The oldest Rotary Club in Durham, North Carolina, where I live is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year by promoting 100 acts of service among it members.
So far, an impressive 592 individual acts have been tallied.
Rotary was formed in Chicago in 1905 but didn’t expand to other cities until several years later. By 1910, there were clubs in 16 cities. Within five years, groundwork was laid for a club in Durham.
Coincidentally, this happened to be the same year the Ku Klux Klan was resurrected in the South, soon spreading across the nation this time until it was washed away by the Great Flood of 1927.
But just as it had during the first rise of the KKK following the Civil War, Durham had already taken another course having earned a reputation for being accepting.
Within a couple of years prior to the formation of its first Rotary Club, Durham was already spawning a “black entrepreneurial enclave” soon known as “Black Wall Street” which had recently earned acclaim for both social and economic justice during visits by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington.
But in many towns, the KKK tapping into fraternal and service club membership lists including Rotary Clubs, as a means of trolling for members.
Back within two years of its first meetings, the Durham Rotary Club had been jolted by the Great Influenza Epidemic which originated in Kansas just as the KKK too was reaching there.
It was known as the “crowd disease” because of how it spread, and within a few months the epidemic had killed 675,000 Americans alone, more than the number of soldiers on both sides who died in the Civil War.
Some cities in North Carolina, such as Charlotte, were even quarantined.
Club minutes and histories from that time show that almost from its ounset in Durham, Rotarians here were caught up in a struggle between members focused on embedding ethics and ideals among its members and some who were more interested in projects.
When I was president of the club in 2003-2004, the underlying tension between the two was still apparent with the push for projects often winning out over ethics and ideals. But there was something of even deeper concern.
This is when the findings by sociological researchers had moved from journals where they appeared in 1995 into mainstream literature, explaining why service clubs had been rapidly losing traction.
Rotary membership in the U.S. peaked in 1993 and had been in slow and steady decline, falling back below 400,000 by 1999. Looking back, sociologists now believe this is symbolic of a shift in social architecture that took place two or three decades earlier.
It has been documented in several studies, nearly all of which are summarized in an excellent book published last year by Marc Dunkelman entitled, The Vanishing Neighbor.
Service clubs such as Rotary may have surfaced during the Progressive Era but they have their roots in an earlier, fundamentally American change in social architecture identified during his 1831 observations by Alexis de Toqueville which he termed the township.
But by the late 1970s, we know in retrospect that America began to experience another change in social architecture, coincidentally parallel to the federal government’s evolution of the “network.”
But during this time Americans had stopped attending meetings and joining organizations.
While the number of organizations continued to proliferate, they were mostly to engage in activities such as lobbying.
By 1989, when the Internet was opened for individual and consumer use, we too began to shift to a more networked society.
Today, people volunteer and join together in causes but more so relating to short-term issues or projects on an a la carte basis. They are less drawn to long-term, project-intense service clubs.
Instead, in the future it is more likely that service clubs will morph to more resemble these network.
Some already have, but it will take time for anyone over 35 or 40 to make the shift or to embrace a new way of involvement, one that morphs project by project.
A few, like the Durham Rotary Club have begun to grow again.
There is good news, as Dunkelman explains, when he cites studies such as the one published in 2012 by Dr. Robert J. Sampson entitled Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, another great read.
It is a follow up to an earlier study Sampson led over a 30 year period entitled, “Civil Society Reconsidered: The Durable Nature and Community Structure of Collective Civic Action.”
In summary, Dukelman notes, “The good news is that even as individual membership has declined since 1970, collective efficacy has remained stable…Community trust, it turns out, can flourish without a townshipped arrangement.”
Neighborhoods and neighbors, he continues, “who know each other only tangentially can be active on the same LISTSERVs…the utility of townshipped community can still be tapped, if not bolstered, in a networked society.”
But at the heart, Sampson concludes, is “the importance of place,” referring to the inherent traits of a particular city and neighborhood. Nowhere is that more apparent today than in Durham.
“…People still want to volunteer like we did in the ‘50s and 60s but people want to volunteer with their families and their kids…They want to get their hands dirty.”
Lion’s membership peaked in 1978 and Kiwanis in 1992, a year before Rotary did. Still, worldwide, the three organizations had 2.5 million members when I retired in 2009 and my involvement today is honorary.
As a map for sustainability, they can do no better than to focus on place and to use the difference between mainframe computers and local area networks as a metaphor.