Want to Start a Local Revolution? Ask a Kid This Question

When my two daughters walk to school they literally walk “uphill both ways.”

We live at the top of what’s known in Silverton, Oregon as Danger Hill, named for the sign at the bottom warning trucks of the steep grade ahead. To get to school my daughters walk down Danger Hill, through the flat downtown, and then climb up another steep hill. They are still too young — five and eleven — to appreciate the cachet this will someday give them when telling future generations how much harder things used to be. What they won’t admit to future generations is how much they actually loved that walk.

The trek to school is more than a mile long, missing sidewalks in places, with busy intersections and occasionally treacherous footing — and yet my daughters love it. And I love it, too. Because every morning the weather is decent, they all but beg me to walk them to school. It’s a great start to the day for us: good exercise, fresh air and a chance to see our town. Sometimes we absorb gaggles of other kids along the way and by the time we get to the top of that second hill, our little trio has grown to nine or ten children or even more.

Morning walks to school are also a great time for conversation. Last May, with summer break just around the corner, I asked my eldest daughter Molly what her hopes were for our neighborhood.

The first thing she mentioned was how she wished there were sidewalks up Danger Hill and around our neighborhood, to make it easier and safer to get around.

Second, Molly said she wanted to write to the homeowners association in the neighborhood next to ours, to ask them to allow non-HOA members to enjoy their park, which includes a lovely pond.

Third, she talked about wanting to do a neighborhood barbecue so all the neighbors at the top of Danger Hill can get to know each other better.

That question — “What are your hopes for our neighborhood?” — is a simple but powerful one. Having hope-full conversations could be the start of something special in your community. First I’ll talk generally about why this is so, then I’ll explain why it’s especially important to have those conversations with kids.

1. In a fast-paced world, that question encourages folks to make space for hope.

There is an insidious inertia to The Way Things Are. Initiating a conversation about someone’s hopes is an easy but powerful way to break through to The Way Things Could Be.

Life is often too fast and overly full. Many of us are so busy just getting through another day that we don’t take time to examine and articulate our hopes. Or perhaps the challenges of life have ground us down so much that it feels futile and even foolish to have hope in the first place.

Hope is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. Psychologists believe it is an “undervalued and underappreciated” predictor of success. Talent is important but talent alone won’t get us where we want to go. “You can have the best engine in the world,” says Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “but if you can’t be bothered to drive it, you won’t get anywhere.”

Hope doesn’t just put us in the driver’s seat. It affirms that we were there all along. We have skills, ideas, and agency — especially in the neighborhoods we call home. 

2. In a fragmented world, that question reveals common ground that was always there.

What also happens in hope-full conversation is that we discover we have shared dreams for our shared places.

I may have very little in common with the woman who lives next door. She may be totally different from me in her politics, religion, personality, age, life experience, etc. But if we discover through conversation that we both have a passion for helping women escape domestic abuse — or for better schools, more walkable neighborhoods, for the homeless or for a strong local library — then we become potential collaborators, maybe even the vanguard of a nascent local movement. My next-door neighbor and I now share common ground…both literally and figuratively. And those differences we’d let keep us apart all that time now become either irrelevant or, more likely, sudden advantages.

And even if we don’t discover a shared hope, this conversation has revealed something precious to us about one another.

The active neighborhood practitioner will discover that the more she has hope-full conversations with people in her community, the more she is able to facilitate new and exciting connections. She knows that Hilary and Summer each dream of starting a STEM camp for girls, and so she introduces them to one another. She knows that Erin and Ryan have both been privately harboring dreams of starting a local community foundation, and so she invites the two of them to coffee.

Follow the child?

As important as it is for adults to have conversations about our hopes, we shouldn’t stop there. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t even start there. Maybe we should start by talking to our youngest neighbors.

When I asked Molly, “What are your hopes for our neighborhood?”, it encouraged her to dream about what life could be like in our community. And it affirmed that her voice matters. The neighborhood hopes of an eleven-year-old are no less valid than the hopes of her 41-year-old father. In fact, maybe they’re more valid.

Why might they be more valid? Three reasons.

First, following Gil Penalosa’s maxim, if we designed our communities to be livable for the very young and the very old, they would be livable for all people. Penalosa is a livability expert and the founder of the nonprofit 8 80 Cities. In 2015, he told the AARP, “People who are 8 and 80 are the indicator species for good places to live. Redesign our cities to keep them safe, healthy and happy, and we'll have a place that works well for everyone...” Molly didn’t get to pick where she lives. Her mom and I made that decision. We should listen carefully when Molly describes her experience of the neighborhood from her kid’s-eye-view.

Second, kids can be refreshingly specific with their answers. We adults can be so abstract with our hopes. We want neighborhoods that are flourishing, resilient, connected, strong. But what do we mean by that? In contrast, Molly’s answers were practical and actionable. She wanted a neighborhood she could walk without trudging through someone’s grass or skirting the side of a busy road. She wanted to respectfully enjoy the beauty of a pond just a few blocks from us. She wanted to get to know her neighbors — maybe especially that house with all the kids she’s been too shy to introduce herself to yet.

Finally, what I’ve learned from my rural community development work is that one of the greatest predictors of whether a young person will return to their rural town after college or a career-change, is whether they were given, from the earliest age, a sense of ownership in that town. I obviously don’t know where Molly’s life journey will take her. But, wherever she goes, I want her to have an unshakeable sense of the promise and possibility here in Silverton.

So my encouragement to you is to have a hope-full dialogue with your own children and/or with the children who live near you. Maybe start by asking what they love about their neighborhood. But then ask about their hopes. The conversation that follows is guaranteed to energize and inspire.