Strong social ties may be more important than anything else.
By Kristin Jones
It took years of barbeques, Christmas parties and Cinco de Mayo festivities for some people living in the San Luis Valley town of Saguache and nearby KV Estates to feel like they could count on their neighbors.
It took a pandemic to provide a perfect illustration of why that mattered so much.
When the spread of the coronavirus forced Coloradans to stay in their homes, a community group called the HEART of Saguache and KV Estates was quickly able to identify the most urgent needs.
Eighty seniors living in the communities—each of which has around 500 residents—let HEART know that they needed meals delivered; some live in remote areas where food can be hard to access even in the best times. HEART worked with South-Central Colorado Seniors, the Area Agency on Aging for the San Luis Valley, to deliver boxes of food. The group also arranged for another 100 families to receive boxes that included fresh fruit and vegetables and laundry detergent. When a water main broke in KV Estates, contaminating the water supply, they solicited a donation from Walmart and found a way to deliver a pallet of water.
One family gave them a call, said HEART coordinator Laurie Vigil, on a 17-degree day when the heat had gone out in their camper. “We were able to take propane and groceries and get the boxes delivered to them,” Vigil said.
This is an area where about one in four people was experiencing poverty even before the crisis hit.
At the same time, “I know that in the past there was not a lot of trust,” said Vigil, who is a long-time resident of Saguache. Before local residents did the work of building stronger relationships within the community, people who needed things “wouldn’t reach out.”
That has changed over the years, through a series of one-on-one meetings, community-building events and celebrations that seemed endless until COVID-19 ended them.
HEART is one of the community groups that The Trust has supported through its Community Partnerships grants. The communities we worked with came up with their own plans for addressing the deepest needs in their towns and neighborhoods, with the idea that they knew their own assets and challenges better than anyone else. They spent time building connections—and building power—across various parts of the community that hadn’t interacted much in the past.
And while each community was different from the others in geography, demographics and the most pressing challenges, nearly every one of them chose to focus their resources on building more cohesive, connected and inclusive communities. They held movie nights, senior luncheons and barbeques, and spent their time advocating for the improvement of shared public spaces. They worked across languages and cultures.
Social scientists sometimes use phrases like “social cohesion” or “social capital” to describe what makes a community work well together. Features like strong relationships, common values and a sense of trust, reciprocity and solidarity are found in some communities and not in others.
That kind of collective strength can be a matter of life and death, and researchers have documented the ways it helps communities weather disasters.
Daniel Aldrich directs the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University in Boston. In 2005, Aldrich had just moved from Boston to New Orleans with his family, including two small kids, when Hurricane Katrina hit. Naive to the strength of Gulf Coast hurricanes, he was planning to wait out the storm in the house.
“Thank goodness a neighbor came over and saved our lives,” said Aldrich. They took their neighbor’s advice and evacuated; the house and everything in it were destroyed.
The experience changed the focus of his academic career, from Japanese politics to disaster resilience: “Now, I’m a traveling social capital salesman.”
In the years since, Aldrich and his colleagues have collected data—some of it going back 100 years—showing that strong social ties help people prepare for, survive and recover from disasters. Nothing is more important, Aldrich argues.
While disaster preparedness often focuses on either helping individuals get their plans and emergency kits ready or aligning government spending to prepare for the worst, these approaches are doomed by themselves, he said: “All the data show what really matters is cohesiveness, connections to our neighbors, the depth and breadth of our social ties.”
In the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that hit Japan in 2011, social cohesion made a difference in mortality rates, he and his colleagues found; in high-trust neighborhoods, residents literally picked up elderly residents from their homes and brought them to safety, or knocked on doors in search of neighbors who needed help.
It wasn’t being elderly and poor that put people at risk, Aldrich found. It was being elderly, poor and isolated.
The same effect played out in a deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995, he said. Elderly people who were well-connected found places to escape from their fatally hot apartments.
Recovering from disasters, too, is easier when you have a deep well of social ties to draw on. In the wake of Katrina, for example, researchers found that a strong community of Vietnamese immigrants, though poor, were able to recover much faster than expected.
Aldrich and his colleagues have found that to help in a disaster, two kinds of ties are important. The first are what he calls “binding ties”—the connections to people who are similar to yourself and can offer emotional support and a shared language. The second are “bridging ties”—connections to people outside of your immediate group, who might have access to resources, knowledge or power that you otherwise wouldn’t.
Both kinds of connections have been important for the members of Yuma Unified Making Advances, a diverse group of community members in the agricultural city of Yuma on the Eastern Plains, said coordinator Kerri Horton.
“We’re checking in with all of our members individually, knowing that they’re all affected by inequities differently,” said Horton. “We’re doing one-on-one check-ins with all of them to make sure everyone’s doing OK. A few of our members deal a lot with depression and anxiety.”
They found that the coronavirus crisis made them want to connect with each other more, even as physical distancing requirements made it difficult. Instead of meeting every two weeks in person, as they had before, they’re now meeting once a week by Zoom. Navigating language barriers has been a challenge, but the team is committed to making it work, said Horton.
Some of the work the Yuma group did before the crisis seems prescient now.
Eva Ruiz moved from Mexico to her grandparents’ house in Yuma four years ago, when she was 13. In middle school, she learned about a leadership group for young Latinas, called Estrellas. Now it’s one of several activities she’s involved in, along with attending high school and working six hours a day at Dairy Queen.
In 2018, Ruiz and some friends had the idea of building a food pantry that was open 24 hours a day, and available to anyone who needed food, diapers, toilet paper or other necessities. Through a partnership with the local nonprofit Rural Communities Resource Center and with a grant from Yuma Unified Making Advances, they built the shed, calling it the People’s Pantry of the Plains. She had noticed that people have trouble asking for help, and thought this was a good way to get around it.
“If they don’t have any dinner to eat, they can go there and help themselves,” said Ruiz. “It’s an anonymous thing.”
Belicia Rascon, a 12-year-old member of the community group, wrote an additional grant application to get it stocked consistently. (“If you don’t eat, you die,” she wrote in the proposal, explaining the social determinants of health without wasting time with the jargon.)
The pantry has been a consistent source of emergency supplies for the community. People leave notes in the bulletin board inside the shed. One wrote that the People’s Pantry had saved their life, said Horton. Another wrote that they hadn’t eaten an orange for years.
During the crisis, it’s been harder to keep it stocked, said Margo Ebersole, director of the Rural Communities Resource Center (and Belicia’s mother). But with the difficulty of keeping food pantries open and the risks of going into grocery stores, it’s been a more important resource than ever.
The power to connect people to the resources they need is almost impossible without strong relationships greasing the wheels. It’s especially crucial during a crisis, as these and other Community Partnerships groups have demonstrated in the last few weeks.
In Lago Vista Mobile Home Park outside of Loveland, a team of residents has been able to connect people in their community with Wi-Fi hot spots that the school district was distributing, and to answer questions about the pandemic.
In Hillside, a diverse neighborhood in southeast Colorado Springs, neighbors have been checking in on each other, volunteering their services and delivering care packages, as well as advocating for additional resources from the city.
In Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, community organizer Erin Grajales and several neighbors have spent the past year holding events in underutilized parks—bringing out sidewalk chalk, bubbles and jump rope to engage people with their neighbors.
A lot of people in Fountain live there for a short time and move on, said Grajales. “We have quite a few residents that are residing in rentals, or military families that buy in the area to live there for one to three years. We’ve heard that people struggle to feel connected.”
She knows the feeling. Grajales’ husband is on active duty in the military, and their family has been transferred to Hawaii, Germany, and finally here.
“I know what it’s like to move around a lot. I know what it’s like to feel new or disconnected from your community or your home,” said Grajales. But after just a year and a half here, she and her family feel deeply connected to this place. “We’ve fallen in love and have decided to stay.”
Since the pandemic began, she’s found that her group has been making good use of a phone tree that they built up over a year of organizing events in the park and at the library.
“We’ve been checking in with residents on an individual basis. We’ve spent the last year building these bonds with people,” said Grajales. At the same time, “our work in Fountain has provided us with the opportunity to connect with multiple community partners and organizations. We’re abreast of local resources that are available and new ones that are becoming available.”
Now, she said, “we’ve seen ourselves being a bridge of the two—connecting residents to the great new resources that are available.”
Several of these groups have had to cancel community events planned for the spring—the same kind of events that allowed them to build the strong social ties to begin with. Saguache canceled its Cinco de Mayo event. The monthly meet-ups at the library in Fountain aren’t happening.
And some fear that the worst may still be ahead. In Saguache, Yuma and other rural areas, there are a lot of older people who could be vulnerable to the virus. Horton wondered whether enough people were being tested for it.
The organizers I spoke with said they’re motivated to keep looking out for their neighbors—now more than ever.
“This is my home,” said Grajales. “I care about this community.”
Aldrich has seen the same kind of local action happening where he lives in Boston. People have been putting notes under the doors of neighbors who might need help, and checking in with people who are elderly or immunocompromised. This is life-saving work, he said.
“However long this lasts,” he said, “these are the communities that are going to do well.”