In the last 18 months, many of us have fallen in love with our neighborhoods all over again. We’re supporting local businesses, meeting more neighbors, and spending more time in our local communities than maybe we ever have.
I’ve certainly fallen back in love with San Francisco during this time. The city might not be perfect on paper, but the people in my community have made it perfect for me. The folks I’ve met during my daily neighborhood routines have helped me to feel less lonely, and I feel immense privilege and joy in being able to share space with them each day. I feel a sense of ownership and accountability despite the challenges that my neighborhood might face.
Across the country, these local ties are sprouting something exciting: an energetic, diverse group of new community leaders. People whose passion fuels mobilization and change. Recently I hosted Nextdoor’s first-ever Neighborhood Leadership Summit, and was inspired by the many people I met who are making a difference in their communities.
For each, it began with not just an idea, but the decision to take action.
Taking it offline: Today’s neighborhood leaders
Charlo Walterbach, an artist and designer, moved to Denver just before the pandemic forced everyone into lockdown. Fueled by a desire to connect with his community, he posted on Nextdoor asking if anyone had any outdoor wall space where he could paint a mural. A neighbor offered their garage door, and Charlo went to work.
Since that spontaneous post, Charlo has painted more than 40 beautiful murals in Denver. He has become a beloved figure in the community, connecting with neighbors of all ages and backgrounds through his love of art.
A recent Nextdoor survey found that 73% say neighbors are their most important community. Leadership on a neighborhood level means going beyond our social media bubbles and physically leaving our homes. It means looking up from our phones and interacting with the people around us.
“I see community as an extended family,” says Charlo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico about eight years ago. He illustrates that leadership doesn’t have to start with a grand gesture–in fact, it almost always starts small, with a conversation, an online post or following through on one small idea. And more than likely, these independent movements inspire others to join, sparking a wave of positive change.
“When you light up, you light up others”
A few years ago when Charisse Fontes was pregnant, one of her neighbors in Concord brought meals for her family. This kind gesture helped Charisse enormously. More importantly, it inspired her to give back.
Charisse started “3rd Thursdays,” a project where she cooked and delivered free meals to anyone in her community who requested them, no questions asked. At first, five families signed up. After the pandemic hit, demand grew. To date, Charisse has fed more than 1,000 families and hosts monthly cleanups and other events in her neighborhood.
“When you light up, you light up others,” says Charisse, an admirer of the South African concept of Ubuntu, which translates to “I am because we are.” Whether it’s by cooking, painting, or organizing a cleanup, we all have something to offer that can enhance our neighborhoods and make them welcoming places for everyone.
Helping others helps ourselves
As I listened to various leaders at the summit, I couldn’t help but realize one thing they all seemed to have in common: an incredible sense of joy. Not only did their communities benefit from their leadership, they felt happier when they connected to those around them.
In 2020, Nextdoor released results of a global scientific study conducted by leading loneliness experts. It found that knowing as few as six neighbors reduces the likelihood of feeling lonely and is linked to lower depression, social anxiety, and financial concerns related to COVID-19.
Like many of us, I too struggle with general anxiety disorder and depression. I’ve found that the mornings where I take the time to smile at people during my walks and say hello to the flower vendor I pass by each day, I return home happier and lighter. It’s a small effort that delivers big returns for my personal wellbeing.
This new wave of local leadership doesn’t just benefit neighborhoods, it benefits the leaders themselves. It’s scientifically proven that knowing our neighbors improves our mental health. And as Charlo, Charisse, and so many others have shown, leading our communities doesn’t require a lot of resources. All we need to get started is kindness—and kindness is free.
Leading the way forward
Author and teacher Brené Brown has defined a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Our neighborhoods are where people from different backgrounds and perspectives can come together, and I’m energized by stories of how neighbors are making their communities more positive, inclusive, and joyful places to live.
Leaders help us build a sense of belonging. As we turn the page on 2021, let’s have the courage to take action on our own ideas–but also to listen to, support and elevate other voices.
As Charisse put it, “If you are experiencing the nudge from your heart, go for it.” Challenge accepted, Charisse. Challenge accepted.