In reading the introduction to Generous Thinking by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, I was struck by the moment where she differentiates between the notion of community as evoking a “dangerous, mythical notion of organic unity” instead of a “form of solidarity, of coalition-building.” I agree with Fitzpatrick that the romanticized, fanciful understanding of community as something easy, spontaneous, and naturally occurring is destructive. The fact is, solidarity requires hard work, individual sacrifice, and compromise, and it takes a lot of humility to “acknowledge our interdependence,” as Peter Block puts it. The other difficult thing to navigate is ensuring that community is inclusive, and that its creation doesn’t result in an “us” versus “them” mentality, something that I think requires constant monitoring and revision.
The project I’ve been working on with the Iowa Valley RC&D has given me many opportunities to consider these different notions of community evoked by Kathleen Fitzpatrick: the work involved in creating bonds between individuals and separate established communities; the difficulty involved in maintaining these bonds and ensuring inclusivity. My project involves creating a publication about rolle bolle (rhymes with roly-poly), a Belgian yard game similar to bocce played by locals descended from Belgian immigrants who arrived in Iowa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has involved meeting with players in rural towns throughout the Iowa Valley region, all of whom know each other.
In the interactions I’ve had with community members over the course of the past week, I’ve been struck with how distanced this work feels from the world of the academy. Explaining who I am and why I’m doing what I’m doing involves several steps. Most people don’t know what the Iowa Valley RC&D is, or the scenic bypass, and I know from hearing people try to explain who I am that they don’t necessarily retain what I tell them about it. (I don’t blame them, either—I do try to give the simplest, shortest explanation of what the Iowa Valley RC&D is, but it’s still wordy, and even Jessica has told me she struggles to give people a one-sentence answer.) Most of the time I don’t even get around to explaining that I’m actually coming from the University of Iowa, because it just adds to the confusion. I’ve gotten varied (but generally positive) reactions when I have brought it up, though; some of the people I’ve spoken to even went there, or sent their children there.
Despite this, I haven’t encountered any “rampant anti-intellectualism.” Actually, most of the people I’ve spoken to have a profound interest in their family history and the history of the game, and many of them have carefully curated personal archives. One woman at the Center for Belgian Culture showed me a binder full of photocopied letters in Flemish, accompanied by English translations, documenting a woman’s experience of post-World War I Belgium. She told me she takes them out and re-reads them about once a month, and is struck by how little has changed about the process of immigrating to the United States. Another man has a binder full of every article published on rolle bolle in local papers from 1916 to the present, with source information neatly marked in red ink above each one. It’s a project that probably took years, and has resulted in him becoming the most respected authority on the local history of the game. Neither of these people work in a university, but they have an intellectualized understanding of their passions that makes them invaluable to their community.
I was especially interested in what Fitzpatrick wrote about the increasingly significant role of non-profits in making community a reality, since I think this is central to what the Iowa Valley RC&D does. Fitzpatrick discusses the work of Miranda Joseph, who points to the fact that the word community is used “as if the relationships that it describes could provide an antidote to or an escape from the problems created by contemporary political and economic life,” noting that as the state retreats from the responsibility it has towards its communities, individuals and non-profits have been forced to step in. The history of RC&Ds exemplifies this; they started as partially federally funded programs in the 1960s, but were forced to transition into non-profits in 2011 when the federal funding went away. That meant that many of them disappeared entirely, and those that remained, including the Iowa Valley RC&D, are now entirely funded by grants. My conversations with Jessica, the Executive Director, have emphasized the reality that building a sense of community requires funding, and that funding is not easy to come by.
I hear echoes of this in the conversations I’ve had with rolle bolle players, who attribute the disappearance of the game to the disappearance of small farms. As farms have gotten bigger, communities have gotten smaller, and towns have dried up and all but disappeared. Locals in charge of organizing community events and maintaining community spaces have gotten tired and given up, and in some cases no one has stepped in to take their place. Even some of the younger people who have taken up the mantle are already starting to despair. Older people are sad to see the young generation move away, but they also understand that things just aren’t what they used to be.
As one player, Ed DeNeve notes, the dedication to the game is especially strong amongst older players because of the memories it evokes:
As the generations change, everything changes with them, and everything reverts back to your youth. I’m getting to the age where I notice this. Our generation, we didn’t have anything to occupy our time. You worked, and you did chores, and you went to school, and you came home and you did chores. And the only day you got off was Saturday. And bolle didn’t start until, I think, July first. We’d play on the farm on Sundays, but we only played organized games for the league on Saturdays, and I think it was only seven or eight towns then. So you played from the first of July to I think the end of September. And now that was just the way it was.
Understanding the underlying causes of all of this change, I think, is where things get tricky. Kathleen Fitzpatrick points to how neoliberal economic policies and practices have undermined universities’ relationships to the community, and as an outsider to Iowa’s rural community, I’m tempted to see them as the root of many of these small towns’ struggles as well. But I get the feeling that most of the people I’m talking to would disagree, and I have to respect that their understanding of the situation is much more informed than my own. In a conversation I had with Jessica earlier this week, she expressed her frustration with people’s inability on both sides to put aside their ideals in order to find practical ways of solving problems together. I think she was describing the “pragmatic coalition-building function of community” that Fitzpatrick talks about, and it was something I really appreciated.
There are ways in which the group of people still playing rolle bolle in Iowa exemplify a strong and successful community. They describe each other as family (and in fact many of them are related), and they truly are supportive, kind, and inclusive. I know it’s going to sound odd that I chose to apply for this internship when I say this, but I have had a profound aversion to all sports since childhood (mostly because I am bad at them), and was terrified at the prospect of having to play. But everyone was encouraging, and that’s something I saw at the last game I was at, too. Experienced players love to pull new players aside and offer them advice, and they always tell them when they’re doing well. One person I interviewed told me that this goes beyond the game; for her, attending a game is an opportunity to ask close friends for advice and to get genuine answers. People aren’t afraid to be honest or to disagree. And according to her, not everyone there has the same socio-economic status or background, but everyone respects each other.
On the other hand, the community is close-knit to the point of being exclusive, and although players might come from all walks of life, the majority of them have some Belgian ancestry—at least one person was quick to point out to me that the reason he didn’t play so well was because he was Italian. And although they are welcoming of new players, bolles are not easy to come by: it’s all about knowing the right people. There are also some people who think that the “die-hards” are too obsessed, and that this might have turned other people off of the game. But for those who do participate, the sense of belonging to a community is very strong, and part of this probably has to do with the fact that they put so much time and dedication into it: the players build and maintain the courts themselves, put together a calendar, and show up week after week.
In many ways, they epitomize the “pragmatic coalition-building function of community” I alluded to earlier. When I ask what makes the game so special, the word that people inevitably use is “camaraderie.” Beyond the sport itself, people value the chance to get together with friends week after week, and they invest their energies into making sure these get-togethers are possible. I think the challenge here will be making sure everyone involved in this project—the rolle bolle players, the Iowa Valley RC&D, and me, as a representative of the University of Iowa—is open to listening to and working with one another in order to help keep the game going.