While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.
And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.
Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.
For many people, human behavior during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has ranged from heartfelt displays of solidarity to profoundly disappointing self-centeredness. Irrespective of one’s personal and political views, I suspect it can be hard to feel a sense of community these days. Looking around, we see global vaccine inequity, missed opportunities in public health messaging, and the over-politicization of, well, just about everything. The discord and disagreements about how to stay safe during what for many of us has been a once-in-a-lifetime global event has split families and ended friendships.
It’s no secret I have been disturbed by my perception society is making medically vulnerable people acceptable loss by instituting public health measures only when healthy people are at risk from COVID-19, and disregarding or delegitimizing the remaining risk to the immunocompromised that comes with dropping masks and social distancing every time it looks like a surge is behind us. It follows that the deaths of those with comorbidities or illnesses are both more expected and less tragic because their lives are perceived to have less value to begin with.
In Juárez I’d rejected the idea healthy people were the only ones deserving of the collective benefit approach to public health. But in reality, people reciprocally masking to protect one another from danger only extended to those who could make it over the immunity wall; those who could not or needed more time through no fault of their own were treated like employees with anxiety, or worse, performance or conduct issues. I was repeatedly chided to take “personal responsibility” for my own well-being (e.g. “Do you honestly expect everyone to mask for you?”). My response was, Didn’t you expect me to mask for you when you weren’t safe? The hypocrisy around community vs. self-interest was laid bare, and ignored the outsized impact of behavior that disproportionately harmed the medically vulnerable – including me. Ironically, this took place at a time when my employer is more focused than ever on diversity, inclusion, equity, and disability rights.
Disabled and immunocompromised people have already borne the brunt of deadly infections during the pandemic. They still have to share public space with those who would just as soon prefer they stay invisible at home so as not to inconvenience the healthy, many of whom wrongly believe they have more right to occupy public space (and evidently, federal workspace). And so the immunocompromised have to repeatedly ask for basic courtesy, not because they are anxious but because many derive limited to no immunity from their vaccines. Having to contend with being high-risk for poor outcomes from COVID while supporting yourself and managing serious illness is already a lot, and the lack of community empathy and awareness makes life that much less navigable for the seven to 10 million Americans in this position.
So, how does it feel to be part of a community right now? I guess that depends on who you are. Entering the third year of a global pandemic where lethal disease is becoming an endemic part of the landscape, COVID-19 will continue to impose an outsized risk on vulnerable people. As public health mandates roll back, the world becomes more dangerous and less accessible for those whom the mandates protected most. At the same time, the community increasingly sees mitigations like mask-wearing as virtue-signaling and unnecessary, rather than considering ‘prolonged’ mitigation could be related to a vulnerable individual’s medical need. Many still seem unaware of how their actions and that of the broader community affect a less healthy person, or, as I’ve repeatedly seen, just don’t care if it means being inconvenienced themselves. Tell me, what does an immunocompromised person look like? The same as any other person. And it doesn’t help that well-meaning articles on the topic mostly describe the position of immunocompromised people in emotional terms that are easily dismissed or invalidated (feelings, anxiety, worry, fears) vs. clinical terms (medically indicated, lack of protective immune function, etc.).
Therefore I was pretty much prepared to keep to myself these next couple of years and not spend much energy outside of the circle I already have. Finding community in my new area would not be hard at all; V and I had lived in northern Virginia for several years even before joining the Foreign Service, and we still have a lot of friends in this area. But then as we were scrambling to furnish our house in winter, I stumbled across something that wasn’t new, but that I just hadn’t known much about: the concept of “Buy Nothing” neighborhood groups on social media.
The Buy Nothing Project, founded in 2013, “is the world’s largest gift economy platform.” By having neighbors give away things amongst themselves they’re no longer using, the project seeks to connect people, reduce landfill waste, and extend the ‘life’ of all this stuff we accumulate in our consumption-based economy. Buy Nothing does have an app, but I haven’t used it; most people I know participate via Facebook. You’re supposed to join only the Facebook group that corresponds most closely to your geographic location to meet the project’s goal of “building community.”
Buy Nothing has three rules for postings: you can post gifts of “items or services that others can use,” asks for things you could use, and gratitude posts to show appreciation and thanks. To my surprise, the gratitude, generosity, and kindness in my own neighborhood Buy Nothing group has become a fun and useful place to give away things we no longer need, as well as acquire some things that made settling into our new home easier. It’s unexpectedly gone some distance in restoring my battered faith in community at this time.
At first I was surprised to see some of the asks (“In Search Ofs”) posted. “Need a car seat for 2 year old,” a post read. “ISO couch, queen bed, dishes,” read another. I admit I frowned. Why wouldn’t you just save up and buy what you need yourself? But then would come a comment underneath – “Have a loveseat you can have. Pet-free home.” “Have a queen bed you’re welcome to. Can you come and get it today?” It dawned on me that I was probably jaded from all the crap the prior tenants in our house dumped on us by leaving behind many useless or hazardous items we had to clean up or discard. Not to mention jaded generally at the present time.
But this was different. This was giving from abundance and generosity. And after all, hadn’t I started collecting vintage purses because I believe the stuff that’s already out there is just as good as all the new things we’re constantly mass-producing? Why spend money to buy something that is sitting unwanted in someone else’s garage just waiting to receive new life, especially when money is tight for so many families and just getting tighter? And as an introvert and someone trying to stay healthy, I especially loved that “porch pickups” were normalized, allowing people to leave things outside for neighbors to collect without any interaction, energy suck, or risk of COVID transmission.
I decided to jump in, posting ads for things the previous tenants left behind that I had cleaned up but didn’t want or need – extra contemporary style vases, a black and white floor lamp, a neon green rug, and outdoor decorative items that weren’t my style. Every time I made an ad, I noticed several people would comment their interest. It was hard to pick someone, so I downloaded the “Spin the Wheel” app, put in each person’s name, and spun the wheel once. Whoever got it, I would post a screenshot of the wheel under their name and tell them they’d won. It became kind of a fun game! Then the person would send me a private message for our address and I’d do a “porch pickup,” placing the item in a bag with their name on it outside during a range of times. Later I’d look out the window and see it had been collected.
As we unpacked our own boxes, I similarly found things I didn’t need but that didn’t seem worth listing for sale on Facebook Marketplace – an old but working pair of computer speakers with a subwoofer circa 2006; an extra eyeglasses case; an extra wrought-iron paper towel holder; compression socks from when I was in the hospital; an extra pillbox; sandals I’d been gifted that I never wore; a leftover pile of small black and white floral gift boxes from my bridesmaid tea gifts that I’d been carting around the world for eight years. I also made listings and gave away books I wasn’t going to read again, spare hampers, and pre-weight loss belts that no longer fit me.
Arguably the most helpful giveaway we did was sharing out the 200+ boxes from our move with seven different people who were moving themselves; many of them later regifted our boxes to others. In an overseas context, the embassy or consulate will take all of that away for you; here stateside we had to figure it out, and Buy Nothing was way better than simply recycling them.
Not only did I give things away, but I also received things I really liked. I expressed interest on some ads and was chosen – for a beautiful piece of costume jewelry and for a grocery bag full of protein bars. We were even gifted a patio table exactly the same as the one we have had for 12 years that just shattered in the shipment from Mexico, plus we were able to take advantage of a “curb alert” a member posted about another patio table sitting out on her street. It was so close to us we swooped by in the 4Runner to inspect it within five minutes.
I also currently have an ISO posted for brass candlesticks or a candelabra, and later we might look for a small chest of drawers for the guest room once we see how the room comes together spacewise.
I really like the Buy Nothing movement, and I’m not alone. Last July Fortune published a piece called “How the Pandemic fueled the rise of the ‘Buy Nothing’ economy,” and during the same period ABC News identified freecyling in Buy Nothing groups as a strategy to cope with rising inflation. Sure, the experience hasn’t been perfect; sometimes people are pesky, don’t show up, or post things to give away that are really eye-rolling. People are gonna people.
But participating in this group has let me be an active member of my community without having to take emotional risks, and has helped me be generous to others, give items new purpose, and free up space in our sizable but not-huge home. Regardless of whether you participate because you want something back, you don’t have to dig too far for the altruism; Buy Nothing is inherently both good and reciprocally beneficial, in a way that’s bigger than all of us.
The other evening I was walking in our neighborhood and noticed a pile of lunch-sized bags at the top of someone’s driveway. The house was large and an American flag fluttered over a front yard dotted with tulips and daffodils. One bag’s smiley-face name tag read “Emily,” and for some reason it made me smile back.
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