If a community like ours works well, who deserves the credit?
One might focus on the village’s board of trustees or departments, the schools, development agencies, businesses, or nonprofit organizations. And of course, a community’s functioning depends on these important entities and the services they deliver to be well managed, fiscally responsible, accountable, creative, and effective in achieving their outcomes.
But walk around Oak Park, or any town or neighborhood, on any particular day, and you’ll see a lot of the community’s work getting done quite apart from any of those organizations. There also exists a second, more spontaneous realm of action than that occupied by the agencies and boards through which the community accomplishes many of its tasks.
Think of this informal layer of the community as its organic, “co-productive,” sphere.
Without it, none of those formal entities execute their jobs effectively. Many of the “goods” expected from the formal units — safety from the police, education from the schools, wellness through clinics, or fitness from the park district — are in fact co-generated all around us and under our feet: by families, friends, neighbors, and citizens just doing what they do as they move around during the day.
Much of the real creative work in a community is rarely recognized. It is in most instances uncompensated (monetarily at least), and it does not routinely build anyone’s “brand.” It occurs in a steady flow of commonplace, micro-scale actions that — when things are working right — seem to just flourish all around us. Yet it’s the small, daily efforts of regular life that engender safety on a house-by-house, alley-by-alley, and block-by-block scale. The unregistered “classrooms” run by families and neighbors teach children many of their most vital lessons. They also nurture and ready them for formal schooling. And the daily negotiations involved in getting along with others cultivate basic civic habits.
Families in particular are vitally important to the community’s co-productive base. We need to appreciate, celebrate, and support them as generators of many of the “goods” that determine whether a community works or not.
Consider one example in just one arena — schooling: Reading to one’s child imparts knowledge, builds language skills, and fosters parent-child relationships so other small opportunities for positive “work” can occur down the road. A thousand mothers and fathers reading to their children, all separately and without any central coordination, boost the educational “output” of the community in ways the schools absolutely depend on, but in the end cannot lead or compensate for if it’s absent.
In Oak Park, we embrace a diverse array of family forms. When they thrive as “co-producers” with the police, they make us safer; with the schools, they make us smarter; with the park programs, they make us healthier; and with local government, they make us more civically engaged.
Rich Kordesh is an Oak Park resident and author of “Restoring Power to Parents and Places.”