A Question of Boundaries

I work for the City of Asheville, a formal governmental institution that operates within strictly defined geographical boundaries. It operates within functional boundaries as well, with responsibility for things like streets and garbage, water and zoning, public safety and community spaces.

The City obviously also has a role beyond the areas it strictly controls, such as housing and economic development. And, as the largest municipality in western North Carolina, it has influence outside its formal geographic boundaries as well.

Nevertheless, for the most part, its responsibilities lie within relatively well-defined lines. Which means of course that my job and those of my colleagues at the City are also defined or constrained in important ways by those same lines. This is a perfectly logical and reasonable way to divide up the work, albeit one that is generally confusing and irrelevant to the community we serve.

In fact, it can be worse than irrelevant and confusing. To us working in government the lines are convenient fictions that let us get our jobs done. But they can turn sinister if we begin to actually believe in them.

These artificial boundaries necessarily disrespect the continuity of the lives of those we serve. Our lines of convenience can become real obstacles and barriers for people who have no margin in their lives to handle the extra burden. And however exact the lines between jurisdictions, believing in them obscures the reality that these are organic spaces, spaces with an integrity that we may endanger when we only think in the categories of jurisdiction and control. Perhaps worst of all, artificial boundaries in both space and function create barriers for us in tackling the real complexities of the challenges we face.

Yet we still have to get our work done. How are we supposed to respect the integrity of spaces, the continuity of people’s lives, and the intertwining of multiple dimensions of challenge without violating legitimate restrictions on our actions or becoming completely overwhelmed trying to solve all of every problem?

There are a number of ways to come at that question, but I’m intrigued by one in particular that emerges from two stories I encountered in the last few months.

The most recent arose in a chat with Jim Blanton, the director of our county library system. He mentioned that the libraries have partnered with Homeward Bound to have a nearly full-time resource person work with the homeless community. Libraries are both a popular and a natural access point for resources for the homeless community and so the program makes perfect sense.

But it’s not obvious that a library would look at things that way. A natural boundaried approach might be to think more narrowly about the library’s mission and to assign the responsibility for these patrons elsewhere, to call in the police or some other agency. Instead, the Buncombe County libraries chose to define themselves as a place where all members of the community gain access to resources of all sorts, and then connected with partners who could help them realize that vision for this particular group of patrons.

As it happens, the second story also relates to homelessness. It came up in a conversation with Amy Cantrell, a local pastor and community advocate. A few years ago a woman named Janet Jones died of cold on the streets of Asheville. Amy powerfully described the way the community sat with what had happened, talked about it and about what they could do. They decided first to hold a public funeral. Homelessness is often treated as a public safety issue; they used a public funeral for a woman who died alone on the street to reframe it as a public health emergency.

They didn’t stop there. Rather than sitting in anger and pointing fingers (and as Amy says, “there’s a lot of fingers that could have been pointed and should”), they focused instead on a question: “We are one another’s closest community. What is it that’s within our power to do? How can we change this?” Their answer was the Homeless/Formerly Homeless Street Medic Team which carries out weekly street outreach, crisis preparation, and health fairs. I recently attended a meeting of healthcare providers and nonprofits where the Street Medic Teams were cited as one of the clear successes in community health in our area.

The common element in these two stories is a decision to think beyond lines of responsibility and jurisdiction by asking a simple question: What can we do? What is our part?

It’s easy to come up with objections, of course. For one, local governments, community groups and non-profits are already stretched thin. Doesn’t this just pile more work onto already over-burdened people?

Perhaps. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that both stories are about people finding a creative way to deal with issues that already touched them. The library needed to decide how best to interact with a particular group of library users. The homeless community was asking how to contend with a threat to its own members.

Clearly too this isn’t about taking full responsibility for every problem. In fact, asking “What is our part?” explicitly acknowledges that it is only a part. We are not taking ownership of the whole problem, but are simply exercising agency at the intersection of the problem and our domain. In fact, the act of doing so invites us to ask what other partners might be invited in or notified? The libraries connected with Homeward Bound. The Street Medic teams get training from and coordinate with health services and emergency personnel.

Another objection is that we are somehow giving those responsible a pass. But let’s be clear. Asking the question does not absolve responsible agencies of their responsibility. As Amy puts it, what it does is open up an imaginative space where we can discover truly creative solutions. In both these stories, by locating themselves within the larger system, thinking in terms of networks and spaces and systems, people came up with new solutions that helped address their particular challenges while bringing benefit to the broader community.

For me, perhaps the most challenging objection is that we are essentially forcing those who shouldn’t bear the responsibility in the first place to patch up and prop up a fundamentally broken system. In the case of homelessness, this is true even of the agencies that have jurisdiction. Homelessness is not caused by ineffective homeless assistance programs. Such programs may work well or badly, but they are contending with a problem created outside themselves.

Homelessness is most closely linked with the affordability of housing in the area and the availability of jobs that cover the cost of that housing. Housing costs and employment opportunities result from the interaction of local, state, and federal policy with the decisions of individual buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs, developers and investors. More broadly, it results from the way we choose to organize our society and world and the way we prioritize and approach the issues that arise.

We can’t solve homelessness without engaging all of these dimensions and levels and you can argue that prioritizing efforts like these allows society to avoid doing that.

The most obvious counter-argument is that it may realistically be the best we can do. At least these solutions make a difference in individual lives. Because of the Street Medic team, for example, someone this year or next has a chance to build a life that otherwise they might have lost.

But I think there’s a more important reason to take this perspective.

I wrote last year about rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, asserting that democracy isn’t about voting or a particular “set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy.” But what does that actually mean? I think these stories represent part of what it means: people and organizations claiming and exercising agency in the working of their community as a whole.

In his classic book Democracy in America [1] Alexis de Tocqueville attributes much of what is unique and powerful about American democracy to the peculiar civic conditions of small New England towns where “much artful care has been taken … to … disperse power in order to interest as many people as possible in public affairs.” One effect of such distribution of power is to engender a sense of agency, one reflected in a second uniquely American tendency observed by de Tocqueville:

Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools … Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

While never true of all places, even early in our history, I suspect that both the reality and the mythology of this ethos, this idea that we can and should take our challenges and our opportunities into our own collective hands, rather than wait for a government or powerful individual to do it, are responsible for much of the dynamism of American democracy, a dynamism that I see as born of connection and a sense of agency.

It is a dynamism that has become seriously eroded in our own time.

We can’t simply return to the democracy of early 19th century New England towns, nor to the civic, religious and social community associations that helped carry this ethos through the middle of the twentieth century. We need to find a new way that can work in our twenty-first century reality, one that finds twenty-first century ways to claim agency and forge connections.

In a recent essay [2], Danielle Allen argues that rebuilding democracy requires “bridging ties” that bring ”diverse communities into positive relations while also individually forming personally valuable relationships across boundaries of difference.” I would submit that one of the most effective ways to build such ties, to rebuild social connectivity and the vital accompanying sense of agency is through work on shared challenges. I think the two stories I’ve referenced here offer two of many examples of what that can look like.

It might seem strange that one of the examples I cite is a government entity partnering with a non-profit, not the most innovative connection you might look for. But the choice is deliberate.

For one thing, while organizations can encourage or discourage collaboration, real creative agency within them is a function of individuals, and of course it is only with individuals that the bridging ties Allen talks about can be forged.

Equally importantly, the goal is not to replace formal organizations with grass-roots efforts, but to strengthen the entire ecosystem. Grassroots organizations are a vital part of that ecosystem, but so are governments and non-profits, media and private enterprises. We need to create bridging ties not just between different parts of the community, but between all those communities and the myriad organizations that collectively make our community function.

And that to me is at the heart of what it means to rebuild democracy. Rebuilding democracy means rebuilding its ability to function, rebuilding our ability to face challenges and make decisions in a way that is inclusive and grounded in the experience of every part of our community. And I suspect that accomplishing it is less a matter of policy or political organization than of shifting perspective by shifting the questions we ask. The right simple question at the right time is one of the most powerful tools there is.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Library of America, 2004). Originally published in French in 1835 and 1840.
  2. Danielle Allen, ”Toward a Connected Society” in Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, eds. Earl Lewis, Nancy Cantor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).