Friday, 25 March 2005

Some time ago, on a private mailing list populated by several friends and acquiaintances, my friend Patrick brought up an interesting idea.

On two separate occasions he had run into friends of his father and they each told a similar story. Each had emigrated to the United States, leaving everything behind and starting over once they got here. One was Somali, and arrived in the US just a couple years ago. The other, from Nigeria, moved here in the early 90's.

After they got settled, they joined with several men from their respective countries to form a club of sorts. The groups were intentionally kept small. If it got to be more than 8 or 9 people, they'd split into smaller clans. They’d rather have 3 groups of 8 rather than a single battalion of 24 members.

They agreed to meet once or twice each week, promising to be there no matter what. No other appointments came before this meeting. Much like any other group, they would talk about their families, share stories from their lives back home, and share their goals.

But it went much deeper than that.

Together they would decide which goal came fist and contribute $50 each week toward attaining it. Once the first goal was reached, they'd work towards the second, then third; until each person had what they wanted.

The contribution wasn't always financial either. If the first goal was to get someone their taxi license and lease a cab, he might chip in with rides for the families of other group members. If one goal was to own a coffee shop, they'd all work towards it and reap the benefit of free coffee and a place to meet while they worked toward the next project.

In this way, they were all able to to grab their share of the American Dream—to prosper despite being a long way from home and starting with nothing. Just by sharing their dreams, working hard, and bonding together in a true community.

Patrick brought this up because he was hoping that we were the right size group and might adopt the same kind of arrangement. We even had one opportunity, chipping in to get Daren a Mac. Patrick or Tomas could help find the best deal and the return on the investment would be free Linux assistance—Daren being quite good at it.

Unfortunately it didn’t come together. As a group we didn't seem to gel in that fashion. Nobody truly stepped up to the plate and the idea just died. One example of why might have come from Bill, who quickly replied, “Me first! Everybody chip in $50 so I can get a somethingorother.”

While I’m sure Bill was joking, I’m sure we all had similar thoughts, “What’s my dream and how can I get it to the top of the list?” He was just the first to vocalize it.

Then I started adding it up. Even if we met once a week, that would be $200 per person, per month. Not many of us have $200 to spare in a month; I’d certainly have a hard time of it. But if we could, imagine how fast that could work with 6 or 8 people in the group.

And don’t forget that the contribution doesn't have to be in the form of money.

Each of us could offer our expertise among a broad range of subjects. For Daren it would be Linux administration and networking. Hjalmer could offer music and Windows advice. Patrick would bring Mac and music to the mix. I'd add Web design, networking and databases. And those are just the people I know the best and their technical abilities. I'm sure the others would have something to offer.

There is another handicap, perhaps more cippling than the cash outlay; our complete inability to agree on a time and place for dinner, even as a one-time event. Herding cats would be easier than trying to coordinate a recurring meet-up. To plan a single gathering requires at least a week of email exchanges to decide the meeting time. Then it’s another week to pick the place. Once everything settled, someone invariably comes up with a conflict and a third of the group no-shows.

I just don’t see the group of us actually making the time commitment and truly honoring it.

The problem may lie at a more fundamental level too. For some reason it's hard to see the good in contributing to a community. I think it comes from growing up in America, largely without want. We have evolved into a competitive society that encourages short-term goals and looking out for our own interests rather than working toward a common goal.

I still believe it’s possible, in spite of the problems and the cultural shift.

One reason I hold out hope: there were several years where I didn’t drive. I was totally dependent family, friends and mass-transit to get around. In return for rides and the occasional assist in hauling a large load, I'd never turn down a request for help with something else, especially building something.

When it came time to drive again, my dad gave me his old truck. Even though he didn’t ask for anything in return, I’ll help him haul anything he needs, provide computer support and other projects if at all possible. I did it even before the gift of wheels. It’s just how we operate as a family.

In a sense, my family does exactly what Patrick is talking about. It’s not that hard—painless really. It starts with the realization that the world doesn't revolve around any single individual.

Why can’t it work for a half-dozen guys connected through long-term friendships? What’s to stop us from pulling this off, each coming up with attainable goals and offering something back to the group?