JP at heart of ‘commons’ movement

April 1, 2011
By

Rebeca Oliveira

Web Exclusive

Jamaica Plain might just be on the verge of leading a world-wide movement.

The commons movement, as described by Jay Walljasper in his new book, “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons” and as led by the Hyde Square Task Force—a featured organization in the book—has the potential to change the world, Walljasper told the Gazette.

The commons should not be a new idea to Bostonians, who live in the midst of the most famous common in American history—the Boston Common—but it feels revolutionary. It is the simple idea that some things belong to everyone—and should be cared for as such.

The commons movement is more a way of thinking about resources instead of specific actions—it can be picking up litter off the sidewalk, fighting for uncensored internet access, advocating for clean beaches or planting flowers in a community garden. It’s about how one’s attitude changes when someone takes ownership of a publicly-held thing.

“It’s not abstract theory, it’s a worldview. When you realize that there are important things that belong to all of us, that changes your view of the world,” Walljasper said. “Until I really dived in the book, I didn’t realize how pervasive the commons are in our lives. We’re like fish swimming in a sea of commons and we don’t notice it.”

Sidewalks, parks, shopping districts, waterways, recipes, children’s stories, the Internet—these are our modern day commons, Walljasper says in the book. The commons are “what belongs to all of us,” Walljasper said.

Helped by JP-based collaborators Chuck Collins— director of the JP Forum—and Alexa Bradley, an On The Commons fellow, Walljasper profiled 15 people and organizations from all over the world, calling them “Commons Champions.”

The Hyde Square Task Force is one of those “Champions.” It is specifically commended for bringing back civics classes in Boston Public Schools based on an entirely youth-led effort.

“We hear in the media, all our problems can be solved by the free market. That’s not true. Once you have an understanding of the commons, it opens your mind to new ways to think about things,” Walljasper said.

And JP “just seemed like a commons kind of place,” he added. This, and his collaborations with JP locals, is why he started his national book tour at a JP Forum-organized talk on March 4 at First Church of JP.

Walljasper brought up representatives of several local groups on March 4—including JP residents Kate Peppard from the Franklin Park Coalition and Laura Foner and spouse David Weinstein, who focus on Boston youth, libraries and citizenship in the harbor—to showcase some possibilities for the movement.

“When times are booming, people think they don’t really need the commons. When the rug gets pulled out from under us, those things [like parks and community centers] matter a lot more. They’ve mattered to lower-income people all along, but a lot of people in middle class are realizing that it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Walljasper said.

“It’s something very exciting and very necessary in creating the world we want, even if it’s at a small scale,” Bradley told the Gazette in a phone interview. “I just felt like there was something missing, a way to name what we’re working for instead of what we were working against.”

“You can compare it to the environmental movement in the 1970s—lots of issues people cared about but hadn’t connected. When they did connect the dots, it became a very powerful force,” Walljasper said. “I believe the commons movement can be that as well.”

“I think JP is already a commons-rich place,” Bradley explained, with “a sense of those things in our community that we treasure as shared resources and shared spaces, places we walk, our libraries, community gardens, the sidewalk life of JP, the cultural celebrations that have blossomed here and the common sense of deep community and our shared spaces.”

Walljasper featured the Hyde Square Task Force in the book because “I though they’re a great example [of the movement at work]—urban setting, low-income, of color and youth-oriented. The commons is people from all walks of life that come together,” Walljasper said.

“The commons is about going beyond yourself…The Hyde Square Task Force is definitely that type of organization,” said Chrismaldi Vasquez, former manager of organizing and policy initiative at the Hyde Square Task Force. “It brings people together to talk about community, to see what we can do together…It’s all about community and belonging to all of us.” Vasquez was the Hyde Square Task Force’s primary contact for the feature in the book.

“JP is where we’re launching the commons movement…I’ve seen what a great place it is…I felt like I had lost credibility not having been to JP before,” said Walljasper, who lives in Minnesota.

“JP has a very long, rich history of community organizing and community involvement,” Vasquez said. “There are so many organizations that do similar work and that connect together. It’s really hard to find communities that have that level of community organization.”

“At the root, the commons are about connections between people,” Walljasper said.

Parts of the book are available for free at OnTheCommons.org. Paper copies of the book can also be ordered at the web site or through amazon.com.

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