Look around, see only friends
When I was a little girl, the imminent threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union reigned supreme. It pervaded the nightly news; insinuated itself in sci-fi films like “War Games” and in bend-over-and-kiss-your-ass-goodbye miniseries like “Testament” and “The Day After.”
On a Very Special Episode of “Silver Spoons”, Ricky Schroeder even had a nightmare that, he was POTUS and had decide whether or not to use the nefarious Red Button against Russia. This was a TV show about a little boy whose man-child father drove around their mansion in a life-sized toy train, for chrissakes. No place was safe.
In November 1982 Yuri Andropov succeeded Breshnev as the head of the Soviet Union and the world waited with baited breath to see how this development would affect the arms race. Taking matters into her own hands, ten year-old Samantha Smith of Augusta Maine wrote him the following letter:
Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.
After learning that her letter had been excerpted in the Soviet newspaper Pravda(meaning “Truth”), she wrote him again asking whether he intended to personally respond. On April 26, 1983 she received a letter from Andropov, inviting her to spend 10 days in the Soviet Union as his personal guest at the Artek children’s camp, in order to “see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.”
Journalist from around the world accompanied Samantha on her visit, giving everyone a rare look at life behind the Iron Curtain. Our national dialogue was redirected from fear of the enemy to finding common ground.
Last Wednesday, as I attended the monthly Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting introducing the 2nd District Aldermen candidates, I was reminded of Samantha Smith.
All were in concurrence that Savannah’s two most pressing problems are poverty and gun violence. Each candidate presented his or her platform for solutions, including: increased funding for East Savannah, more officers assigned to work neighborhood beats, improved community dialogue, stricter gun control laws. While I agree with every idea proposed, the simplest solution just might be one presented by Samantha Smith.
On December 26, 1983 Samantha addressed the Children’s Symposium on the Year 2001 in Kobe, Japan. In her speech, titled “Look Around And See Only Friends,” she proposed the International Granddaughter Exchange, an ambassadorship program in which the grandchildren of world leaders would stay in the homes of leaders in opposing countries.
Samantha believed that no one would ever want to bomb a country where his or her grandchildren were living. Ergo, if leaders were to have immediately implemented this program, by the time the year 2001 arrived it might have expanded to the point where all nations on the planet could have accomplished world peace.
It’s a simple notion, if not the most practical. But think about it: when we invite people into our homes, we are more likely to form common bonds.
So how could Samantha’s utopic vision be practically applied to our city? In a word: Airbnb.
As an Airbnb owner/operator, knowing that I can live anywhere in the world and earn a livable wage while living in a nice home gives me a sense of self-sufficiency, pride and confidence that I never had as someone’s hourly employee.
How many of your friends and loved ones find themselves struggling to make ends meet? Imagine how much better their lives would be if they could confidently say that they could always have a roof over their heads and money in their pockets, just by opening their homes to others?
Welcoming hundreds of strangers annually not only makes me one of Savannah’s unofficial ambassadors; it makes me a more compassionate human being. Each visitor is not just my guest, but a teacher who expands my world view. Even on those rare occasions when we experience conflict, we most often create cooperative solutions.
Admittedly, I have the privilege of living in the Downtown Historic District where tourism is flourishing; with the city’s support, our West Savannah neighbors could enjoy the benefits of tourism, too.
According to the candidates, Savannah is operating in the black and its coffers are full of money that’s available to its districts, by way of its SLOSS programs. Imagine how West Savannah could thrive if the city offered grants or low-interest loans to help its current residents —not people who relocate there to gentrify the neighborhood— renovate their homes to accommodate short-term vacation rentals, and build shops and restaurants to serve the community and its visitors?
What if the city were to also offer low-interest loans to help residents buy newer cars that would qualify them Uber drivers, providing affordable, shared transportation to the community?
Wouldn’t Savannah have an even richer history to share with its visitors if West Savannah’s story were included in its narrative? Wouldn’t everyone be better served if our West Savannah neighbors received the same police protection as Downtown tourists?
By expanding Airbnb and Uber opportunities to all of Savannah’s citizens, those affected hardest by poverty and violence would not only have the means to create financial solutions, they’d benefit from a community built on thriving friendships.
Originally published in Connect Savannah (p. 61)