restricted access 5. Our Strength Is in Our Unity: Sustainable Social Ties
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144 5 Our Strength Is in Our Unity Sustainable Social Ties When I’m down in my life that I really need people to back me up, I have an organization full of them. And they [have] shown me that in several times of my life. —Paloma, 28, KWRU member for nine years Jessie, who has been a member of KWRU for about four years, and Cate, a member for close to five years, met through KWRU, and now Cate is godmother to one of Jessie’s children, while Cate’s adult son Max is godfather to another of Jessie’s children. Jessie tells me, “I look at [Cate] as another mom,” and says she feels close to Cate and Max “because of the fact that they took to me the way that they did. They welcomed me right in like if I was family. Right off. No one else ever did that for me, not even family. . . . So for some stranger to do that to me made me feel that, you know, I have lots of love for them.” Jessie tells me: Like not too long ago . . . I don’t have a dryer, I have a washer. . . . And they were winter clothes in the summertime, so I was just trying to catch up with the laundry. So I washed all the laundry and I had like a big trash bag full of wet clothes. I throw them all in my car. I took ’em to [Cate’s] house. . . . She dries them for me, she folds them for me and puts them back in the bags and I just picked them up. So that’s the relationship that I have with [Cate]. Social scientists have long documented the importance of social ties such as the one Jessie and Cate share. Whether they focus on the power of social networks to further employment opportunities, or on the effectiveness of social capital for support and for leverage, researchers agree that social ties matter, though they do not always reach the same Our Strength Is in Our Unity | 145 conclusions about who has what sorts of ties, and with whom. Carol Stack, in her seminal work All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974), documents the depth of support social ties among kin and fictive kin (friends who refer to each other with kin titles like “cousin” and “sister,” and often feel and act as though they are related) can provide. Her work has been immensely influential; an entire generation of sociologists and anthropologists has continued to explore the meanings and mechanisms of social support in various poor communities in the decades since All Our Kin appeared. Few find that such networks continue to exist. Yet KWRU members are living, decades after Stack’s work appeared, in much the same way as her participants. This chapter discusses the lasting social ties KWRU members build, relying on my KWRU interviews and observations. I call these sustainable ties, which occupy in some ways a middle ground between kin ties and disposable ties. Kin ties can be functionally permanent and extremely valuable. Those without such ties may turn to disposable ties, which dissolve quickly, for aid in times of desperation. While ties that dissolve in the course of months can also involve the language of familial ties, relative permanence makes sustainable ties closer to familial ties in a way that’s valuable to members and extends beyond the friendships themselves. This chapter discusses KWRU members’ experiences of their own kin ties providing limited support, and their sense that ties within KWRU take the place of family—a perception that hinges in many ways on the sustainability of their ties. It gives an overview of the findings of Matthew Desmond about poor people who built ties to one another without kinship, but experienced them as disposable. It describes the kinds of help KWRU members give one another, and also discusses the limits of the ties they build with one another. It describes members’ ties to the organization itself as an independent mechanism that facilitates their individual ties and in many ways supersedes them. The chapter concludes after describing the impressive longevity of KWRU ties. The Limits of Kin Ties and the Kinship of KWRU Ties KWRU members provide each other support as varied as loaning clothes for a funeral, babysitting for one another’s children, speaking to 146 | Our Strength Is in Our Unity doctors in the hospital when a member gets sick, and...


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