In the wake of the devastating fires in Maui stood local residents and people from neighboring islands ready to pitch in. Scores of volunteers showed up with supplies and offers of housing, not waiting for government aid. Like so often happens in the U.S., the spirit of community showed the resilience and care that helps alleviate pain and aid survival.
In his assessment of America in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville commented on this very measure, saying that the health of our democracy depended on “habits of the heart,” the customs and community norms of individual citizens in which conversations within “little republics,” voluntary associations, led to collective action.
The community spirit seen in Maui was much like the mutual aid groups that popped up during COVID 19. In Washington, for example, the DC Mutual Aid Network became so prolific, serving many thousands of residents, that the city was referring help-seekers to the Network.
A similar group that emerged in New Orleans to coordinate volunteers and needs for help later turned into a nonprofit called Common Ground Relief, which has engaged more than 65,000 volunteers since that time, contributing labor estimated at $40 million in value.
As Margaret Mead has pointed out, it only takes a small group of people to change the world—or even one individual. An example in this latter category is Joseph Porcelli, a Boston resident who read about then-Mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, shoveling snow for needy residents and created www.neighborsforneighbors.org, eventually partnering with Nextdoor.com to encourage people to register as snow shovelers for needy neighbors.
This is the type of civic leadership that led to the formation of the National Civic League in 1894, when civic leaders formed our organization as part of the Progressive era reform efforts to clean up corruption and make local governments more effective. Since that time, we have helped to create the council-manager form of government, nonpartisan elections and equitable civic engagement that involves the whole community in problem-solving.
From random acts of kindness to disaster recovery, the foundation of our country continues to be the strength of people coming together to form community.