Community and Therapy


One of the pleasures of conducting research interviews is that you can discover things along the way that had not occurred to you when planning the project. Or these unexpected discoveries cause you to rethink your perspective on a given subject, even if you thought you knew it well. Whether it’s the second or fifty-second interview of a given project, you never know when these flashes of insight will occur.


These flashes can sure get you hooked.


Questions and Answers


For this project, I have been focused on the community actions that help to deliver basic services to people, whether it’s access to food or housing that is affordable or primary health care and so forth. I’ve now talked with nearly 30 organizations in New York, Connecticut, and Ohio so far about their work, the challenges they have faced, and what they imagine for their communities’ futures. I have questions that I ask every interviewee and then subsets of questions that are asked of specific groups.


  • How would you describe this community to a visitor like me?
  • What would you say are your major cost categories?
  • Of these crops that you mentioned, about how much of each do you produce?
  • Why would you say people volunteer around here?


There are days that can feel repetitious. For social scientists doing qualitative research, we know there is value in asking the same questions across groups of people. This is how we distill patterns and find differences that hopefully sum to plausible explanations for why things are. 


Finite Numbers


But, as I learned early on in a grad school quantitative methods class, numbers and statistics are only finite representations of an infinitely quantitative world. Likewise, the questions we ask in qualitative research, as much as we hone and polish and rehearse them, are also only finite pokes into the vast knowledge and experience of people. 


At some point, a social scientist must accept that they will never design the perfect interview guide, that there will always be a question that you wished you could have asked. A bit of faith is required: that the answers we are given to the questions we ask will answer other questions we would not have known to ask. (Maybe we should have known to ask them—but no one is perfect.) 


On the question of ‘why people volunteer (or work/attend) around here’, I typically get such answers as,


  • “It just feels right working in the community.”
  • “This church is basically a ‘third place’ where people can come together. It’s also one of the few places that’s actually inter-generational.”
  • “It’s nice to spend time around other people now, especially given the isolation of Covid.”


Community as Therapy


But several people across different types of organizations have emphasized the specifically therapeutic aspects of communities coming together to solve specific local problems. Now these people are not licensed therapists and neither am I, so we’re not making any medical claims here. But as one urban farmer in New York City described his garden’s volunteers,


This is very heavy therapy, especially if you’re older. This is it. You have to put your hands in the dirt at least once in a lifetime so you can be a part of something. So this is not just the individual in the dirt, but we become a collective in this dirt. Trees, flowers, you have to be among those things. And when those things become synthetic, that’s not healthy.”


In this country, many of our elderly report feeling lonely or socially isolated, a situation that was exacerbated with Covid. Such isolation is often associated with poorer health outcomes. We may know people who have retired who, without the daily rhythm of going to work, seem to have lost their bearings. For those who are not elderly, many nonetheless craved the real-ness of outdoor nature during the pandemic.


And even if we tried addressing such poorer health outcomes, conventional, doctor-to-patient advising may not necessarily be effective, given realities on the ground. As an urban farmer in Cleveland described the health of her neighbors,


Sure, the doctors will tell you that if you don’t stop eating this that you’re going to become a diabetic. But no one helps you with how to prepare your food in a certain way. You might get your food from the food bank. But if someone who looks like me and knows my situation helped me with how to prepare cabbage or chicken in different, healthier ways, then my behavior might change. You trust me. You’re part of my community. That makes a difference. But 99% of the time the experts don’t live in the community. They don’t know our lifestyles. They’re recommending things that I know they know will work. But will it work for someone who does not have the income to go to a major food or gourmet store?”


At her farm, yes, people came together to garden, but they also had time to just catch up, listen, and be present with each other. In this community, people learned how to prepare healthier food, and many experimented with yoga for the first time.


For many organizations and their founders, it took years to understand that these benefits were occurring, benefits perhaps outside of their initial goals. These organizations face a variety of challenges: declines in membership/volunteers, climate change (for farms and gardens, in particular), and pressures on their land from local governments and developers. 


But, it’s an incomplete picture to measure or judge these organizations based primarily on the amounts of crops they produce or the number of affordable units they build or the amount of household assistance given. That is, the things we can easily count. Those are important metrics, but for specific purposes. 


Such metrics are ultimately finite numbers attempting to explain a vaster world. As many respondents described, their groups are filling in for services that would have been provided by a local government, which now lacks a tax base to provide those services. Losing those groups would create an even bigger vacuum of such basic services. It’s not clear that a government must be the provider of those services, but decision makers must consider the broader, less visible work of community organizations before taking actions that negatively impact those groups.