Community-Based Adoption: A New Model for Building Local Resilience
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
I recently reconnected with a friend I’d met in Metrowest Boston, but who had relocated to Northern California.
A scientist by training, Jeanine’s resume is rich, her personal story adventurous. She’s held several teaching positions at state universities, served on two non-profit boards of directors, and served as a research director for a global educational institute. After she moved back to the Pacific Northwest, our social interactions dwindled from weekly to once or twice a year.
I began by expressing my hope that she was healthy and safe. She was, she told me, all things considered. She had recently relocated to Oakland, after being evacuated three times due to three different wildfires in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in the span of three years. In the pandemic’s wake, a contract she had been working under was defunded, so she transitioned from her white-collar work to gig work as a delivery driver, shuttling parcels and takeout food around the Bay area.
“It was challenging at first,” she told me, “until I figured out the system. It’s pretty good now, and pays really well.”
She then proceeded to report on others in her circle.
“My friend Dewayne was down and out for a while, but he looked good the last time I checked in on him,” she offered.
Wait a minute. Dewayne?
“Dewayne is an elderly bass player I adopted. He’s really talented, but the places where he used to perform all closed because of COVID-19.”
“You adopted him...” I pondered out loud.
A Compassionate Form of Intervention
A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay about the vital role grassroots initiatives have played in maintaining the health and well-being of our communities. I pointed out that in the wake of COVID-19’s chaos and carnage, it took the selfless acts of individuals to help provide basic human needs – many unaddressed by government or corporate entities – for our most vulnerable neighbors. I continue to see this today, even as new diagnoses and deaths have tapered off, at least in my state.
Nevertheless, Jeanine’s approach to selfless action struck me as next-level.
Jeanine wasn’t referring to adoption in the legal custody sense. Nor was she referring to a person she'd brought into her home. Until somebody comes up with a better term, I’m inclined to call Jeanine's model community-based adoption.
Community-based adoption involves a symbiotic, informal exchange of goods and services. Her arrangement with Dewayne, for example, involves introducing him to the web. At 70 years of age, Dewayne had only a halting awareness of the resources available to him online.
To Jeanine, however, this spelled opportunity, not despair.
“He’s an amazing musician,” she gushed. “He’s this living repository of African-American and – as he puts it – authentic American music.”
A creative genius who struggled, Jeanine explained, because he’d had no experience writing grant proposals or using email to promote his performances.
“I’m helping him get the help he needs,” Jeanine continued. “He recently got two small grants from a blues organization in Tennessee to pay his electricity and gas. I’ve applied for three grants for him so far and am about to apply for a fourth. I’ve been putting out the word on his weekly Facebook concerts and he’s gotten about a thousand bucks for those.”
An Informal Arrangement Based on Mutual Trust
Dewayne’s willingness to embrace community-based adoption is part of what sets the model apart from other forms of charity and assistance.
“A person needs to be emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically willing,” says Jeanine, “to accept help through adoption.”
Other defining characteristics of community-based adoption include:
A personal rapport – ideally, a friendship – between the adopter and the adoptee
A mutual benefit from the relationship; in exchange for helping Dewayne promote his music, Jeanine helps give good music and culture a home in her community
In these ways, community-based adoption strengthens social fabrics in ways that collection jars, used clothing drives, or GoFundMe sites often don’t or can’t.
Adopt and Be Adopted
Another appeal of community-based adoption is its peer-to-peer aspect. In her community, Jeanine is both an adopter and an adoptee. Her current residence is a spare bedroom in the home of a friend, Carey, who also hosts virtual concerts online for East Bay musicians who now lack performance venues.
I feel it particularly relevant today, so I'll add here that my friend Jeanine is white, and that Carey, her adopter, is black.
And while personal relationships are at its heart, community-based adoption isn’t strictly a one-to-one proposition. Jeanine has also adopted a nearby coffee shop, providing her design, publicity, and menu-planning services – as well as her moral support – in exchange for good food and the prospects of a post-COVID hangout space downtown.
Unlike many forms of charity, where the rigid roles of haves and have-nots create an unhealthy power dynamic, adopters can become adoptees overnight. And vice-versa. An American egalitarian ideal is baked into the very community-based adoption model.
Fluid Roles Can Present Risks
To be clear, community-based adoption does pose certain risks. For one thing, the fluidity with which roles can shift requires both adopters and adoptees to enter into arrangements with an open mind. Successful adoptions demand flexibility between parties, and even a willingness to be vulnerable.
Yet in this and other respects, the personal dynamics of community-based adoption resemble those of other relationship contexts, such as those found in the workplace, between next-door neighbors, and among blood relatives.
In the end, the adoption model for community resilience depends just as much on emotional maturity as do all other types of relationships. Trust, open communication, and transparency are vital for these relationships to work. Over time, adoption relationships can shape-shift, deepen, or fizzle out. Still, the potential to increase local resilience while nurturing personal growth make community-based adoption a model worth pursuing.
[Graphic credit:"All American Drug Store, Forks WA," by woodleywonderworks. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]
Religion & Spirituality