Rachel Himes: Community development

Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

I arrived at Brown a little worried about a lot of things. I lost sleep, in the days counting down to Convocation, agonizing over my chief concern: Would anyone at this school care about me? I should have rested easy. Early in my first semester I found myself suddenly and deeply involved in communities — close-knit, co-dependent groups of people who came together to do trivial and significant things, or simply to live.

It was intense, caring so much about people whose existence I had been completely unaware of a few short weeks earlier. I felt answerable to so many.

Brown students, from my closest friends to strangers on the green, went out of their way to support each other. I couldn’t believe that not only were there friends willing to stay up all night to talk me through the crisis of the day, but strangers who would help me to Health Services when I fell down the steps on Ruth Simmons Quadrangle — back when it was still Lincoln Field.

What especially struck me about these communities, whether formal or organic, was that their members took great care to treat each other well. It wasn’t artificial, and it wasn’t an imposition, but rather the honest expression of a genuine desire to respect and protect one another. I learned to lead cooperatively, to trust intent and hold accountability — and then taught others to do the same. Which brings me to this: Something I’ve heard a lot recently — in Internet thinkpieces, from well-meaning teachers, during job interviews — is that, somewhere out there, beyond Brown, there is this vague and menacing “real world” where people don’t care about you, or me, or each other. It’s touted as some kind of harsh truth that will open your eyes, make you stronger and better, more likely to succeed, more willing to hurt other people to do so.

And this piece of advice surprises me. If that’s the “real world,” then what were we doing here? When we leave this campus, do we suddenly become harsh?

The truth is that it is easy to care about other people here. It is easy to care for members of the groups we chose to belong to, and it’s even easy to care about the entire Brown community. After all, we’re all around the same age, we’re all driven, dedicated and smart. Above all, we all chose to be here. But it’s time to take the next step, which is much harder.

We face pervasive and insidious problems in this country and this world, problems of a nature which makes them difficult, if not impossible, to address with structures already in place. They are systemic problems that grow from hatred, prejudice and a severe lack of understanding that is both unique to every person and deeply ingrained in our society. But the solution you and I have to offer in the face of these problems is one that we’ve all been practicing for four years now.

Dorothy Day, American activist, Christian radical and a personal hero of mine since I first heard of her in a sophomore-year seminar, once wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” The spirit and practice of community at Brown is one we can take with us wherever we go. Communities can be formed here on campus, yes, but they can also be created in an apartment building, on the train to work, in the place you buy your groceries — anywhere you interact with other people. Through forming communities with the people we don’t know — people who are different from us — we begin to address the loneliness that troubles our country and isolates us from one another, leaving us unable to solve the problems born of intolerance and mistrust. We can participate compassionately in the lives of everyone we meet, protecting them when we can and respecting them as they deserve.

I came here to concentrate in history — and I didn’t — but I feel as if I’ve, nevertheless, figured some of it out. When we first study history, the big good things — like emancipation, or suffrage — seem inevitable. But these triumphs weren’t assured. It certainly wasn’t inevitable that black and brown students graduate in front of a building partially constructed by slaves.

History has no benevolent and benign trajectory that will whisk us along to a better future, as we sit back and wait for it to arrive. We only get to the big good things when many, many people intentionally take action on grand and minuscule scales.

Knowing your neighbors, being kind to the people you encounter in stores and restaurants — it can seem like these things are too small to bother to do, but we absolutely have to bother. It’s the first step, but it’s a crucial one, because it leads to the big good changes, the ones that get their own heading in the history textbook: in bold type, “The Dawn of a New Era.”

At Brown, we took that step. What we accomplished here was real and reaches far beyond this university. My friends worked in Providence hospitals and schools. They put pressure on this school to treat workers fairly — on and off campus. We educated each other in crucial ways. We achieved all of this because of the communities we built. With them, we welcomed many, pooled strength and shared responsibility.

How can we continue to live up to the ideals that we developed here in all those late night conversations? By recognizing that there is no “real world,”that to partition our experiences at Brown from the rest of our lives is to create a false dichotomy and that it is just as possible to build meaningful communities in our new lives as it was to build them here. With this in mind we can continue to accomplish real things for other people.

Commencement is about us, but it’s also about every single person our lives will touch as long as we live, and the ways in which Brown has prepared us to be present in those lives. And that’s a very good thing.

Rachel Himes is moving to Brooklyn, hopefully in a non-destructive manner. She will be working in museum education.

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