A cup of sugar, please…

Ricky Porco during an interview with WHSV news.

If you’re old enough and fortunate enough to have grown up in a neighborhood that flourished with close friendships, you’ll understand the title of this post.  Once upon a time when you ran short of sugar in the middle of a batch of chocolate chip cookies, you walked next door. Before the Internet captured our attention, before airlines crisscrossed the world accessing places once utterly remote, and before our new global mentality altered our perspective, neighborhoods defined our worlds. Community didn’t mean, “we are the world.”

But that has changed — and not all for the better. Too many of us are disengaged from our neighbors and communities. I’m guilty. I don’t even know many of my neighbors’ names. Some say it hasn’t made us happier. The truth is: no matter how far we travel electronically or otherwise, how connected we feel to the world at large, the immediacy of a physical locality has benefits like nothing else.

One JMU student from Westchester, N.Y., has worked all summer to put the sugar, as it were, back in our neighborhoods. Ricky Porco (’13), an energetic, determined, hard-working JMU junior majoring in communication studies has started a local online community with a huge goal: to reverse our electronic separateness and reinvigorate our sense of local community.

I learned about Ricky’s work when a flyer arrived on my front porch about CommonPlaceHarrisonburg. Intrigued, I got in touch with him. I learned that he, inspired by the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, was determined to make a difference. Ricky explained his mission so well in an email to me that I’ll let him tell you more. Here’s what Ricky wrote:

The book Bowling Alone outlines a simple principle that seems to have less publicity than it should: Civic engagement in America has been on a consistent decline since the 1950s. Across the board, from participation at town hall meetings, to participation in civic social groups, right down to the most minute metrics like “picnics in public parks” have been on a downward slope for substantially longer than I’ve even been alive. People don’t know their own neighbors, don’t trust them, don’t care about interacting with them. In my opinion, this is a tragedy, and thankfully mine isn’t the only opinion that matters because many sociologists would agree that these factors contribute to our (also declining) happiness as people. A nation that prides itself on togetherness, ironically, is so ‘un-together’! If we could increase neighbor-to-neighbor interactions, and thus, increase the level of trust people have in their neighbors, maybe then, could people be happier? I certainly think so, and that is one of the things that motivates me most. I love happy people.

Human beings are tribal by nature; we to want to be part of a group, a community. I believe that the decline in community cannot be directly attributed to the notion that people don’t engage within their community simply because they don’t want to. Rather, I believe that community is in decline because of a whole host of other distractions, and most importantly an increase in a communication gap. Every minute that you spend watching television is one less minute than you spend interacting. Currently, 54 percent of households in the US have at least three TV sets, up from 11 percent in 1975 (back when community was experiencing decline, but still mattered more than it does today). TV is just one example of a distraction and has proven itself expert in drawing people away from their community.

The other important factor is a widening gap in local communication. Remember way back when the best place to communicate with one of your neighbors was the post office? Well, the post office barely exists these days. I’ve sent one letter through the USPS in the last three years, and I’ve sent about 250 emails in the last week. So how else do you communicate with your neighbors? How would you, lets say, find other new mothers in your area who have 2- year-old children to start a weekday play group? You can utilize social and work networks that you’re already part of, and meet and communicate with those people who are connected to you by an organization. You can take out a classified ad in the local newspaper or on Craigslist advertising for moms to contact you if they wished to start a play group. You could start calling random people out of the phone book or walk around town with a megaphone calling to all new mothers. All acceptable answers, all pretty fruitless efforts to connect with people around you. Simply put, people don’t start civic groups not because they don’t want to, but because it’s not easy.

Convinced?  Ricky was. After developing a similar, successful program in Falls Church, Va., he brought it to Harrisonburg. Part Facebook, part Craigslist, part newspaper and part old-fashioned party line, CommonPlaceHarrisonburg is an online LOCAL community that acts as a platform for local civic engagement. It connects people with common needs and interests within a specific locality. It’s so local, in fact, that you need a Harrisonburg or Rockingham County address to join the network.

Out of this platform, Ricky hopes face-t0-face engagement will occur. “While interactions on the CommonPlace platform start out as electronic,” he wrote, “many of them require face-to-face interaction at some point, and the hope is that all communication that happens on the platform leads to increased face-time with your neighbors. That’s a big difference between the type of communication that happens on CommonPlace and most other electronic-based communication.”

So, if you need a cup of sugar, go next door. If you live in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County and you want to find someone interested in yoga or recycling or starting a children’s play group, or if you want to trade a piano for a gas grill, or organize a group for spelunking or beading, CPH is the place to start.

The possibilities are limitless — yet close to home.

To explore and join CommonPlaceHarrisonburg, visit the website: https://www.ourcommonplace.com/harrisonburg

You can read even more about Ricky Porco and his work at Harrisonblog: http://www.harrisonblog.com/2011/06/commonplace-harrisonburg-uniting-local-residents-and-organizations-in-one-central-site/

(Harrisonblog, by the way, is run by another community member who believes in the local community, Harrisonburg Realtor and JMU alumnus Chris Rooker (’92). Like Ricky, and hundreds of JMU alums who’ve made Harrisonburg their permanent home, Chris is also interested getting people together.)


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to A cup of sugar, please…

  1. shellhite says:

    Go Ricky! What an awesome idea


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