How building bonds with our neighbors can help sustain our democracy
Egge is a songwriter affiliated with the Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab. Her 12th album, “Between Us,” was released last year.
At the end of February 2020, I was scheduled to fly from my home in Brooklyn to play three concerts in the Pacific Northwest. I was glued to news reports of a new type of virus rapidly spreading in Seattle. I read about the outbreak in an assisted living home and watched scary videos of emergency rooms in China. I quickly decided that I would not be flying into the eye of the storm in Seattle, so I canceled flights and shows and let my fans know that their tickets would be refunded.
I repeated these steps for my shows in Texas the following month — and on and on again. The pandemic has been quite a tough time for me. I’ve been on the road touring since I was 21 when my debut album came out in 1997, and now I found myself without work. The last two years have been extremely challenging, as they have been for so many people.
In June 2020, I got a call from Eric Ward, senior advisor at Western States Center, an organization that works to strengthen inclusive democracy across the country. He invited me to join the group’s new Culture Lab, a program supporting singer/songwriters to build authentic community connections that combat the political and social divisions of our era. Ward is not only an experienced civil rights leader but a diehard music fan and musician himself — so I was very excited to join the group. The Culture Lab was a great opportunity to learn and to extend 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 hate while sowing love, acceptance and understanding in a world in crisis.
The program mixed political education with relationship-building sessions held virtually over Zoom. We learned and practiced some basic skills to connect with people through shared values. I made friends and connections. Mostly, I began to comprehend the potential power that I have through my music to foster inclusion and belonging and that musicians can serve as trusted messengers to their fans to foster positive change. My mind was blown. My heart was opened.
A few months after the sessions wrapped up, I was invited to lead a new New York-based group – a smaller, more concentrated 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 seeking to promote the ideals of belonging and inclusion through collaboration with a neighbor.
The musicians in the cohort are all different, but our goals are the same. We’re trying to combat hate by bringing more inclusive messages and practices to our listeners (especially listeners who don’t tend to spend much time around people of different backgrounds than their own).
In my two years working with this amazing group of songwriters, we’ve 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 who they are. Our experiences show that it doesn’t take a huge investment, either. It just takes a little time and attention.
In the spirit of this, I now volunteer weekly through Mutual Aid South Brooklyn and my local Chinese-American Planning Council delivering meals to eight homes of mostly elderly Chinese Americans 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 few deliveries were more than a little awkward. Most of the people on my route seemed to live alone. I needed to put them at ease, so they wouldn’t just withdraw and quickly close the door in the face of a masked stranger. I turned to Google Translate on my phone to communicate. I thumbed out a message on my phone, held it up and pressed play. Out came my message from the speaker in a language they could understand.
“Hello, my name is Ana,” it said. “I’m happy to see you today. I hope you are well.”
It worked — sort of. Many folks were intrigued and nodded or waved thankfully. A few were a little put off and hurried back into their apartments before my greeting could play all the way through. The next week I tapped out a new, slightly longer message about the nice spring weather. I watched as some of their eyes lit up — one man gestured proudly to his small garden showing me his flowers.
Eventually, my neighbors got more comfortable with me and my halting use of technology. and our interactions have become more and more relaxed and welcoming.
One day last spring, I was walking in 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 get much further than that because my daughter speaks English and her new friend Mandarin.
They did, however, share many other interests — like 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 telephone number so we could meet up and they could play together again soon. I tried to explain to her why I couldn’t do that — I didn’t speak Mandarin.
“So?” my daughter begged me. “Please?”
I paused, took out my phone, and walked up to the girl’s mother. As I awkwardly motioned to my device, we eventually successfully”‘spoke” to each other — once again with the help of Google Translate, much to our daughters’ delight.
A month or so later we ran into my daughter’s new friend, Rachel, and her mother again in the park. We reunited 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 might seem small in the face of everything that’s happening in the world, but I believe that through these connections we can make a difference. It’s now early summer of 2022 and I finally find myself going out on the road again. I’m looking forward to taking everything with me that I’ve learned during this destabilizing time and sharing them with my audience and the people I meet along the way.
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