Monday, July 21, 2008

What's your idea of community? An interview with Jen Lemen

I started reading Jen Lemen before I started reading any other bloggers. I'm not sure how I came upon her site, but I did and she never ceases to amaze me with her ability to tap into so much of what I'm seeking that day. More than that, I'm more captivated by her ability to reach out to her community and be open to it.

If you aren't familiar with her work, she recently went to Africa, a trip that has changed her life and she's still trying to find that new normal. The stories are incredible. It's an adventure that was only possible because she was open to it. In the end, that seems to be the nugget I walk away with. Stay awake; remain open.

The journalist in me sees more to Jen's story. I wanted to find out more about how she builds these relationships, how she nurtures them and how she came to have an urban family, which she writes about often.

Now, it also happens, Jen told me, that these very things that I interviewed her about are also the very things that have shaken her to the core and have her in a little bit of a major life transition -- a major upheaval of sorts. I didn't intend to make matters worse, but she assures me my questions were therapeutic. Let's hope so. Thanks, Jen!

Here we go:

BWTL: My husband and I live in a very racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood and city. We had been trying to move to be closer to his job (and after some serious crime issues) until this job of mine came along, which is just down a few blocks and which has inspired our decision to stay and try and make this work a bit longer. We are some of the pioneers trying to revive the city. The thing is we've never really fit in ... I'm still longing for that quintessential urban family that you write about often. I also long to get to know some of the people I might not normally get to know. Now that I've dumped all that ... you seem to have a talent with building community and that is what I want to focus on.

How long have you lived in your Silver Spring neighborhood? What's it like? What's your neighborhood like?

We moved here in June of 2005. Our neighborhood is pretty diverse--we are mostly a mix of middle class working and professional/established white families with some Chinese families, a couple of Turkish families, some Spanish-speaking families and a few African American families who have been here for decades thrown in in between. We have young families here, too, and down our street there is a collection of garden apartments where many African and Central American immigrants live. It's not Sesame Street, but it's close. I should also mention that we rent.

What does community mean to you?

For me, a community is a web of support, a big nest of kindness that is big enough to hold you along with the many things you need to feel connected, cared for and close. Communities pick up the slack, fill in the gaps, point out the holes, mend the fences and create a space where you can be yourself and you can grow and understand you are not too much. Your needs get spread around along with your capacity to give. I find that a community--while holding you close in so many ways--actually gives you more space to develop and grow. It's very hard for people to achieve this kind of thing alone or in their nuclear families.

Do you feel America is losing out on the idea of community?

I think America is reaching out more and more for community really. We see it in all different kinds of ways--when people decide to go to each other's houses to watch a favorite show, when families eat dinner together, when women decide to pull their friends together for fun when everyone is worn out and run down. Our bigger problem as a country, I think, is believing that having our own stuff and our own space can make us happy. Americans really struggle with this--it's hard to imagine that you could actually be more fulfilled by giving up your privacy or your time, but I've found that to be the case over and over again.

You write often about your urban family. Can you please describe what that family is, how it came to be and what it means to you?

My urban family is comprised of my immediate family (Dave and the kids, Madeleine and Carter), our next door neighbors Mark and Meryl (who are 60 something) and our other next door neighbors Nick and Jess (who are twenty-something). We function as a close extended family and offer each other a lot of practical and personal support. People who come to visit me often remark that it's like one family living back and forth between three houses--we do life together (and apart) in a fairly free, fluid way. That includes four to five meals together a week, giving each other space, hanging out on the weekend when we feel like it, cooking, celebrating birthdays, promotions and other life events, fighting in front of each other, having major meltdowns, talking about our day, asking each other questions, giving each other advice and lots of other stuff in between.

All this happened gradually over time, but the seeds were planted with Mark and Meryl when we first moved in and I went over everyday to borrow something or look for something to eat in their frig. They started looking forward to my visits, and were delighted to be imposed upon after living quietly in the neighborhood for 30+ years. My kids became friends with Nick and Jess first by talking to them as they came and went on their way to and from work. Those conversations gave way to frisbee and a kind of play the kids really needed. Dave and I didn't factor in, until I went next door to bum a cigarette off Nick one drunken New Year's Eve. We started hanging out more after that, and have been good friends ever since.

All of us like to cook, so it was only natural that we start sharing food and putting our meals together on the same table.

I've always had some kind of urban family everywhere I've lived, but I can't begin to tell you what this one means to me. They are so dear to me--I really don't have words to describe what it's been like to have this level of love and support.

You have tapped into the African immigrants in your community. How did that happen and what has that been like for you?

It's not hard because we live across the street from the elementary school where 80% of the children who attend come from immigrant families--over half come from Africa. I have always felt deeply at home with people from other cultures, so it's natural for me to reach out. Sometimes people avoid conversation or eye contact with immigrants because they are worried about making people feel uncomfortable in communication, but I've found the opposite to be true. I always say hi and chit chat with the women dropping their kids off, even if we can only exchange smiles or little greetings. These little exchanges have opened to the door to deeper friendships where very sweet connection is possible--I honestly do not know what I would do without these women and all the ways they show me how to be humble in opening my heart. I need them so much.

What is the most courageous thing you've done to build community?

Not worry about what other people think. Also, I have shamelessly and aggressively asked my neighbors for help over and over again on many levels--practical, emotional, social, spiritual. Without that, this community might not exist.

You raised money last year for an ice cream party for your neighbors. Can you share a photo of that? What did that event mean to you? Did it change anything in your neighborhood?

It was mostly just fun and made me happy. I don't know if it changed anything for anyone else, but it definitely opened doors for me to talk to people who might have been shy before that--especially immigrant parents. It helped that we did the ice cream day with an African guy named Musa and that we tried to be as low-key and discreet as possible about the money that made the day possible. There was no big-give there, just love.

What's the hardest lesson you've learned in these community-building endeavors?

The hardest thing for me has been realizing how fragile my own nuclear family is and how our success as a family is deeply intertwined with the existence of the urban family we have created. I'm going through a time of soul-searching and personal transition right now and I'm very aware of all the ways I crafted this community to keep my own family together. That's been scary for me to admit to myself and hard to hold as I think about the future. Building a community has been a lot easier for me than creating a traditional family.

What did your Africa trip do to influence your idea of community?

Rwanda really blew me away. I was really shocked at the level of cooperation that happens there on a daily basis. My kids love the song from High School Musical with the line "We're all in this together" and I thought I understood what that meant, but really I had no idea. Any plan or priority anyone has can be shelved in a second, if someone else needs something. This has adversely affected development to some extent in Africa, but it has done wonders for people's sense of belonging to each other. I could say more, but that gives you a taste.

What three things would you suggest to someone like me or one of my readers to do in their own community to reach out to people we do not know?

1. Say hello to everyone you meet. Smile and don't worry about seeming insane for being so cheerful. If you want an urban family, you have to start by loving the people around you however you can and letting them love you. You don't need more than one other person to make a difference.
2. Share whatever you are cooking, baking, eating as much and as often as you possibly can. If you have extra anything, drop it off. If you are having a party for whatever occasion, invite someone over. Food is a great connector and breaks down so many barriers. No one has time to cook or entertain or enjoy food anymore, so you do a big thing when you bring that joy to your neighborhood. If you have kids, absolutely make them part of the invite or the delivery--kids (and dogs!) are natural community builders.
3. Ask for help. Really, without this, there is no community. Some people build community by offering help, but I think that's a mistake in the end. You will connect much more deeply with others around your frailty than your strength. So ask for soy sauce, advice, charcoal for the grill, help with your kids, ice for your party, paper towels, whatever you need really. You'll be shocked at what comes back to you as a result.
4. Decide that your neighbors and the people who live near you are the dearest people on earth. So many times, people think that community is only possible in certain settings with certain kinds of people and that you just don't happen to have the right conditions for having community. It is not true. Your community is right there waiting for you. If you love it as it is, it will blossom and offer you gifts you could not have cultivated on purpose or predicted in a million years. Love these people for whoever they are (even if it is only joy over yard work and neat, tidy yards at first!) and be open to being surprised.


Jozet at Halushki said...

GREAT interview with an amazing woman!

Thanks for this, Shawn.

Our little suburban doesn't immediately have the outward diversity of an inner city neighborhood - and I lived in center city Philly for years in a transitional neighborhood (that was taking a long time to transition, and thank goodness) - but upon closer examination, each family does have it's own story, identity, needs...we've started slowly with nieghborhood picnic nights and we're getting there. It's harder, I've found, to meet people in the burbs. Much more "bedroom communities" where not many are home during the day.

But if you can lure them out at

Thanks again, Shawn. This was fab.

Octamom said...

We have found the need for connection with our fellow community members to be so essential following our multiple moves after living for a decade and half with a majority of our extended family in the same town. In such a mobile community, it is so important to relearn or refresh our understanding of 'loving our neighbors as ourselves'. We have been so blessed to have come to know some amazing people who have shared our lives.

I would love to say that I have been the one to reach out, that I have always been the one to take the first step, but that hasn't always been true. I appreciate this reminder to take the wheel, be the one to set the tone.

Thanks for a great interview piece!


Shannon said...

Great interview, Shawn. Jen has already inspired me to look beyond what I think I'm capable of & start thinking that anything is possible if you just take that first step. Now, I've learned that I need to learn how to cook. :-)
Seriously, though...since moving to a new place recently and falling in love with the community around me I've been itching to reach out and become a part of it, this interview gives some great advice for doing just that.
Thanks gals! xoxoxo

Jennifer Boire said...

great interview. thanks for helping me find Jen's blog too. You are both wonderful writers, and insightful moms. I wish when my kids were little there would have been bloggers, cause a sense of community is so crucial to a mom's survival. We feel isolated in our homes with our children otherwise. I became much less shy about asking for help once I had kids,
aka musemother at
ps found you through Bella

Anonymous said...

What a lot of fencepost wisdom this is. Thanks for all the encouragement.

RocketMom Cheryl said...

Thanks for sharing this interview. I think, I must practice asking for help.

Threeundertwo said...

Great interview. I really like her last point especially -- decide that your neighbors are the greatest people on earth.

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