Did you know that a gingham tablecloth can be a banner of social change? That’s the message people across the United Kingdom aim to send with The Great Get Together—one of the most ambitious and joyful street parties in modern memory. From June 16-18, 2017, neighbours throughout the UK will come together in more than 111,000 picnics, tea parties, bake-offs, and more, inspired by the late parliamentarian Jo Cox’s belief that “We are far more united, and have far more in common, than that which divides us.”
The Great Get Together is the brainchild of The Jo Cox Foundation and The Big Lunch, in partnership with more than 100 other organizations. In a time when loneliness afflicts citizens and newcomers alike—one poll found that half of Britons don’t even know their neighbours’ first names, while another study revealed 58 percent of London’s migrants and refugees say their biggest challenge is social isolation—The Great Get Together is a chance to reinforce the social connectedness that each of us needs to thrive.
But that’s not all.
Social connectedness is an often-overlooked source of national security. According to research commissioned by the Eden Project, the educational charity that started The Big Lunch, disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy as much as £32 billion every year. And for all the defense strategy and sophisticated intelligence in our arsenal, let’s not forget the most intuitive way to fight radicalization: by ensuring everyone has a seat at the table, and feels a stake in our shared future. Recent, polarizing elections in Europe and North America, and the rise of extremism and hatred, have laid bare the threat of what can happen when communal connections fray. By deliberately creating an opportunity for diverse people to celebrate unity, The Great Get Together hopes to build up resistance to the forces pulling societies apart.
This goal has taken on heightened urgency in the wake of recent terrorist attacks that claimed so many innocent lives in Manchester and London. In an uncertain world, we must resist the temptation to close up out of fear; or to surround ourselves only with “people like us”—whomever we deem “us” to be. The very real challenges our societies face will not be solved by tribalism. To the contrary, they require a greater willingness to truly see and listen to one another.
In that regard, we can all be inspired by the life of Christine Archibald, a 30-year old social worker from Calgary, Canada, who was murdered in the recent London Bridge attack. Archibald had devoted herself to supporting the most marginalized of the marginalized, including homeless men and women with drug and alcohol addictions. Her family said that “she had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected.” Kathy Christiansen, executive director of Calgary Alpha House Society—the homeless shelter where Archibald served—described her as someone who “felt that it was a privilege to do this work.”
I believe Archibald’s spirit of inclusivity, equality, and shared humanity is what our world is crying out for today—not only to spark rich conversations at events like The Great Get Together, but also to rethink what “community” should actually mean.
To be sure, we should seek to strengthen the bonds we share with our closest neighbours. But what about the individuals who don’t live in our building, or on our block, or in our neighbourhood at all? What about the people we may see as “different,” or “other,” or “not like us,” or the ones we’re conditioned to walk right past without ever really seeing at all?
Real unity demands that we take responsibility for getting to know those anonymous neighbours as well; and real community means that everyone feels like they genuinely belong.
Reaching out to the other—the poor, the forgotten, the foreign, the differently abled—might feel uncomfortable, or even scary. But familiarity is a powerful antidote to fear. According to Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, “one of the most effective ways to build empathy for people… is to learn about and interact with people who are different from you in race, class, culture, and who hold different religious or political beliefs.” And as Alice Walker once said, “it is only by empathy being aroused that we change.” Engaging with people who may not look or speak like us can help us see that strangers aren’t so strange—and help us build community where there is no capacity for “othering” at all.
Of course, none of this is as simple as setting a picnic table with a gingham tablecloth. But picnics and parties are a great place to start, as long as that’s not where we stop. We must widen our efforts to bring people together across all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, and identities, so that even if we are not neighbours in the proximal sense, we still are able to build good lives, together.
If we are to heal our broken societies, then “one of us” has to be all of us.