Project Neighborly: South Fork Speaker Series Helps People Know Neighbors

The South Fork Valley is a sparsely populated corner of Whatcom County. The 8,000 people who live in the area have a variety of jobs and interests. Some live and work there, others commute to Bellingham or beyond. There are retirees and teens, conservatives and liberals, a dozen ethnic groups, and representatives of most major religions. It is not necessarily a wealthy community in terms of money, but there is a rich diversity of people.

Some would argue however, that it’s not a community at all. Many people settled in rural Whatcom County to have space and privacy. The average plot size is over two acres, so neighbors are often just distant lights through the trees. For many, daily demands keep everyone so busy, it’s hard to find time to get to know neighbors.

A ripe opportunity — that’s how leaders of the South Fork Valley Community Association saw it, and so, supported by a Project Neighborly grant, the Association kicked off the “Know Your Neighbor” speaker series, inviting people with varied backgrounds and experiences from Acme to Van Zandt to share their stories.

“In rural Whatcom County, people live next to farmers but seldom speak to them,“ said Will Radecki, a project organizer. He said that since the Internet is now accessible in most parts of the Valley, face-to-face interactions are even more limited.

“Everyone knows a logger or a trucker, but few people know the particular challenges of their work. Hippies and liberals have their events, and conservatives have theirs, but there’s not a lot of mixing or honest debate.”

The forums began to change that. Over three months, five small panels (3 people) representing the area’s inhabitants, spoke to an audience of neighbors in the Van Zandt Community Hall who wanted to learn more about their lives. The first panel featured residents who live and work in the area, including farmers and a well services company. Another brought kids together —from elementary to high school, home-schooled and public. Other panels introduced public servants and residents who commuted outside the area for work, and the final event in May gathered local artists.

Organizers went out of their way to invite those they don’t typically see at community events. Food was provided by area restaurants, which gave people another reason to turn out. The effort paid off: the first panel attracted about 50 people, and they brought friends the next time. Each panel attracted between 40-50 curious neighbors.

“It was amazing how many new and different faces we saw at each one,” said Radecki, The forums “definitely fulfilled our main ambitions” to enable neighbors from various walks of life and locales in the valley to come together and get to know each other.

 

Despite some tension surrounding certain issues, such as different farming practices or land use decisions, the forums “remained really civil and so interesting,” said Radecki. He said interactions were respectful and engaging and offered some surprising moments of insight; people who might have expected to disagree wound up seeing things from a new perspective.

“People just want to know each other. You can live next to somebody for four or five years and not even know them.”

Organizers are so buoyed by the success of the series, they’re already thinking about a similar effort next year — taking another step toward turning those distant lights through the trees into neighbors.

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