Sometime you hear a phrase so often that you want to offer a reward to the person who doesn’t refer to that same quotation in a speech or commentary, even when it makes perfect sense. I believe that an individual who can reach into her collection of choice quotations and not fall on the easiest pick deserves recognition and praise. So, today I want to leave that praising for another occasion and simply suggest that we all take a rest from employing the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. We don’t need that break because this aphorism doesn’t reflect the truth but instead because it needs, as the academics would argue, to be unpacked.
In repeating this proverb so casually, we assume that those villages actually exist for all children. I can make an argument that for the most privileged of our children, that their parents can and do, in many cases, build that village by themselves around their children. They can buy tender and nurturing childcare; they can organize communities to support their children. They can fashion every sort of safety net to make certain that their child doesn’t have to rely on services supported by taxes and donations. It may be too strong a statement but we can suggest that the richest families among us have privatized villages, taking care of their own, of course, and depriving our public spaces of their support and engagement. Take schools, example. It is true that in some areas where there are lots of private schools that public schools are not very good. What sort of relationship is that? Do the parents that can afford to do so get their kids out because the schools are bad? Or do the schools get worse because the talented students and their parents with resources have left them?
If children attend schools where there is a concentration of poverty, research suggests that academic achievement will be low. The segregation of Americans by income, culture and other dimensions, the great sorting out in Bishop’s terms, has been further investigated by Robert Putnam and Mark Dunkleman. They have examined the disappearance of middle-range ties, those connections that bridge income and opportunity classes. This, they suggest, hollows out community and leaves us concerned only about our own, because we don’t have encounters with others who are different from us, face different challenges in participating in the American dream and have worldviews that may challenge our own. It is here where I want to make the connection to those villages that are supposed to be raising children.
I am reminded of the story—more a parable—that is often told to college students and congregants where the teaching objective is to get them to consider the root causes of social problems. The Babies in the River story tells the tale of an individual who quite unexpectedly sees a baby floating in the river, and, of course, rescues him. Another baby comes down the river; another rescue ensues and so on and so on until our hero has to enlist others to help her care for the children. More and more babies arrive and pretty soon, a sizable community is needed to care the needs of these infants. Not only are we pulling them out of the water, we are also comforting them. We are seeing if they are well; we are feeding them and fashioning ways to keep them warm and safe. And, we are continually organizing and re-organizing ourselves. Not only do we need caretakers; we need supplies and resources. We need some assurance that these children are ours to care for. We need someone to make certain that these obligations that we are taking on can be supported by our community. And, we need to rely on people who are just as motivated as we are by this mission to save and nurture these children. Imagine today, if your community—you personally had accepted the responsibility of helping to support an unknowable number of infants. Imagine what you would need to get this done.
But, in the telling, that is not the end of the story. The moral of the story is that someone should travel upstream to see how these babies are coming to travel down the river in the first place. Who or what is creating this humanitarian crisis and what can we do to address this? In whose interest are these babies landing in the river? Is someone benefitting from such an arrangement? The lesson here for students is that we shouldn’t get so focused on immediate needs of those we care for that we neglect understanding and addressing roots causes. This makes obvious sense. If we eliminate a disaster, avoid suffering, that is all to the good. But, I think there is another important point that is not often made.
What has made it possible for that community to organize itself on behalf of the babies in the river? What made it impossible for them to walk away from the river in the comfort that certainly this mission was someone else’s? Or that these children or their parents made this misfortune on their own and that released them from obligation? What made it possible for there to be a match between the needs of the children and those who gathered around them? Where did these resources—time, talent, and compassion—originate? This sort of community making doesn’t emerge out of thin air. And finally, what came before, what human connections, communities of caring, trust and concern had evolved in earlier settings and were activated in this one?
Villages require connections and what some call social capital. People bring resources, which are connected to other people; or they know people. Others know how to get things done; they know when to call City Hall and demand action. Others know when we need some new ideas. With other talents, some know how to tell a story so that our hearts are fired up and our cynicism melted. All this can be enlisted in the building of our village. To use Paul Light’s term, all are drivers for change and without these, no village is complete enough to care for its children.
Certainly, some of us can pay or move our way out of these sorts of obligations but that is not the sort of society that assembles when there is a need nor it is the sort of village that asks for truth when we seek the source of suffering.
And, as Rasmussen would suggest, we ought to look into our own souls, to see if the problem we aim to fix is one that we may have made.
In summary, not only does it take a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise us all up to become members of a community where we contribute our best and which we can turn to when we ourselves are in need of its care and kind concern.