During the recent provincial election, four candidates showed up for a party at my apartment — one Conservative, one Liberal, one NDP and one Alberta Party.
At one point, mid-evening, they all gravitated to the living room, away from the other guests, for a spontaneous cross-party candidate huddle.
“How’s the campaign treating you?” one of them asked.
“Door-knocking is a grind,” another answered, “but it’s cool to meet so many people.”
“You hear some really interesting perspectives on the doorstop,” said a third.
For five minutes, the hectic campaign melted away and partisanship was put aside. They relaxed, acknowledging the unique situation that they shared. Later, when they were giving their respective pitches to the room, they each took a moment to congratulate and thank the other candidates for their hard work.
When I started hosting We Should Know Each Other parties in 2008, I didn’t really have any outcomes in mind. The idea that “we should know each other” seemed so intrinsically valuable that I never thought to explain or justify it.
Four-and-a-half years later, though, after hosting 99 of these events, I’ve started asking: Why should we know each other?
In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam distinguishes between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital (which, basically, is the idea that social networks have value).
“Bonding” social capital is probably the more familiar of the two — it refers to communities of “like” people who naturally gravitate to one another, often people of the same age, same race, same religion and so on. These communities are really important. They’re your core peeps, the ones you call to help you move, or when you’re in crisis. They’re your family, your soccer team, community association, church, classmates, dinner club or drinking buddies.
But there’s a dark side to these communities. They can become echo chambers reinforcing a single point of view and can start to breed exclusion. This is how feuds get started between families or teams, how political rhetoric starts to trump political fact, how anti-LGBT and white supremacist groups coalesce. If we only talk to people who think just like us, it can start to get... dodgy.
That’s where “bridging” comes in. The idea, here, is to bridge the gap between diverse groups, creating communities that are more inclusive of difference. What does that look like? Well... maybe your church does an exchange with one of a different faith, or you volunteer for a new theatre company, or you throw a block party for the neighbours you’ve never met. Or, maybe, you come to a We Should Know Each Other party.
For years, I’ve described We Should Know Each Other as a “community-building event,” but that’s not quite true. WSKEO wasn’t designed to build community, so much as to disrupt it.
My goal, from day one, was to create a comfortable environment for difference, so that diverse people could step away — even temporarily — from their social silo and explore the surrounding landscape. I wanted to create a “bridge” allowing “bonding” communities to overlap. So far? It’s gone pretty well.
I’ve had an illuminating conversation in my kitchen with a police officer from the violent crimes unit. I’ve learned how to comfortably navigate the awkward game of pronouns with transgendered guests. Attendees have started dating, working together, becoming friends. Politicians have set aside their differences.
We know each other. Now what?
“Bonding” and “bridging” aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re part of an ecosystem. You’re not likely to meet a stranger at a WSKEO party and promptly disclose your deepest insecurities; likewise, you’re unlikely to hear a startling and revelatory worldview that wildly clashes yet oddly complements your own when speaking to a longtime friend and confidante.
The key, I think, is to make sure we’re always seeking balance in our communities. It’s important to dedicate time to your core groups — that’s where we fulfil our basic need for socialization, and when you have a tight group of people who know and trust each other, it can snowball into large-scale positive social change. On the other hand, every once in a while, we need to take a tentative step outside of our social comfort zones to see what else is out there and remind ourselves that the world is a big, vibrant, beautifully varied place, ready and eager to be explored.
We Should Know Each Other #100 runs September 29, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., and September 30, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at King Edward School (1720 30 Ave S.W.). wskeo.com