Eric Liu is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the author of You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen and, most recently, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy. He is CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship and American Identity.
It’s not hard to bond with people just like you. What Americans need are more connections to people who aren’t.
My wife and I are blessed to live in our neighborhood, a part of Seattle called Madrona that calls itself “The Peaceable Kingdom.” We live on a block with neighbors we love. We have potluck dinner parties every month. We share rides and tools. We exchange home repair know-how, pie crust recipes, general advice. We give and get the tomatoes from our gardens and the plums from our trees. We walk across the street just to visit.
It’s a little idyll of neighborliness. And if I’m honest about it, it’s also a little cocoon of homogeneity and privilege.
I’m the only non-white person in our neighbor circle. We are educated, affluent, middle-aged, liberal. We live in expensive single-family homes. We are all literate in civic power, and we all know, for instance, how to get the city government to pay attention when the contractor at the new house down the street breaks noise and safety rules.
At a time when the United States is becoming more starkly and rigidly unequal, when Americans are sorting themselves into demographically uniform clusters, we are evidence of the problem. We are, at least passively, the cause of the problem.
This is the downside of high neighborliness. It is a classic case of “bonding social capital,“ which tightens the weave of trust among people who are already alike—as opposed to “bridging social capital,” which helps generate trust among unlike groups.
Bonding capital makes for in-group loyalty and unity. But a civically healthy society depends on bridging capital, and what social scientist Mark Granovetter has called “the strength of weak ties.” America is sick today in part because the weak ties that used to be fostered by diverse neighborhoods and associations are dissipating.
Which is why the most important place in my local civic life is the Y.
One mile from our street is the Meredith Mathews East Madison branch of the Seattle YMCA. Technically, it’s in the adjacent neighborhood called the Central District, but it draws members from a radius that includes Madrona. Because of redlining, the Central District was once the heart of Seattle’s African-American community. It has a deep and rich history of activism and art: Meredith Mathews, who led this branch in the 1950s and ‘60s and died in 1992, was a big citizen in black Seattle.
Today the CD is gentrified and whitened nearly beyond recognition; condos, pot shops, and hipster pubs dominate the landscape. But the YMCA branch named for Meredith Mathews remains. And, perhaps because it is one of the few truly integrated institutions in the area, it is thriving.
I’ve been a member since 2001, the year after I moved to Seattle. I work out three or four times a week there. And when I reflect on my life as a Seattleite, I realize how much this Y has shaped my family and our sensibilities.
The members are poor and rich, from every generation, every racial category, every faith background, every gender and sexual identity, and the full spectrum of ability. The staff and the trainers are equally diverse. The crowded lobby is sometimes a multiracial coffee klatch for seniors after chair yoga, sometimes a hang-out zone for teens from the Y Scholars program, sometimes a hub for parents taking toddlers to swim class.
The cardio room is like a periodicals library, the racks filled with magazines that members bring in instead of recycling. It’s here that, while huffing on the elliptical machine, I peruse publications I don’t subscribe to (politically or literally), like National Review or the Weekly Standard or Reason. It’s here that I re-discovered Scientific American and Consumer Reports.
The gym upstairs is where basketball and volleyball teams play but it’s also where neighbors converge for spring clean-up and where the Garfield High School drum and cheer teams perform for Youth Day and where kids run free during summer camp.
On one level, I am simply describing the programs any Y in the country offers. But what a program description can’t convey is how a highly functioning Y is a city in miniature: not in its aggregate diversity but in how it teaches members how to live in diversity.
To be a 16-year member of the Meredith Mathews Y means I’ve learned how to listen to and make small talk with strangers who grew up in the American South, or South America, or South Central L.A., or the South Side of Chicago. It means I have consoled an acquaintance, who then became a friend, when a beloved Y staffer was murdered in a random shooting. It means I’ve gotten to suggest to the young staffers at the front desk that they look up from their screens and greet me when I come in. It means giving way as a fitness trainer who has lost his eyesight moves down the hall on his way to class. It means giving my book on citizen power to a veteran who volunteers at the Y and has decided now to organize other veterans to push for change at the VA. It means talking politics with a legislator who helped make marriage equality the law in our state, and marveling that he can talk shop while getting sweaters on his four squirmy boys.
It means my wife strikes up great conversations in the sauna, where people are quick to comply with social norms (like not hogging a bench) when reminded. It means remembering how my daughter was awed by her first swim teacher, an African-American man with the bearing of an old-school drill instructor. It means watching people I see only at the Y, and whose names I don’t even know, grow up or grow old as the years and the workouts roll by.
These are weak ties; weaker, at least, than the ties that bind my wife and me to our blessed neighbor dinner group. But it’s for the strength of these weak ties that I go to the Y. The truth is, I could get my cardio workout by running around my own leafy block. I’ve got 40-pound dumbbells in the basement. But I could never get civically fit by staying in my smallest circle. If I didn’t have the Meredith Mathews Y, and still wanted to live like a citizen, I’d have to invent it.
The question for you is simply this: What’s your Y? And if you don’t have one, how will you find or create one? The health of our cities and our nation may depend on it.