A New Standard
Frost got it wrong. Fences don’t make good neighbors. Empathy, generosity, and respect make good neighbors, especially in a post-pandemic San Francisco.
The separation of races, income and opportunity that defined the past decades threatens to accelerate in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Preventing more tears in the social fabric of our City requires all of us to commit to upholding a new standard for what it means to be a member of our civic community.
A Promise to Move Forward
There are no silver linings from a crisis as calamitous as COVID-19. But there is an opportunity to challenge the structures, stereotypes and social norms that we previously tolerated.
First, we can challenge and change any structure, institution, rule, or practice that is not inclusive, empowering and transparent. Case in point, we cannot let our democracy and civic society go the way of Wisconsin — where partisan aims and bureaucratic barriers were used to manipulate the most sacred act of political participation — voting. There’s no guidebook for how to rebuild post-pandemic, which means we are free to set our course. We can choose to revert to the divisive ways of the past or to envision and then implement more inclusive social institutions and practices.
Second, we must embrace the idea of our city. We are all co-owners of San Francisco’s future. Some of us were born here, others just arrived. Some of us love it here, others are looking for a way out (or are being forced out). Some of us have spent decades working to improve the city, others are just working to keep food on the table. Now is not the time to debate who loves San Francisco more. Instead, this is a moment when we must celebrate the ties we all share.
Third, we must all rise to the occasion. Generally, social scientists have sorted folks into three buckets when it comes to civic affairs — pragmatists, fundamentalists and the unconcerned. Whatever lines divided these three camps must fade in a post-pandemic San Francisco. We’ve officially entered an all-hands-on-deck situation. Gone are the days when the American Dream could be realized by meeting your needs first, minding your own business and maintaining your side of the fence. We’re too connected to think that any sort of individualist approach will create a better future. It’s time we adopt a collectivist mentality with a community focus. This isn’t a call for socialism, communism or some other -ism. The only -ism involved is the schism that’s grown between the haves- and have-nots in our city. Closing that divide requires a bridge formed by civic engagement of every community member.
We need a pledge. Not to a nation. Not to a party. Not to anything that creates an us and them. We need a pledge to one another. Let’s call it the Good Neighbor pledge.
I pledge to be empathetic. Empathy is defined by Merriam Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” The most important part of this definition is action; empathy is not passive. So, to fulfill this plank of the pledge we must take specific, intentional actions to inquire into the well-being of others. This requires more than a Nextdoor post or Facebook lamentation. It mandates a concentrated effort to engage with others and walk (or Zoom) a mile in their shoes.
I pledge to be generous. I’m not a particularly religious person, but the Bible contains an apt story of the sort of generosity required: In Luke, an indigent widow donates two copper coins to the temple treasury; though surely an insignificant amount when compared to the gifts of others, Jesus praises her gift as exemplary. In the same way, San Franciscans have vastly different stores of resources to give back to our community, so contributions should not be assessed on size but on sacrifice. What are you willing to give up to make our city a better place for everyone to call home? Pledge to give as much as you can — be it your skills, your time, your resources, or simply an understanding ear.
I pledge to be respectful. We have become physically and ideologically segregated to an unacceptable extent. In fact, more than six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools are becoming increasingly segregated. This separation serves as a proxy for the vastly different lived experiences of most Americans. Forging a future together means recognizing that we all come from very different starting points. A prerequisite to progress is being tolerant, accepting, and understanding of others, while, of course, condemning egregious behaviors that conflict with the two previous planks of the pledge.
A pledge is a start to better normal, but a plan is what will move us forward. Each individual and every organization should outline the specific steps they will take to contribute to our city’s recovery. By way of example, my own organization — Neighbors for Nonprofits (N4N) kevin– will be hosting regular “Neighbor Hour” sessions via Zoom (and eventually in person) through which nonprofits can connect with community members to identify problems, discuss solutions and take action. N4N hopes to become a part of the plans of as many San Franciscans as possible. Nevertheless, there is no formula for the perfect plan. The most important metric is that it taps into your strengths, involves you in your community, and demonstrates your pledge to be a Good Neighbor.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.