How Connecting with Neighbors Can Help Maintain Democracy
Egge is a songwriter affiliated with the Culture of Inclusive Democracy Laboratory. Sound 12e The album “Between Us” was released last year.
At the end of February 2020, I had to fly from my home in Brooklyn to perform three concerts in the Pacific Northwest. I was stunned by reports of a new type of virus that was spreading rapidly in Seattle. I read about the outbreak in an assisted living home and watched scary videos from emergency rooms in China. I quickly decided that I wouldn’t be flying into the eye of the storm in Seattle, so I canceled flights and shows and let my fans know their tickets would be refunded.
I repeated these steps for my shows in Texas the following month – over and over again. The pandemic has been quite a difficult time for me. I’ve been on the road touring since I was 21 when my first album came out in 1997, and now I’ve found myself out of a job. The past two years have been extremely difficult, as they have been for so many people.
In June 2020, I received a call from Eric Ward, Senior Advisor at the Western States Center, an organization that works to strengthen inclusive democracy across the country. He invited me to join the band’s new Culture Lab, a program that helps singer-songwriters build authentic community connections that challenge the political and social divides of our time. Ward is not only an experienced civil rights leader, but a die-hard music fan and a musician himself – so I was very happy to join the band. The Culture Lab was a great opportunity to learn and expand my community, an antidote to the isolation I felt at the time, and a chance to learn more about what I could do to counter the hate all by sowing love, acceptance and understanding in a world in crisis.
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The program mixed political education with relationship-building sessions held virtually on Zoom. We learned and practiced some basic skills to connect with people through shared values. I made friends and relationships. Above all, I began to understand the potential power I have through my music to foster inclusion and belonging and that musicians can serve as trusted messengers to their fans to drive positive change. My mind was blown. My heart opened up.
A few months after the sessions ended, I was asked to lead a new band based in New York – a smaller, more focused version that we named The Neighbor Project. I was joined by fellow musicians J. Hoard, Mali Obomsawin, Rench (of the bluegrass/hip-hop group Gangstagrass), Diana Jones and Lucy Wainwright Roche for virtual sessions aimed at promoting the ideals of belonging and inclusion through collaboration with a neighbour.
The musicians in the cohort are all different, but our goals are the same. We try to fight hate by bringing more inclusive messages and practices to our listeners (especially listeners who don’t tend to spend a lot of time with people from backgrounds different from their own).
In my two years of working with this incredible group of songwriters, we have all learned a simple lesson: stopping the bigotry that threatens our democratic society can start with getting to know your neighbors and appreciating them for what they are. Our experiences show that you don’t need a huge investment either. It just takes a little time and attention.
With that in mind, I now volunteer weekly through Mutual Aid South Brooklyn and my local Chinese-American planning council, delivering meals to eight homes for mostly Chinese seniors in my neighborhood. . I realized this would be a good opportunity to work with some of the tools I was learning from the Neighbor project.
My first deliveries were more than a little inconvenient. Most people on my route seemed to live alone. I needed to put them at ease, so that they didn’t just retreat and quickly shut the door in front of a masked stranger. I turned to Google Translate on my phone to communicate. I flipped through a message on my phone, held it up, and pressed play. The speaker’s message came out in a language they could understand.
“Hello, my name is Ana”, he said. “I’m glad to see you today. I hope you are well.”
It worked – sort of. Many people were intrigued and nodded or waved in gratitude. A few were a little discouraged and rushed back to their apartments before my greeting could be heard through. The following week, I typed a new, slightly longer post about the beautiful spring weather. I saw some of their eyes light up – a man gestured proudly towards his little garden showing me his flowers.
Eventually, my neighbors became more comfortable with me and my hesitant use of technology. and our interactions became increasingly relaxed and welcoming.
One day last spring, I was walking through my neighborhood with my daughter, who was 7 at the time. We stopped to take in the beauty of the cherry blossoms and she befriended another little girl. They introduced themselves, but didn’t go much further than that as my daughter speaks English and her new friend speaks Mandarin.
However, they shared many other interests – such as climbing trees, playing with sticks, drawing in the dirt, and swirling their arms in the air as the wind blew the pink blossoms from the trees.
When I told my daughter it was time to go she asked if we could get the girl’s phone number so we could meet up and they could play together again soon. I tried to explain to him why I couldn’t do this – I didn’t speak Mandarin.
“So?” my daughter begged me. “Please?”
I paused, took out my phone and approached the girl’s mother. As I awkwardly waved at my device, we finally managed to “talk” to each other – again with the help of Google Translate, much to the delight of our daughters.
About a month later, we met my daughter’s new friend, Rachel, and her mother again in the park. We found each other like old friends. Even though we don’t speak the same language, it didn’t take much more than a few taps to break the ice.
These interactions may seem small in the face of all that is happening in the world, but I believe that through these connections we can make a difference. It is now the start of summer 2022 and I finally find myself hitting the road again. I look forward to taking everything I’ve learned during this destabilizing time with me and sharing it with my audience and the people I meet along the way.
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