neighborliness based on working together toward a common purpose, within a special place, and with a like-minded group of people. This enabled us to establish collaborative, trusting, friendly relations that allowed the residents to operate and to grow into “relational leaders,” regardless of age, ability or background, a concept advanced by Kenneth Gergen in his book, Relational Being:  Beyond Self and Community.

Gergen writes…

While leadership denotes the characteristics of an individual, relational leading refers to the ability of persons in relationship to move with engagement and efficacy into the future. It is not the single individual who is prized, but animated relations. If significant movement is to take place within an organization {or community], it will emerge from the generative interchange among the participants. To be sure, individuals may be designated leaders, but the process of leading is ultimately relational. 

Of course, I had considerable responsibilities at Hope Meadows — so did my staff.  But most of our work was indeed relational with the community, doing it in the spirit of, as Gergen writes, collaboration, empowerment, dialogue, horizontal decision-making, sharing, distribution, networking, continuous learning, and connectivity.  

The work of relational leadership at Hope was not always easy.  We’d all been steeped in top-down thinking and acting. For many of the staff, they imagined themselves in a hierarchy, with me at the top and each one of them operating out of their status and expertise—the way they’d always worked, a view that minimized the power of community as an effective intervention into social problems.  It was my job to change the lens through which we saw ourselves and the residents of Hope, and guide us all to a different way of living and working together. This kind of transformation happens over time, in daily relationship with one another. It changed us, and the healing that occurred wasn’t only in the highly vulnerable children and families we formed our neighborhood around, but in each and every one of us.  

Even the seniors, many living the last years of their life with serious health issues (cancer, multiple strokes, heart disease, etc.) often said their years at Hope were the best of their life. Why? Because, like everyone else, they knew they were highly valued and cared about. Miss Irene, age 77, who moved to Hope to “care for the children,” loved to tell the story of Leon, age 6, asking her out to a movie. 

            It was maybe 7 p.m. and the doorbell rang. Standing there was Leon and his little hand was filled with copper coins. You know how your hand sweats with copper in there, and he had a dollar’s worth. He said he wanted to take me to the movies. It was his idea. All during the movie he asked, ‘Are you comfortable? Do you feel all right? Are you enjoying it?’ It was priceless. I’ll never forget it. It was my first date in 13 years.

The residents of Hope Meadows, including Irene and Leon, never imagined themselves as leaders vital to building community and achieving Hope’s goals. Yet as they formed caring relationships with each other and engaged in service to the community, they were integral to its success and to the happiness and wellbeing of each other. Through these relationships everyone became a leader.

Reflecting on Social Services: Lessons from a Virus

Dear Friends,
I seem to spend all year doing, but in the last weeks of December I spend most of my time just being—being with family, friends, books, and with my thoughts as I reflect on what has been and what can be. I hope you too are finding joy and peace in doing less and in “being” more.  
May this joy and peace remain with you throughout the New Year.
Brenda

As 2020 comes to an end, people desperately hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. It may never completely go away of course, but when it no longer dominates the way we live our daily lives much will remain that threatens our health and well-being. The pandemic has shown us that our social service system is broken by revealing deep flaws in our social safety net. By drawing our attention to the importance of social connectedness, it may also have helped us see ways our systems of care can become more humane and more effective.

Poverty, debilitating mental and physical health illnesses, developmental disabilities, abuse and neglect, housing instability, and loneliness will always be a part of our American landscape. Much has been written about how COVID 19 has made issues related to these conditions worse; just think of the troubling stories about residents in nursing homes or children with developmental disabilities. Much less attention has been paid to how the pandemic has revealed what more can be done to address these issues.

Pervasive in our social service system are the long-standing beliefs that: 

  • providing services involves addressing single issues related to needs, deficits, or challenges; and
  • a hierarchy or chain of command must exist between those providing the services and those who need help. 

For a long time, it never occurred to me to question these beliefs. In Neighbors, through the stories of the residents of Hope Meadows, I introduce intentional neighboring as a way to impact well-being and strengthen our social safety net. These stories represent daily acts of care, support, and friendship with neighbors expressing gratitude, understanding, concern, and joy. At first, we saw these interactions through a traditional lens—neighbors providing an intervention service by focusing on meeting specific needs of those most vulnerable, the highly troubled children who called Hope home. Clearly this is important. Who wouldn’t try to meet the needs of someone they care about, perhaps for medical attention or tutoring? 

We gradually realized, however, that what we were witnessing was far more than a traditional social service intervention. As intergenerational relationships evolved based on trust, knowledge, and shared experiences, they morphed into reciprocal caring relationships. What became most important to the adults who lived in the neighborhood was not a primary focus on, for example, helping a child learn to read or to control his temper, but on helping children with deeply troubled pasts to have a “happy childhood” and help them, as an old saying states: “Always remember you are braver than you think, stronger than you seem, and loved more than you know.” 

Over time the children became instrumental in helping the adults relate these words to themselves!  Here specific needs, deficits, or challenges did not become the prominent focus of intervention nor was there a hierarchy or top-down chain of command. Everyone in the neighborhood became experts in meeting one of the most important human needs—the need for daily connections with others who see, know, value, and love us—a need many of us found difficult to meet while living with COVID 19 and a need these past nine months have taught us is the very foundation of intervention. This need when unmet, left us all vulnerable.

As we work to make social interventions stronger and more humane, now is the time to truly value these social connections and the contributions of those with whom we make them. Incorporating them into social service systems will require thinking outside the box of what is and what has been; but nothing I believe is more important if we truly are going to be able to make a difference not only in the lives of those most vulnerable, but in all of our lives. We can’t thank COVID 19 for much, but in 2021 we may find a little grace by thanking it for this age-old, yet new understanding. 

The Path Forward

I began to write the story of Hope Meadows almost three years ago. Now, as I write the first blog for Neighbors: The Power of the People Next Door, the president of the United States is in Walter Reed Hospital, having contracted the pandemic virus that has changed the course of human activity across the world. The book I was outlining thirty-six months ago has evolved into a story about what might be an antidote—if not to coronavirus—to the isolation and lack of unity we experience in our culture today.

My book, I’ll admit, is at least one part memoir, the story of my profound sadness and feelings of helplessness as I watched so many people—many of them children—abandoned and in pain. I think many of you, whether you are impacted in a personal or a professional way, can relate. Perhaps you are the parent of a person living with disability, or part of a family in crisis or marginalized by race or poverty. Perhaps you are a caregiver for elders with dementia, or one of so many seniors in our country who are isolated in your own home for lack of mobility and meaningful community connection. Perhaps you are someone compelled to make a difference by your work in housing, medical and mental health, social services, nonprofits. No matter—the impulse to create meaningful change arises from the heart.

I was lucky. The end result of my journey to make a difference resulted in a number of communities that changed lives and offered solutions. With this, I experienced joy and a profound sense of accomplishment as I began to reflect on the innate goodness of the many generations of ordinary people who came to call Hope Meadows home. These people, through genuine kindness, decency, and compassion, gave me hope in the power of the people next door to heal and unite us. I lived in the middle of that hope for over a decade.

I wrote Neighbors for you. It is not a technical manual but a practical one for the soul of citizens and leaders who do the day-to-day work of building and operating and living within intentional neighboring communities. It is also for policy makers and social service providers. It takes a while to move from direct experience, story-telling and lessons learned to real and proven solutions, and I hope my book offers some of that to you. In this blog series, we hope to continue the conversations, questions and creative solutions that will embody intentional neighboring into planning, policy and purpose. We can only do this together, forgoing competition in favor of the interdependence of collaboration. I hope you’ll join along.