"Our challenge now is to reinvent the 21st century equivalent of the Boy Scouts or the settlement house or the playground or Hadassah. What we must create may well look nothing like the institutions Progressives invented a century ago, just as their inventions were not carbon copies of the earlier, small-town folkways whose passing they mourned. We need to be as ready to experiment as the Progressives were. Willingness to err — and then correct our aim — is the price of success in social reform"--Robert D. Putnam
I believe that science fiction sometimes requires research into history as well as rocketry.
What can the past tell us about how to improve the future?
In my parents' home town, the New Century Club has functioned since the turn of the year 1900. On one surface, the club could be a target of satire. Its members meet monthly, and each month one member presents a paper on a topic of history or literature--often a book read or an aspect of local history. It is likely a monthly book report for people who are gathered for tea. It is the quintessential "ladies' club", one of numerous "New Century Clubs" which arose in its era all across America.
Yet in 1904, this social tea group began a form of social activism to found the first public library in the town, and by 1906, the old Leake-Ingram Building had been purchased to make this library dream a reality. This library was one of literally hundreds founded by "powerless" social clubs and similar organizations throughout the country.
Jane Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, the eighth of nine children. Her father was a prosperous miller and Republican politician. After she finished college, she tried to study medicine, but health problems forced her to give up that pursuit. She spent two years drifting a bit, reading and writing and thinking on what her vocation could possibly be. She went on a European tour, where she visited Toynbee Hall.
Toynbee Hall was founded in London's East End by an English curate who declined a comfortable post in an affluent area and intentionally took as his parish what others called "the worst parish" in London, comprised mostly of "the criminal element". He and his wife Henrietta founded Toynbee Hall, a "settlement house" which provided free and low cost services to the local residents, ranging from housing to free legal advice to to adult education to social organizing. Kids from the universities, including future prime ministers and parliamentarians, paid for the privilege of ministering to the folks on the bottom rung.
Jane Addams and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull House in Chicago, to bring the "settlement house" approach to this country. Ultimately, Ms. Addams won a Nobel Prize. She and others accomplished these things in a time when women did not have the right to vote, and in which the only funds available for such projects were family funds and funds scrounged from donations. Jane Addams worked what seemed to be miracles, but she suffered for much of her younger life from a congenital spinal defect which, until cured by surgery, gave her great pain. She spent the last decade of her life debilitated by a heart attack and the cancer which ultimately killed her. Yet, starting with little more than small town pluck and a bit of family money, she accomplished a great deal.
Although Jane Addams often "gets the historical limelight" in such retellings, her friend and Hull House co-founder Ellen Gates Starr deserves a bit of attention.
Ms. Starr was educated to be a schoolteacher, but she, too, was captured by the idea of starting a settlement house. She further focused her attention on another
facet of helping out. She wanted to bring the arts to the troubled neighborhoods.
She wrote something in 1895 that still resonates today:
"This is the fatal mistake of our modern civilization, which is causing it to undo itself and become barbarous in its unloveliness and discord. We have believed that we could force men to live without beauty in their own lives, and still compel them to make for us the beautiful things in which we have denied them any part. We have supposed that we could teach men, in schools, to produce a grace and harmony which they never see, and which the life that we force them to live utterly precludes. Or else we have thought--a still more hopeless error--that they, the workers, the makers, need not know what grace and beauty and harmony are; that artists and architects may keep the secrets, and the builders and makers, not knowing them, can slavishly and mechanically execute what the wise in these mysteries plan".
She fought to bring arts education to the settlement houses and the surrounding community. With Jane Addams, her college roommate, she fought to reform child labor laws. She also helped women garment workers unionize and strike against sweatshop conditions.
Bill Shore was an aide to two senators, who, like many, was moved to social action by the famine in Ethiopia. He founded "Share Our Strength", which takes no government money and aims to use individual contributions rather than foundation money for most of its operating funds.
In this time in which the right to practice one's faith is measured by some on the basis of one's political views on difficult questions, I find worth noting the following explanation Mr. Shore's non-observant parents gave him for declining to have a bar mitzvah for him:
"We are going to teach you to be a good neighbor, and to serve others, and if you understand both of those things, how to really be good to the people around you, you'll know the major principles of every religion in the world."
Share Our Strengh has grown into a succesful force in the fight against hunger in America. Its methods are suitably "pedestrian". Chefs volunter their time to do "taste of" festivals as fund-raisers. Shore approaches major corporations for programs in which, say, a purchase of a credit card item results in a few pennies being donated to the cause. In this time when government is being dismantled, Shore points up the importance of grass roots activism:
"I believe, I guess, that if you think you've invented a better mousetrap, if you think you've invented a better way to serve children to prevent infant mortality, I think you have a moral obligation to do everything you can possibly do to make sure that those services reach the desperately needy kids that need them".
Thomas I. Spidell the Second travelled the world promoting religious tracts and evangelizing for a now-obscure variant of Christianity. Among his travels, he collected many interesting items of folk art and old things and foreign curios. Back home in Nova Scotia, he founded the Parkdale-Maplewood Community Museum. The first exhibition was held in a barn. Seventy years later, in a building built by his neighbors in the 1950s, the museum still works at providing a community place for the display of the curious and of local history materials.
When I read these stories of tract salesmen and invalided millers' daughters, I think how much more I could do with more relative advantages than I actually do.
Although I vote on the "left" side of the chart, I am not really a huge believer in "big" institutions like government. I believe instead that many things I find beautiful and worthwhile are done by individuals who don't have any particular advantages, except the right idea and the will to work it.
Although the internet makes me feel less commonplace, rather than more, I see that my life is not the boring constant I thought it was, but a life different from other lives (perhaps by being so routine :) ). I'm impressed by how many "kindred spirits" there are, though, in the sense of people who really want to work at grass roots to make a difference, but don't always know how. But all these stories I read of the things that made a difference were started by people who didn't know how, either. The point seems to be that although most fail, the effort is worthwhile because all successes stem from effort.
I don't think I could found a Hull House, but I wonder if I cannot find something useful to do here in my own area. Maybe the only way to turn an absurd and unacceptable present into an absurd and more workable future is to set out to do, and then do.