The social worker who shook the Pentagon down

5 Questions for vulnerability alchemist Brenda Krause Eheart

When you hear the word “neighbors” what comes to mind? Mr. Rogers? A basket full of home baked goods? Or maybe something more malicious — the racist posts on Next Door, gentrification, endless construction?

What Dr. Brenda Krause Eheart has taught me is that neighboring is actually sacred, or can be, and that it’s a real solution to some of our country’s most enduring moral disgraces. Think about our foster care system, the way we treat our elders, how we dishonor and underpay those who do the critical foundational work of care. All of this is addressed in what Brenda calls “intentional neighboring”—where people’s vulnerabilities are reframed as assets, caring relationships are prioritized, and elders are actively engaged and needed.

She first pioneered this approach by negotiating with the Pentagon for an abandoned army base (she’s fearless as f) and gathered foster kids, foster parents, and a whole crew of adopted grandparents to live together in Hope Meadows, outside of Chicago. What they learned there has now inspired communities all over the nation (veterans, those with disabilities etc.) to adopt and adapt their principles. Brenda has a new book out and I wanted you all to know about her and it. She’s such an antidote to these times—someone who inspires me so deeply in how she approaches her work and the fierceness with which she pursues it all these years later. Meet Brenda…

Courtney Martin: When you explain the concept of intentional neighboring, it seems like sort of a “duh, of course.” We all want to feel interconnected, to care and be cared for. Why is something that feels so instinctual so hard to make happen in real life? Is the most significant barrier systemic (funding, zoning etc.) or cultural (the obsession with the autonomous single-family home)? 

Brenda: The central dynamic of intentional neighboring communities is meaningful social engagement and caring supportive relationships. In these communities, neighbors get to know each other and make a deliberate commitment to regularly participate in random and deliberate acts of kindness and caring. This is not an easy commitment to make due to ingrained beliefs and traditions that value independence and respecting one’s own and the privacy of others. This translates into isolation, often loneliness, and not being comfortable calling on friends and neighbors in times of need or simply just to chat. There is also a strong tradition of segregation rather than integration, especially in housing (think group homes, nursing homes, and exclusionary zoning laws). And finally, there is a strong belief that our wellbeing depends on access to treatment and services from appropriate professionals, dismissing the powerful contributions ordinary people can make to our health and happiness.

On the systemic front, what are a few key things that we could change that would make a huge difference in unleashing people’s ability to act on their interest in intentional neighboring? Is there a housing policy or a role for philanthropy or some other lever that would be transformational for the movement? 

The COVID crisis has forced us to look critically at cracks in our systems of care. The recipients of this care—our loved ones in nursing homes, kids in foster care, veterans struggling with reintegration, young adults with disabilities and aging parents, migrant children separated from their parents, and so many more—are some of the most vulnerable among us. The crisis has also helped us to realize the extreme importance of caring relationships, of genuine human connection especially with family and friends.

President Biden is asking for big ideas and bold action. To address his challenge and the challenge of transforming our systems of care, I would like to see a national human infrastructure initiative to include an intentional neighboring pilot program of perhaps six to ten demonstration communities. This would represent both a bold idea—a radical shift in the way we provide caregiving—and bold action. These communities would serve as a gateway to truly change the way care is provided, creating inclusive environments where those needing care are integral to the happiness of those providing the care.

I believe that after more than a century of professionally driven, primarily segregated institutional systems of care, now is the time to take a giant step forward by utilizing the restorative power of planned, intentional neighborhood life. We started the Peace Corps and Americorps; now let’s pilot an Intentional Neighboring Corps.

A core component of intentional neighboring is reclaiming our relationship with vulnerability--seeing it as a strength and a point of connection rather than a weakness. Where did this insight come from for you? Do you have a model of vulnerability in your own life now or did you have one while you were growing up? 

My entire career has revolved around children and families whom society has labeled as vulnerable. I’ve never bought into the classic definitions of the word “vulnerable” which include being weak, helpless, and a burden to society. To me the people I have worked with and gotten to know are like everyone else, with the same needs and desires, but also with specific chronic challenges.

For most of my life I have bought into the belief that our social services and care systems involve addressing single issues related to needs, deficits, or challenges and that a hierarchy or chain of command must exist between those providing the services and those who needed help. Even when I started Hope Meadows, I viewed neighbors as providing an “intervention service” by focusing on meeting specific individual needs of those most vulnerable, the highly troubled children who had come to us through the foster care system. Clearly this was important. Who wouldn’t try to meet the needs of someone they care about, perhaps for medical attention or tutoring?

We gradually realized that what we were witnessing was far more than a tradition social service intervention. As intergenerational relationships evolved based on trust, knowledge, and shared experiences, they morphed into reciprocal caring relationships. What became most important to the adults who lived in the neighborhood was not a primary focus on, for example, helping a child learn to read or control his temper, but on helping the children with deeply troubled pasts to have a “happy childhood” and help them, as an old saying states: “Always remember you are braver than you think, stronger than you seem, and loved more than you know.”

Over time the children became instrumental in helping the adults relate these words to themselves! Here specific needs, deficits, or challenges did not become the prominent focus of intervention nor was there a hierarchy or top-down chain of command. Everyone in the neighborhood, including the kids and adults with life-threatening health issues, became experts in meeting one of the most important human needs—the need for daily connections with others who see, know, value, and love us.

With these new insights, embedded beliefs and perceptions of what it means to be vulnerable were reframed with everything pointing to bringing people together to build caring relationships.

Let’s talk about scale. Generally, I am the person railing against the philanthropic sector’s obsession with scale. In this case, however, I want this experience for more people, people all over the country. How do you think about your impact as it relates to scale?

I was incredibly naive when I began working with foundations in the late 1990s to take our model of intentional neighboring to scale. I had started Hope Meadows with a grant for one million dollars. When a foundation wanted to fund us to replicate our model, we all assumed if we gave a site one million dollars and a training guide that outlined “exactly” what we were doing, replication would work. It didn’t!

To replicate means to duplicate exactly like something else. Developing communities based on intentional neighboring is an undertaking that is big, complicated, and challenges conventional thinking. It would be impossible to “duplicate exactly.” Today in addressing scale, I encourage change leaders to “adapt” our model to the population they want to serve and to their location. Always guided by core values and design patterns we have identified, these leaders are showing that intentional neighboring is evolving in flexible and creative ways, transforming our work and successfully helping to move it forward.

There’s a giant Hope Meadows reunion (people are all vaccinated and can even come back from the dead!). Tell me about the party. What food do you serve? What games and music do you play? How do you feel?  

I have had so much fun thinking about a fantasy reunion. I so admired, respected, and came to deeply care about the 100 or so founding residents of Hope Meadows. If I were able to spend just one day with them, my heart would be filled with gratitude, pride, and joy.

Where to begin? First I would contact everyone who had lived or worked at Hope during the decade I was there and ask them to help plan the reunion. It would be held at the end of the last weekend in September which is the anniversary weekend of Hope’s grand opening. People would be traveling from all over the country so I expect we would rent out a hotel so everyone could stay at the same place and be able to go to their rooms whenever they needed a break or to rest. We would not have to worry about weather and everything would be accessible to those with disabilities.

There would be lots of time for informal get togethers for catching up, for lots of hugs, and for the sharing of laughter and tears of joy. Our historian, who still lives at Hope Meadows, would prepare a booklet filled with milestones of Hope’s first three decades. We would have a photographer hired to take pictures throughout the event. These would be put into an album which we would send to everyone. The album would also include current updates on everyone. I also personally would want to collect people’s stories—especially of their memories of living at Hope and what it meant to them.

We would probably have a catered fall dinner with many of the same foods we had at Hope potlucks: roast and fried chicken, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, Jello salads, and lots of pies and ice cream. While people were eating, we might show segments of several of the media pieces that were made in years past.

What fun to see what we all looked like twenty-five years ago. Or we might have these pieces shown on screens throughout the hotel lobby or in a special media room. The grand ball room where we would be eating at round tables would have its walls covered with photos taken at Hope through the years.

If only such a reunion were possible, it would be a treasured gift for all of us.

Read more about all of this in Brenda’s new book.

We will be donating to Oakland Elizabeth House in Brenda’s honor, a place that has been providing shelter for women and their children who are experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, and addiction for over 30 years. Best of all Oakland Elizabeth House creates genuine community among its residents—moms and kids—just as Brenda has preached for so many years.