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Civity, Relationships, and the Art of Playground Jump Rope



"Relationships carry action verbs. Love. Marry. Rule. Fight. Correspond. Mix."

Dorothee Kocks*

Malka and I arrived at Civity by different paths.

By the time we met, Malka had spent decades convening and facilitating a wide range of civic engagement processes in communities all over California, and she had noticed that the relationships between the people involved were central to that work. When the relationships were good, the work was good: Relationships of trust and respect spurred processes forward toward a successful outcome.

I came to Civity as a community member working on issues in public schools and the larger community. I had noticed that it was relationships – between people inside and outside of government and also between people apart from government – that made things work. As a lawyer I had been trained to focus on and understand formal arrangements and processes, and yet people’s experiences in and of the community were tied to their informal interactions and relationships with others.

When Malka and I started sharing our experiences and perspectives, we discovered that from different starting points and with different experiences, we had both come to see relationships as core to whether communities can face up to and begin to address their challenges.

And so, Civity focuses on relationships.

In particular, Civity focuses on relationships that are too often given short shrift in communities: the relationships between people who are different, people who belong to different social groups. While less important emotionally to us as individuals, these weak-tie relationships keep communities from shattering.

Civity brings intentionality and a valence of respect and empathy to these relationships. Civity invites people to deliberately contribute to creating a culture of approaching others – those who are different – with mutual curiosity and belonging. Civity trainings provide individuals with everyday strategies for engaging others through conversation and interaction.

The more Civity work we do, the more Civity trainings we offer, the more communities we reach out to with the Seeding Civity initiative – the more we realize that Civity’s explicit recognition of relationships is a simple, yet profound, shift.

Modern Western civilization tends to be based on the “I.” The “I” is at the center of our economics and of our politics. The “We” in this social and cultural frame comes after and is created by some number of individual “I”s joining together.

In much of Africa, by contrast, the concept of Ubuntu articulates a different understanding: Human beings are interconnected. A saying often associated with Ubuntu – “a person is a person through other people” – evokes an “I” that is contingent, created, and connected.

These two different world views are “both-and,” chicken-and-egg. Yes, “We”s are created by “I”s: Groups are formed when individuals come together. And yes, “I”s are also created by “We”s: Each human individual survives because of and is shaped by the group into which they are born.

More importantly, “I”s and “We”s are both dynamic. Individuals grow and change, form and are thrown into groups, and leave groups or redefine them. Groups shift and adapt, develop new identities, shape individuals and embrace them.

“Relationships” is the word that tries to capture the lived human experience: We exist in a world in which we are connected to and defined by other people through interactions that are always-changing, multi-dimensional, and ever-so-nuanced. The quicksilver nature of relationships makes them challenging to measure and impossible to reduce to a single static dimension.

The world of relationships is a bit like the game – the art – of playground jump rope. Like playground jump rope, relationships can be intimidating, involve multiple people, require a sense of timing, and take some stamina to keep going.

And like playground jump rope, relationships can be exhilarating and rewarding, great fun, something that we can get better at with practice, and accessible to everyone on the playground without a lot of equipment.

Dorothee Kocks’ words at the beginning of this blog remind us that relationships are about action. Civity focuses on relationships, because the action – the interaction among us – is too essential to be incidental.

* Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in Modern America 164-165 (2000).


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