Bonds and bridges

Last week I had the pleasure of attending lectures at UNC by two of my intellectual heroes: Danielle Allen (previously, and previously) and Mindy Thompson Fullilove (ditto). For an audience of UNC professors, Professor Allen took up the daunting subject of “reconciling free speech and social equality on college campuses.” A democratic theorist and a classicist by training, Allen draws from deep wells to support her advocacy for democracy as both a good end in itself and a proper instrument for securing a society that distributes its benefits equally.

Equality, for Allen, is the value that should underscore our thinking about rights: the right to free speech, to freedom of association, to economic fairness, and so forth. Accordingly, she is less interested in the goal of inclusion and more concerned with the problem of domination. Social differences are inevitable and not, on their face, objectionable, in her view: where things go wrong is when one group has the power to dominate another. As she has written elsewhere,

The Civil Rights Movement was largely structured around a discourse of exclusion and inclusion. Blacks had been excluded from schools, restaurants, economic opportunities. The point was to get us included. This discourse of exclusion and inclusion has for a long time been the basic strategy for dealing with the failings of liberalism’s supposed commitments to universal rights. When universal institutions prove to be otherwise, get everyone included and then we can move on with our lives.

But it turns out that exclusion was not the problem. “Our problem is domination, to be solved by non-domination,” she writes. It’s a hard problem to solve, because “[l]iberal institutions in America were built on documents and principles that provided liberty for some and domination for others,” she continues. “We have not yet learned what it means and feels like to live with one another, with the many and different others among whom we find ourselves, on the footing of equality.”

In the context of college campuses, addressing her UNC audience, Allen cited the difference between the demands of the classroom, where the cognitive work of learning takes primary importance, and the functioning of other, more open campus spaces, which pose other kinds of demands on our intersubjective relationships. No matter the setting, though, the common goal should be that social differences not generate inequality: the goal is to honor “difference without domination.” The task thus becomes to build bridges across our differences–bridges that put us on equal footing.

Almost in passing, she remarked that the field of psychology, which works well for supporting us in our “bonding relationships,” our relationships with those who are close to us, it is not well equipped to foster “bridging relationships.”

Enter Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and urban planner who bridges multiple disciplines to practice “social psychiatry”–which she describes as “looking at people in the context of larger social systems.” What is it that connects people to place? she asked as she opened her lecture before an audience of planners and planning students celebrating the 70th anniversary of the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning. We become tremendously attached to place. “A person plus a house is part of a community,” she said.

Community, in turn, suggests “something in common.” A well-functioning community is one that is able to confront and solve its common problems: a well-functioning community is “the social foundation of health.” Referencing a recent study, she noted that “a rich person in a dis-integrated  community will have worse health than a poor person in an integrated community.” (“Integration” for Fullilove is not necessarily racial integration. She does not favor forced racial integration. Like Allen, she does not believe that “inclusion” for its own sake offers the key to social health.)

Echoing Allen’s concerns about equality, she focused on the lasting harm done by decades of government-sanctioned, government-subsidized segregation of housing and neighborhoods, not simply because they separated, but because the result was to strengthen the legal practice of systematic racial domination. We still live with the consequences, she observed.

Dis-integrated groups no longer share sentiments. Their hearts beat fast for different objects. That’s what has happened to us. Everybody has a “those people” they want to help. How can you run a nation like that? We are the paralysis that is catastrophic for the future.

A dire diagnosis from the urban psychiatrist, followed up with a prescription of suggested action plans for bridging differences in healthy ways. One success story she offered is [murmur], a Toronto-based oral history project that brought people together to celebrate the histories and legacies of their shared spaces. Teenagers created an “urban cornucopia” of stories and posted them online, so you could “hear about here.” As a result of the project, some young people who were thinking about leaving the city decided to stay.

Fullilove’s home town of Orange, New Jersey offers an impressive example of a community’s self-organizing to pursue greater levels of employment and education. Orange is a low-wealth community with a very high percentage of minority residents (African Americans, also Haitians and Guyanese). Working with others, Fullilove secured a state neighborhood revitalization planning grant that concentrated on an area on both sides of an “urban renewal”-era highway that had split the downtown. As she explains in her book Urban Alchemy, the resulting “University of Orange” was established, with the mission of “Making Orange, NJ the urban village of the twenty-first century, a just and beautiful city.”

It was with these quite different, but complementary talks in mind that I attended a meeting of the Chapel Hill Parks, Recreation and Greenways Commission on Wednesday night. On the agenda was a discussion about a proposed pedestrian bridge across Morgan Creek that would connect an inner neighborhood, Kings Mill-Morgan Creek, with the outer neighborhoods of Laurel Hill, the Woods at Laurel Hill, the Reserve, and beyond.

The bridge would join two paved roads which, at one time long ago, might have been connected for auto traffic, but that is not the idea now. The idea is to facilitate pedestrian and bicycle traffic from the outer neighborhoods to the inner, and from there to multiple destinations, including the Botanical Garden and the UNC campus. The bridge is contemplated as a strategic expansion to the town’s network of bike/pedestrian routes.

Neighbors near the proposed bridge site in the inner neighborhood are apprehensive, especially the ones living closest to it. Their privacy concerns are real and to be respected. But they are not the only Kings Mill residents who voiced objections to compromising the isolated, rural feel of their environment. (The neighborhood consists of large, wooded lots, a seamless environment in many ways from the Botanical Garden, truly much nature to value here.)

Neighbors from the outer side of the creek expressed different concerns. They want to be connected. They want to walk to the Botanical Garden. They want to bike to work. We’re not scary, they assured the assembled group. Our children and yours go to the same schools. We are your neighbors. We would like to get to know you better.

Toward the end, a man from the Kings Mill side said, “This comes down to the issue of personal prejudices versus collective community desires. That’s the challenge we see now around the world: how to honor personal spaces while also being connected. How do we balance this polarity?” To which I would only add, How can we ensure that this bridge (and others) truly connects and equalizes, rather than sparking further divisions?



Renton Public Library, King County, Washington, connecting downtown Renton to a city park, over an active salmon habitat in the Cedar River. 2016 AIA/ALA Library Building Award. Photo, Emre Erdin



Comments are closed.