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  • Palma Joy Strand

The Power of Civity: A Story with a Moral and More



Many of us are feeling powerless these days. We are overwhelmed by disturbing news stories and feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. Yet we also want to contribute to making things better. We ask ourselves, “What can I, just one individual, do to make a difference? How can I be the change I seek?”

I have a story to offer about a seemingly intractable problem, housing segregation – which is also a story about power … and about Civity.

The Story

I am an academic. I teach classes; I do research; I make presentations and write articles.

A couple of years ago, I began to focus on housing here in Omaha, where I work at Creighton University. Omaha, like most/many large cities in the US, is segregated. Most Black residents live to the north of downtown; most Hispanic residents live to the south. To the west is a large expanse of White suburbia.

Where people live is associated with how long they live, how healthy they are, what their exposure to poverty and crime is, and how much they earn. These maps all line up: Our neighborhoods are segregated by opportunity as well as by race and ethnicity. As a local government scholar, I felt that I needed to understand the maps better.

I didn’t know much about housing, so I reached out to my friend Gary Fischer, who does. We had coffee, and he filled me in on some Omaha history about housing patterns and housing development. He gave me a list of people I should talk to, and he followed up with introductions.

Over the next few months I talked to city planners and other government officials, to housing developers, to investors, to residents and neighborhood advocates, to lawyers. Overall, I “coffee”d (new verb!) with a few dozen folks.

I ended up writing an article about how the legal and institutional structures in Omaha have led to and perpetuate the housing patterns we have. That’s what academics do.

Along the way, the subject of redlining came up and kept recurring. Back in the 1930’s, Omaha’s redlining map led to disinvestment in the neighborhoods to the north and south of downtown and big investment in developing neighborhoods to the west.

I went searching for the Omaha redlining map. No luck. My star research librarian Troy Johnson couldn’t get it, but he did find out where it was: in the National Archives in Washington DC.

As it turned out, I was in DC over the summer and I took a day trip out to College Park where the post-WWI archives are stored, and I located the HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation) file for Omaha. When I opened the file, lo and behold, there was the original redlining map – a totem of our nation’s racial history. A powerful totem.

I left the Archives with both life-sized prints of the map and an electronic jpg file, and the map went into the article that I eventually wrote.

I shared the map with the people I had talked to in the course of writing the article. The map went up on the North Omaha History blog and other websites. A grad student at the University of Nebraska overlaid it with current demographic information. It popped up at meetings conducted by the regional planning agency and the City of Omaha.

Seeing the redlining map from 80 years ago and knowing the City today – it’s a very concrete and local illustration of how housing segregation didn’t just happen. Here or elsewhere.

The map has changed the conversation, brought history that was often hazy and overlooked into the room.

The Moral

I didn’t plan to bring the 1935 redlining map to Omaha’s current discussions about housing, but it’s no accident that it happened.

When I was a kid, my mother often baked bread. I’d come home from school and the dough would still be rising or the bread would already be in the oven. Either way, the yeasty smell would permeate the kitchen.

John Paul Lederach, whose peacebuilding work has taken him around the world, was inspired by the process of bread-baking. Lederach rejects a “how many” focus on the “critical mass” of social movements and instead looks to the “who” – the people he calls the “critical yeast.” In his view, social change occurs because key people who are different – people Lederach describes as “not like-minded and not like-situated" – are connected through relationships.

These people become the critical yeast for transforming the social situation for themselves as well as for others. The social bread rises.

In his piece, Daniel Friedman situates Civity in the frame of Complexity Science: a “powerful interdisciplinary framework for thinking about systems that consist of many interacting subunits.”

Civity recognizes that communities of people are systems – from families and organizations to the vast global network of social relationships that connects us all. And if we understand the power of networks and connections, we see that because we are connected, because we are social beings, our actions reverberate throughout the system. “When individuals act locally, our actions are amplified by the pre-existing network structure of our society.” What I do affects the people I interact with; effects on them affect others.

I have a friend who sometimes says of a situation, “This is something I can do.” The something isn’t taking responsibility for the whole situation; it’s finding a piece that is do-able and then doing it.

The something that I could do about segregated housing in Omaha was to get the redlining map. The fact that the map is now around and about in Omaha? That’s Civity at work.

Say What?!

Wait a minute, wasn’t the story about me and the map?

Well, yes, but also no.

The most important part of the story above is the following:

“Over the next few months I talked to city planners and other government officials, to housing developers, to investors, to residents and neighborhood advocates, to lawyers. Overall, I “coffee”d (new verb!) with a few dozen folks.”

These conversations were Civity Conversations – conversations in which I shared my genuine care for the community and passion for tackling injustice with fellow members of the community who were not necessarily like-minded and definitely not like-situated. They, in turn, shared with me their own stories and passions. These conversations were not just me getting information; they built genuine relationships that connected me with people in what I think of as the housing ecosystem or web in the Omaha region. The kind of fellow-member-of-the-community-even-if-not-BFF relationship that Civity is all about.

We are socialized to focus on the action of an individual – in the story my unearthing the redlining map. And we are socialized to skip over and minimize relationships and the ways in which those relationships are built.

But it was the relationships that leveraged my individual action. When I got the map and passed it along to the folks I had connected with, Civity sprang into action. Getting the map from someone they had talked to person-to-person was different from reading about the map in an article by someone they had never met.

The fact that our relationships heighten the effects of our individual actions is a bit paradoxical: I as an individual matter more because I am connected to others.

But that is the power of complexity and the dynamic of non-linear interaction in systems.

It’s easy to look out at our worlds and feel that tackling deep-rooted structures of inequity is beyond us; healing deep divides is too much.

But because of systems and networks and complexity and critical yeast, it turns out that we can do something and that what we do matters.

We do have power, if we use it.


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