The following article was written in the spring of 2009 as part of a National Grange Essay Contest… and it won second place! I can’t be humble about it.
One of my greater pleasures in life is attempting to explain the origins and purpose of this organization called “the Grange” to excited third graders as part of our “Words for Thirds” program. I start by attempting to determine what they already know and I’ll always remember the young girl who waved her hand enthusiastically and announced “I was born there.”
It took a little thinking to realize she’d heard me say “LaGrange” – one of the small, rural communities here in Maine. Her answer was certainly amusing, but it was also insightful and telling. Like the organization she was learning about she was proud of her roots and heritage. She announced her connection and kinship to LaGrange just as enthusiastically as I announce my connection to the Grange.
That sense of connection attracts people to rural small-town America. But even small towns are experiencing a “social disconnect” as things like regional school systems and “social networking” using the Internet change the traditional model of community. We now have cell phones, PDAs and computers to stay “connected” with people – in many cases people we only rarely see and certainly can’t touch.
But beneath all the communicating, we still want to see people – to touch and be touched – and to feel a part of something. People will claim their families are going “in a million different directions” but not really consider why. Some of it has to be the search for connections and belonging. One reason every community needs a Grange is that folks are searching hard for a sense community and geographic boundaries no longer provide it. Being from “LaGrange” is not enough. Being from “the Grange” offers more.
The Grange, with its fundamental principles and practices, is one place the entire family can not only be together, but also feel a connection to other like-minded people and families. The rich heritage of the Grange as an organization with shared values and missions is relevant today. One hundred years ago it was about farmers coming together and overcoming rural isolation. Today it is about a larger and redefined community but it is still about coming together and overcoming isolation.
In a 1986 study, psychologists McMillan and Chavis identified the four elements required for a “sense of community”: 1) membership, 2) influence, 3) fulfillment of needs, and 4) shared emotional connection. An in-depth study isn’t required to see how an active Grange contributes to those elements and builds a sense of community. From potluck suppers to community service projects, Grange members and friends feel a sense of kinship and demonstrate a cooperative spirit.
There are several important factors that distinguish the Grange from other civic and community organizations. The family orientation is one notable exception. Grange families find occasions when they don’t go in a million directions. Another is the diversity of programming and interests. The Grange offers social, political, economic, and educational benefits to all. You can’t be born there, but you can belong.