The Unseen World of Everyday Heroes and People That Drive Community

A big part of what drove the launch of Community Corps is the idea that we have more to learn and gain from each other when we work together. A big way in which I found this idea to be true and where it grew bigger in my head and heart was through military service. The U.S. military, despite what sometimes makes the news, is far and away one of the more integrated social systems in our larger society.

Statistically, it may bend towards certain demographics (more Southern, male, white and conservative), but having been in it (Army), I would say it truly does take all types to make the machine run. I personally witnessed high levels of engagement and mutual acceptance among service members regardless of origin, race, gender, politics or sexual orientation, which is hard to believe in today’s environment, I know! What mattered was whether people were doing their jobs – by that I mean, if you saw a person as someone you could count on, that’s what soldiers tended to care about most.

Recently I had the honor of attending the retirement ceremony of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Colin Thompson, who has been (is) a great leader, mentor, and friend. His military service spanned decades. Among his many notables, he was the first Georgia Army National Guard enlisted soldier to graduate the Army’s elite Ranger school.  Anyone who has ever served knows that human beings are complicated and that they defy easy categorization and resist stereotypes when you get down the base unit of the single individual. Colin has trained and mentored hundreds of individuals in his career, not just in things military but in life. And I know lot of individual people are deeply grateful to him for that, myself included.

LTC Colin Thomson (center), LTC Brett Duke, and myself at retirement ceremony

Insofar as military units are microcosms of our larger communities, they offer a lot in the way of insight and experience from those who have served or who grew up in that environment – e.g., military families too. The “tribe” of those wearing a uniform is bound by an ethos that goes beyond race, class or other constructs. I am not saying such things do not matter by any means nor that these issues do not need attention and work, but the identity group is more inclusive in the military community than in many others. They have a shared purpose and set of values to rally around and which enable people to overcome differences that in our larger society often seem to divide us more easily.

Present at his retirement ceremony were people from many different backgrounds, along with more than one general officer, folks who represent the highest ranks of leaders charged with the strategy and execution of how this country recruits, trains and deploys its men and women in both war-time and peace operations. It all reminded me of the likely thousands of people who will retire this year from the military and other jobs we associate with public service, and who, while different from each other in some ways, still share a common cause and identity.

Colin served much of his time in the Army National Guard, where the need to serve people in communities both in this country and abroad was a constant. Such service revolves around a number of pillars, which include “respect” and “self-less service”, both stated Army values. The desire to give back and a sense of duty towards your fellow citizen are hallmarks of the quiet professionalism and undercurrent of continuous dedication to the mission that define so many everyday heroes who hold jobs as soldiers, police, teachers, and other critical roles in society. I would argue that you know these types of jobs when you look at how much people say they respect them vs. how much they don’t get paid!

But they don’t do it for the money, and in that same vein one thing that is striking about Colin is that he is uninterested in medals and accolades. He flies under the radar as they say, working every day to do something to make things better… for his friends, for his family, for his colleagues and for his country. So, on the one hand his is a “regular guy” but he is also what we might call the quintessential everyday hero. There are many of these people among us. For me they represent the best in what community has to offer when individuals and groups work together for a common cause.

Another source of stories and encounters with regular people in different communities across the U.S. is the recently launched podcast American Tributaries, created by Michael Whidden, who is building an organization (really a movement) that enables high-school kids from one part of the country (and certain walks of life) to visit and interact with their peers in other places and perhaps dis-similar walks of like.

Michael shared that, “I ran my first trip at the end of July…a pilot trip with four high schoolers from the New York City area to South Carolina…and what gave the me the greatest hope in years was seeing City students and South Carolina locals from various backgrounds meet each other and learn from each other as fellow human beings first and foremost…and part ways with heartfelt respect and affection, regardless of the political issues that others would like to divide us.”

While I often listen to podcasts about or with famous people, what strikes my most about Michael’s podcast is how interesting and engaging the stories are about regular people. I can chalk that up to my own lack of imagination and biases perhaps, but hearing their stories and learning about them is a real inspiration. As my Michael reminds us, “”Regular people living ordinary lives are just…well…extraordinary!”

The larger point is that despite all the dark times of our cultural unravelling, there are lots of well-meaning people out there and lots of good intentions, words and actions among people who are “not like you.” Our community and the communities across our country are hugely valuable assets that can help any one of us to find our place in the world, discover meaning, set goals and grow as people and as groups.

Relatedly, I just got done reading Malcom Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, where he unpacks much of the headline news around the conflicts that divide our world and U.S. communities in particular. Some of his examples relate to race, others to class, and still others to something as simple as time and place, as in “you’re not from around here, are you?” And while he would not deny that something like racism is an issue in our country, both among and between individuals and on a more systemic level, he actually looks at why we often don’t get along with each other from a very different angle.

He points out both some of history’s greatest catastrophes (the rise of Adolf Hitler) as well as many of society’s “everyday” tragedies (the story of citizen Sandra Bland and police officer Brian Encina, which he focuses on in his book) and how they result from gross misunderstandings and a failure on the part of one or both parties to correctly read our fellow human beings. None of this is an attempt to exonerate bad actors by Gladwell (or me), from evil world leaders to ill-trained, inept, or sometimes racist police, but he does see this as a wider failure on the part of society to equip us with the necessary tools to understand “strangers”.

Community Corps aims to make each and all of us less like strangers to one another. That’s because, despite many of our individual and group identities that tie to race, religion, profession and other factors, we do indeed have shared identity as community members, as Americans and, well, as human beings. For that same reason, Community Corps is excited to welcome LTC Colin Thomson (ret.) to our Board and to our effort to build a movement towards community-based universal service whereby all Americans can come together for a time to see, get to know and understand each other as they work to develop themselves and their communities in the best way they can, for everyone’s sake.

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