MOST OF US TREASURE OUR VALUES. WHETHER WE GAINED them by the natural transition of parents or grandparents to children, from religious faith, humanistic values, or even by strength of character, they matter to us and we seek to live our lives by their lights. Many of the great leaders who have led our nation or our regions were driven by such values to make a difference in public life.
But we never acquired such values to accept the status quo. We never meant for poverty to become entrenched. It remains unthinkable to us that women still make less than their male counterparts for work of equal value. Guilt often assails us when we realize how we have treated our natural environment. The best politicians never meant for politics itself to become so dysfunctional, and neither have empowered citizens meant for us to become so separated from one another.
And yet these things are happening. In our respective communities we have often looked to governments to better our condition, to tackle our problems and build on our successes. My parents believed that and I have kept to that sentiment and tradition. But there come those times when conditions are what they are because we have depended too much upon legislative powers to solve our problems. They are vital, yes, but we have reached the stage where forces coming from the outside into our communities are lacking in their ability to improve our collective and individual lots in life. They are still important, but they are no longer enough.
Governments programs and initiatives don’t work in cultures where we lose respect for one another or have left our communities to suffer neglect. Work must begin from the inside-out if we are to recapture our heritage, and for that to happen cities and communities must receive the best of our efforts. Peace, order, and good government can never be enough if we don’t have some local place to build on and enhance them.
All of this is just to say the communities in which we live have now become the most important aspect of who we are collectively. The problem is that our cities often lie outside the interests and jurisdictions of more senior levels of government. Politics, instead of being about cooperation, is now about conflictive ideals and the only way to heal what ails us is for us to remake our communities into the models of what good politics could look like. We don’t need to ask any government’s permission to gather, share, debate, celebrate, or plan together. Such blessings are within our domain and understandably lie outside the reach of government prohibition. Democracy can still function even when politics doesn’t.
We all know this to be true: the locales where we actually live are far more networked, empowered, cooperative, and innovative, than those more remote places where governments sit. We also inwardly sense Edward Glaeser’s sentiments to be correct when he wrote:
“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.”
For decades we as a nation were defined by those outside forces in both the reach and responsibilities of senior government levels and their programs. Yet during all that time we functioned here – in those places where we lived and died, learned and matured, built businesses and purchased products, and built entire communities through the very will of our desire to cooperate together.
What Jane Jacobs once wrote should cause us to question what we are permitting: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.” If true, then the time is now to redefine our potential, not merely through national or provincial legislatures, but within the very communities in which we live. If democracy is to rediscover itself, it must begin on my street, with my neighbours, and branch out to our schools, local Chambers of Commerce, houses of faith, civic associations, and citizen engagement.
Outside-in has been awfully good to us in times past, yet effective democracy was never born in a parliament, but on a street, in an assembly hall, in a local council chamber, or in a library or school. Democracy was idealized in the great halls but actualized in our local communities. It’s now time for inside-out. Our communities stand a chance once again to remake the democratic experiment from the ground level up. Our cities are the practice grounds for our new future together. And citizens are the key players on the field.