The way forward through the mess

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of the great and the good, held in the House of Lords in the UK’s Parliament and chaired by Lord Andrew Stone and my good pal Dr. Jude Currivan.

In the midst of those hallowed corridors, packed with likenesses of powerful prime ministers and monarchs, the building itself the very symbol of parliamentary democracy, we were there, we were informed, to come up with a way forward through the mess we’re in.

The title of the event was ‘Transforming Emergency to Emergence,’ and all of us were asked to get into small groups in order to come up with some ideas about how to transform the fragmented, polarized societies of the West into something better.

When it was my turn, I had only two words for them. It was ‘superordinate goal’ – a larger goal that can only be achieved by the collective efforts of everyone involved – and we already had a lot of blueprints from the past about how to go forward.

I was thinking specifically of places like Tailholt. Tailholt, Oklahoma, represents one of the forgotten neighborhoods of America. The town sits in a remote corner of southeast Oklahoma, a stone’s throw from towns with names like Bunch and Greasy and Tenkiller.

Tailholt’s own name, derived from the pioneer habit of traversing a flooded river by persuading a horse to fjord the river while holding on to its tail, suggests a place hanging on for its very survival. One-third of its population of 42,000 consists of Native American families, with an average per capital income of $27,000 and a house worth about $60,000. Those businesses that exist in Tailholt mostly cap employment at minimum wage.

With a cemetery within each mile of a twelve-mile radius, the most prosperous activity in Tailholt is laying its inhabitants to rest.

Badlands and bad water

The citizens of Tailholt had been trying and failing to get fresh water every year since 1999. Many members of the community had constant problems with their water sources. Wells ran dry, taps had low pressure, water was contaminated, or just smelled or tasted bad.

The Environmental Protection Agency has strict guidelines about what percentage of coliform present per milliliter of water constitutes water fit to drink. Coliform is a measure of the amount of microorganisms in the water, and certain forms — called fecal coliform — can make people ill.

Fifty-eight per cent of Tailholt households failed the coliform test. Every annual application to the national Indian Health Services funding for a grant that supplies the money for water to Indian communities had been rejected on the grounds of expense. There was just too little federal money to go around.

Tailholt residents were also desperate for a large community center as a central meeting place for organized activities. Again, it looked as though the vast cost of the project would never be picked up by the federal government.

In 2004, a group called the Cherokee National Community Work Projects was formed as a citizen group to provide small amounts of funding to help Native American communities like Tailholt when federal funding isn’t available. Cherokee Nation’s Community Organization Training and Technical Assistance (COTTA) scheme was also set up to teach communities how to band together and maximize any little money they could get.

The power of sweat equity

When the Tailholt community failed to secure the federal funds for their projects, they met with a guy from COTTA, who convinced them to be active participants in the construction of the waterline. The community needed “points” to help them qualify, and one measure of adequate points was how much of the project they were willing to do themselves.

The Tailholt community began holding regular meetings of up to 200 people, and a core group of thirty agreed to work on the community’s goals of a town meeting center and a fresh water pipeline. They agreed to provide most of the manpower to dig and bury the ten-mile pipeline into a four-foot ditch — a process that would take four to six months — with the county’s water department overseeing the project and providing technical assistance.

Although the water line would have cost some $579,000 to lay down, more than half of that cost was deferred because the citizens offered to do digging themselves and provide their own equipment. By subtracting what the labor would have cost, Hix was able to drastically reduce the federal funding necessary to get the project approved.

Because of Tailholt’s willingness to invest in “sweat equity” to build the community center as well, the Cherokee Nation offered $72,000 to provide the basic materials for the 3,700-square foot building. Tailholt’s request for small amounts of federal funding again made it through the fierce approval process precisely because volunteers offered to carry out the construction for free.

The community began scouting out potential locations for the building, but once again they were faced with money problems. Where would they get the funds to buy the land?

At one of the evening meetings, 80-year-old Pauline Sanders stepped forward. She had the perfect site for the building on her substantial acreage, and she was willing to donate nearly five acres, on the proviso that the center offer a literacy program for children and a nutrition program for the elderly.

The building and pipeline were both operational by 2006. Tailholt had clean water and a community center with a library, with free computer use, and a place for everyone to meet.

A community emerges

But the bigger payoff in Tailholt was the effect on the community of engaging together in a common goal. Before the building work had begun, the town’s population had felt isolated from each other.

“The whole process of getting this community building started has brought our community together,” said Jeremy Marshall, who is president of the Tailholt Community Organization. While the men showed up with hammers, squares, and levels, Pauline and other women from the community would show up at the site every day to cook lunch for the volunteers.

As soon as it opened, the center immediately became a fulcrum for the entire town.

Community involvement in the two projects became infectious in Tailholt; community members began to volunteer in other ways — for the rural fire department and fundraising. Further plans are afoot for a playground for the children, Cherokee language classes, an afterschool program and other activities for young and old.

Many of the citizens believe that the self-help nature of the project was the key. “It motivated the people and it makes them appreciate working for something instead of just having their hand stuck out for a handout,” says Lynette Studie, the chairwoman of Tailholt’s fundraising organization. “It’s involved more people. It’s the only way to do things.”

The lessons from Tailholt are not simply a blueprint for reducing prejudice or getting a community center built. They also offer a simple means of creating a New Neighborhood, to tear down walls between people.

From a scientific point of view, the true power of leaving our small space of individuality and coming together as a group to achieve a superordinate goal stems from a collective resonance effect.

Just as brain-wave entrainment can occur between two individuals, so it also gets established between group members working together. The electrical activity of each individual in the group begins to resonate on a common wavelength — a choir perfectly in tune.

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