Brainstorming Ideas

The answers to our pressing questions are within our communities and it is up to us to step up to galvanize each other and our resources to create solutions that serve us. As communities gather every month to discuss our universal challenges of child care, elder care, housing, transportation, food, nutrition, social isolation and more, we will uncover resources that we never knew were there. A few ideas follow:

Neighborhood Diner

The neighborhood diner, a relic squeezed out by chain operations such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Denny’s and others, is missing today. A diner, serving as a community gathering place, would anchor a neighborhood by providing a safe and affordable place to gather, to exchange ideas and to be nourished with food and sociability. The diner of my dreams is a cooperative owned by the employees or the patrons.

I envision a quiet corner or separate room where children could do their homework in the afternoon, tutored by a senior, a teenager or anyone in between. When their parents pick them up after work, they can sit down to an affordable meal say, beans and rice, and go home with homework, dinner and dishes out of the way. This way, their homework is completed while they are alert enough to absorb the material. Also, given the community’s stake in their learning, report card day could be celebrated as a special event.

Cooperatives are member owned, operated and governed. Because a co-op’s purpose is to serve its members, it can operate close to zero profit, if there is sufficient cash flow to cover the operations. Successful cooperatives operate on general business principles, plus the cooperative principles. 

Consortium of Restaurants

The food service industry is physically demanding, not well paying and the hours are loooooooonng. Legions of persons have extensive restaurant experience, and cities are littered with shuttered restaurants and good, used equipment. A consortium of co-op restaurants can break the work into manageable parts and can attract and retain higher-caliber employees who have a vested interest in the restaurant’s success. Affiliating with sister restaurants, each could share personnel and equipment, could leverage buying power, and much more. Experienced food service workers number in the thousands, so the pool from which to attract employees is broad and deep.

Child Care

When taking the bus or an “L” I often talk with young mothers. Several of them have confided that they commute two hours each way, taking their child to day care, going to work and then reversing the process at night. A colleague drove his son over an hour-and-a-half each way with the same scenario, because $350 per month for after-school care was completely out of the question.  Because he spent so much time transporting his son, he wasn’t able to work the lucrative overtime hours. His marriage couldn’t take the strain and is headed for divorce court and he lost his job in the economic downturn.

Every neighborhood has reliable, trustworthy people, retired or unemployed, who genuinely like children and would be willing to keep an eye on them.  They could possibly teach skills that a child would like to learn such as gardening, cooking, knitting, a musical instrument, singing… One important thing these neighbors and children surely could do is listen to each other.  The children could help with chores, run errands, or lift something heavy.  Undoubtedly, the child could program the electronics, teach computer skills, and perform other technical wizardry.

The obvious flaw in this arrangement is figuring out who is trustworthy.  Anyone who thinks that she or he can protect a child from our sexually provocative culture must be wearing blinders. Sexy ads appear on everything from billboards, such as Bebe clothing and the bionic woman  promoting Svenska vodka, to the Yahoo banner using young girls to advertise the personals page.

A more serious concern is child abuse. I don’t have children, so I’m not speaking from first-hand experience, but it seems that the way out of this dilemma is sunlight and frank discussions. Since children pick up on everything, surely they are aware and wary of this potential problem.  If a child is informed and communicates with her or his parents, is this adequate inoculation from harm?  What about the child who doesn’t have open communication?  I don’t know the answer, other than it must be solved at the family and community levels.  If we can’t turn to each other for support, and are left only to ourselves, we stay stuck and impoverished.  Sunlight and frank discussion can only help.

Elder Care

Many of us have experienced the declining health of aging parents or spouses.  We have navigated the confusing territory of assisted-living and nursing-home arrangements, Medicare, and countless other elder-care details.  Someone who has faced the situation with their own parents has valuable knowledge to pass on to those who are being initiated into this difficult phase of life.  The new initiate would be grateful for a road map into this difficult territory.  Much of this advice will be freely given; but it seems logical to think that a good opportunity exists for those with this knowledge to create a lively consulting business. See more about this topic in Community Needs Meet Resources.


I estimate that 90% of the cars in my parking-challenged neighborhood do not move.  A car is basically an expensive, rusting liability – an appliance.  Obviously, someone pays for its maintenance, including license plates, city sticker, insurance, repairs, depreciation, and parking tickets incurred for forgetting to move it for street cleaning.  The owner may hate the expense but find the idea of not having a car daunting.  Car-sharing is an obvious solution.  For this to work, an arrangement must be agreed upon for maintenance, insurance, and logistics.  All parties need to know that they can they can rely on each other and that the car will be completely functional and parked at the appointedplace and time.

Transportation Network

All over the country, people drive within a wide radius of every metropolitan area. If we were to take advantage of that activity by transporting additional persons, fresh produce, arts/crafts, food stuffs, and other goods, we would increase the flow of goods and people while lessening the wasteful practice of one person per car, driving back and forth, back and forth.

In the Chicago area, the roads to Dubuque, South Bend, Rockford, St. Joseph, Galena, and many points in between are surely well worn. This commuting doesn’t seem to be anything more than a boring obligation, a burden. A database that identifies the commuters, their schedules, and their routes would leverage commuting into a valuable resource. Anyone who needs to get something or someone someplace could log on to a Web site or call a telephone bank to see who is going where and when, and the capacity they have for taking persons or goods with them.

The various social networking sites will facilitate this resource sharing.

Food, Nutrition, and Food Deserts

Alongside the challenge of housing is the relentless task of feeding ourselves.  It is a sad fact of life that one has to go far afield to find nourishing food.  Agribusiness and food-processing companies have such a grip on food production and distribution that finding food that is not processed or genetically modified is challenging and, in some neighborhoods, impossible.


“Food desert” describes a community where the only food readily available is processed. A diet of primarily processed food slowly but surely saps health, energy, and intelligence. Millions of Americans hold two or more low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. This lifestyle depletes their energy and robs them of time with their families. It leads to health problems resulting from food choices that are quick and easy but costly and nutritionally bankrupt. Sadly, many people are unaware that processed food mostly looks like food but does not qualify as food that nourishes. Many think of Kraft cheese singles as “cheese” when in fact it is a combination of chemicals that resembles cheese but has scant nutritional value.

I recently tried to shop at a chain-store grocery near DePaul University, in the pricey, well educated Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was chock-full of attractively packaged food of every imaginable variety. Every single item, even the produce, was processed and packaged for convenience: an entire grocery store, and not a nutrient in sight! Although Lincoln Park hardly qualifies as a food desert, the grocery store in question was deceptive; in the food deserts located in poor neighborhoods, junk food is not disguised as health food.

Neighborhood or Church Purchasing Co-Op

By adopting a cooperative model, we can serve co-op members and our communities. One solution may be for neighbors organize to send a few people to a produce market in a van, a few days a week, to purchase produce in bulk. Churches might offer another solution; disadvantaged neighborhoods seem to have a lot of churches, each with a van, and a scarcity of nourishing food. If churches organized to purchase produce in bulk and distribute it or prepare meals, their members could have access to nourishing food at a fraction of the cost to individuals.

3 thoughts on “Brainstorming Ideas

  1. The lessons of the 70s

    I look back at the 1970s with a mixture of fondness and embarrassment. While there were so many outrageous trends going on (just look at the fashions), there was also a climate of innovation and self-reliance.

    There was environmental awareness that led to new laws and regulations that are still protecting the planet today. It was the era of the Whole Earth Catalog, the Foxfire books, and the Mother Earth News. On every college campus and in many cities there were health-food stores, food co-ops, and experiments in alternative living. There were communes thriving in some states, and individuals living off the grid. People worked on developing electric cars and worked against the proliferation of plastic packaging. They began recycling and reusing unwanted materials. These activities were widespread but not mainstream.

    There was plenty of talk about preparing for the time “when the crunch comes.” (Is that what’s finally happening in 2010?)

    I think the main ingredient that led to the evolving consciousness was the involvement of youth. They were inheriting the earth, and didn’t mind getting dirty. A little civil disobedience or living somewhat underground was OK if it was for a good cause.

    But then much of the progress made in the 1970s seemed to dissolve in the 1980s. Whatever happened, and I’m examining my own conscience here too, there was as big a move away from self-sustainability as there had been toward it a decade later. But I think the experience led to a quantum of spiritual growth within the participants, and throughout society at large, and that spirit still abides at some level. Did the young people just grow up and become materialistic? Did they shift their energy to being successful, raising kids, and wanting good schools, and then the minivans and big TVs followed from that, or was it simply comfort that they were after?

    So the lessons were not forgotten, but maybe they faded from our attention amid the crush of new things going on.

    The young people today don’t remember the 70s and aren’t much interested in farming or fighting against social injustice. The movement then was driven by youth. Today it’s populated by disaffected older folks who know what they want but don’t have the energy they had before. Come to think of it, maybe today’s older activists WERE yesterday’s youth movement. But an infusion of youthful energy would certainly invigorate the efforts being made today.

    During the 70s there was a desire to spread human rights. Nowadays all I see is more and more restrictions on rights, and in an increasingly organized way.

    Most people resist change. But change happens when numbers of people are forced into it by circumstances. Longing for the past won’t accomplish it, but hard times will.

    I hope we aren’t doomed to repeat the 70s because we didn’t learn the lessons. I can’t stand leisure suits and plaid pants.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The late 60’s and 70’s were an exciting time and seemed full of possibility. Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in the conservative era, I suppose as a counterweight to the liberalism of that time. The pendulum always swings, which is a good thing because it means that this conservatism won’t last forever.

    I have great news for you: today’s youth are very involved, taking action and making strides. I attended the NASCO Institute in Ann Arbor in early November. The North American Students of Cooperation is a robust organization of mostly young people. I hesitated to go, being from a different generation but there were others there my age and I didn’t feel a shred of ageism. The US Social Forum is another committed, progressive organization of folks working hard for social justice.

    The Transition Town movement is an organization committed to creating resilient communities to deal with our changed economic, environmental realities while coping with depleted fossil fuels. I’m an active member of Transition Rogers Park but there are probably people in McHenry County who are interested in this and maybe even working on it.

    The Family Support Network was founded in Seattle 17 years ago to organize a way for neighbors to help each other through hard times. Once they are over the hump, they are sturdy and resilient enough to be a resource for someone else. The GREAT news is that you could join this community today and once again, join that group of people committed to social and economic justice. I look forward to talking more about this.

    Merry Christmas. Thanks for your comments. Let’s roll up our sleeves and help each other. I think the only people who don’t get it are in Washington and on Wall Street. Millions of committed people with good ideas work to nurture this shift every day. I am very confident that we will get there.

    Paul Loeb’s book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While inspired and moved me to tears at a very low moment. I have not read his new book, The Soul of a Citizen but I’m sure that it is inspiring too.

    Also check out FourYears.Go and watch Lynn Twist’s 20-minute speech online. It was heartening and thrilling. They will brush the discouragement from your eyes and get you off the couch. We will win this.

  3. Hi there, Jacqueline. I’m happy that you found this site and I’m happy to hear from you. I’ve been concentrating on taking this concept to a new level so I haven’t blogged in a while. I look forward to your comments as this concept develops.

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