At the beginning of the novel, both Ruth and Turk are happy and fulfilled in their respective communities. Turk is a well-respected webmaster of lonewolf.org, a website that offers people interested in white supremacy a place to find camaraderie and others who think like them, and is married to the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the movement. Ruth, on the other hand, is an experienced labor and delivery nurse who feels as though she's a valued member of the hospital staff and also feels valued within her greater community. Davis Bauer's death, however, calls both Turk and Ruth's sense of belonging into question, suggesting that there's more to belonging than simply being an official member of one's chosen organization. Instead, Small Great Things suggests that strong communities are made up of people who don't abandon each other when things get tough or when things change, and that trust, empathy, and understanding are more powerful unifying forces than hate or fear.
The camaraderie and friendship that Ruth experiences with her coworkers, namely the charge nurse Marie and fellow nurse Corinne, is evident from the novel's beginning. Marie and Ruth have a running bet on what Corinne's latest excuse will be for arriving late, while Corinne and Ruth often have dinner or drinks after a long shift. Marie expresses interest in Ruth's son, Edison, while Ruth listens to Corinne's latest tales about her current boyfriend. All of these exchanges work together to create the sense that Ruth is a valued member of the labor and delivery team, and Ruth believes that this is true until Marie chooses to honor Turk's request that Ruth not be allowed to care for Davis. Even more painfully, Corinne backs up Marie's choice, and following Davis's death, the hospital itself revokes Ruth's license and takes away her job. These actions impress upon Ruth that though she thought she was valued, she was only valued until she pushed back on her supervisor's implicit biases—and a baby died because Marie chose to act in a way that was racist and alienating to Ruth.
However, the predominately white hospital team isn't the first community that Ruth has been a part of. Ruth was raised by a single mother, Mama, and was a regular member of her exclusively black childhood church community before she was admitted to nursing school and began her rise out of poverty. After Mama's untimely death a few months after Davis dies, Ruth is once again thrust into the church community she sought to distance herself from as a young adult. The funeral impresses upon Ruth that, regardless of her youthful desire to distance herself from her black community in favor of assimilation into white society, her black church community is the one that will always be there for her. This is then reinforced when a number of the church ladies who attend Mama's funeral later attend the trial in support of Ruth, while none of Ruth's white friends do. Ruth's case also attracts the attention of Wallace Mercy, a black television personality and preacher who champions defendants in civil rights cases. He makes it very clear to Ruth that the nationwide black community has her back and wants to support her, regardless of her desire for distance.
Turk also experiences the benefits of community when he begins attending skinhead music festivals and assembles his own "crew" of white nationalists. His new friends make him feel justified in his hate of black people and show him that he's not alone in this hatred. For Turk, he gains a sense of inclusion and possibly more importantly for him, a sense of dominance over others. After Davis's death, Turk seeks to use his son as a means to mobilize the anonymous community he built up on lonewolf.org. Though the online community is more than willing to rally and attend court proceedings as an attempt to intimidate Ruth, when Wallace Mercy reveals that Brit's mother is black, the community reacts in much the same way that Ruth's friends at the hospital did after Davis's death. While Brit commits suicide and effectively removes herself from the group that way, Turk and Francis become targets for white nationalists who feel angry and betrayed when their leaders turn out to not be the people they thought they were. Francis and Turk are beaten and ostracized, and while the novel offers no closure for Francis, Turk chooses to speak out and work against the white supremacist groups that once sheltered him by joining the Anti-Defamation League and a hockey team.
What both Turk and Ruth learn through their experiences with their respective communities is that the communities that are built on posturing, pretending, or hate are by design less welcoming and less forgiving than those that are based on love, respect, and understanding. In this way, Small Great Things suggests that belonging isn't something that someone feels just because they're a card-carrying member of a group, whether that group is a team of nurses or a crew of white supremacists. Instead, what binds people together and creates the strongest communities are love, a shared sense of purpose, and the willingness to accept people for who they are.
Belonging and Community ThemeTracker
Belonging and Community Quotes in Small Great Things
As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama's, there was a moment—one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.
They were all wearing black shirts with a logo over the chest: NADS. "What's that stand for?" I asked.
"North American Death Squad," Raine said. "It's kind of our thing."
I wanted one of those T-shirts so bad. "So, like, how do you get to be a part of it?" I asked, as casually as I could manage.
One of the other guys laughed. "You get asked," he said.
I decided at that moment I was going to do whatever it took to get an invitation.
I enrolled Edison in preschool there, so that he started at the same time as all the other kids, and no one could see him as an outsider. He was one of them, from the start. When he wanted to have his friends over for a sleepover, no parent could say it was too dangerous an area for their kid to visit. It was, after all, their neighborhood, too.
Babies are such blank slates. They don't come into the world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don't like.
In that moment, we're not black and white, or attorney and accused. We're not separated by what I know about the legal system and what she has yet to learn. We are just two mothers, sitting side by side.
I think about Ruth walking down the street in East End and wonder how many other residents questioned what she was doing there, even if they never said it to her face. How incredibly easy it is to hide behind white skin, I think, looking at these probable supremacists. The benefit of the doubt is in your favor. You're not suspicious.
"The fact that I'm Black was never an issue in my relationship with my colleagues."
"Not until they needed a scapegoat. What I am trying to say, Ruth—may I call you that?—is that we will stand with you. Your Black brothers and sisters will go to bat for you. They will risk their jobs for you. They will march on your behalf and they will create a roar that cannot be ignored."
"You are not an imposter," Sam Hallowell told me. "You are not here because of luck, or because you happened to be in the right place at the right moment, or because someone like me had connections. You are there because you are you, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself."
She looks at me, and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagne, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences.
When you're ready for us, we'll be waiting for you. At that moment, I feel another presence I haven't felt before...It's a community of people who know my name, even when I don't always remember theirs. It's a congregation that never stopped praying for me, even when I flew from the nest.
What would happen if I ran into him on the street? At a Starbucks? Would we do the man hug thing? Or would we pretend we didn't know each other? He knew what I was, on the outside, just like I knew what he was. But in jail, things were different, and what I'd been taught to believe didn't hold true. If we crossed paths now, would he still be Twinkie to me? Or would he just be another nigger?
"You think you're a respected member of a community—the hospital where you work, the town where you live. I had a wonderful job. I had colleagues who were friends. I lived in a home I was proud of. But it was just an optical illusion. I was never a member of any of those communities. I was tolerated, but not welcomed. I was, and will always be, different from them."