I had never met most of the individuals before, but following an evening of conversation I began to see again what a powerful force citizens could be should they come together for the common good.
About 10 people had gathered at a downtown setting to discuss a number of pertinent subjects, some of which I have covered in the blog these past few weeks. It was our first time together, so naturally the subjects were diverse and we struggled to channel them into a constructive dialogue. I was immediately impressed with a couple of things. First was their candor. They were honest and forthright about their frustration with previous community attempts to draw citizens together. Second, they were highly respectful of points of view other than their own. The conversation went on for a couple of hours and thankfully nobody threw out an instant solution. Instead we opted to meet again, to see if we might not be able to direct the group beyond certain specific interests into the realm where the common interest transcends all others.
And herein lies the key problem for citizens desiring to pull their communities out of the fragmentation cycle. At the meeting we discussed a number of ventures where we could weigh in, assisting in moving the process along – everything from bike paths to chalk artists decorating the streets where they live. Citizen activities like this are in fact sprinkled generously across the entire country, each playing their own part. But we must consider something bigger, something more about … “community.” It’s not about special interests and getting behind them; it’s about getting enlightened citizens to pull together for the common interest, to not be distracted by individual concerns but overall challenges. There is real hope in citizens bringing new life to our institutions, but we must immerse ourselves in the larger subjects – climate change, racism, poverty, old age security – where most citizens feel so helpless, in part because we left such domains to parliaments. The most telling criticism of an overgrown or highly partisan institution is a simpler one that works better. A committed group of citizens can bring this to the table, but first they must think bigger, grander thoughts.
Times have changed. A decent and productive society cannot be produced by a dominant political policy but only by grass-roots efforts like community development, social innovation, local business enterprise, and a vigilance to empower those places in which we live. But contrary to popular sentiment at the moment, it will not occur with a plethora of individual initiatives designed to support one cause over the others.
What is required are citizens dedicated, despite their own individual causes, to put the public domain over all other concerns. Specific issues will always find their effective proponents in any community and they are vital to our overall life, but what about the community overall? This is where initiatives like the Seattle model are so instructive. They took the task of civic discourse and life seriously and refused to be veered off course by eloquent proponents for single causes. Each of the six different committees representing the Seattle community proper took upon themselves the task empowering the arts for everyone, education for all, public transport for each and every citizen. All of the committees then fed their larger ideas in an enlightened core of citizens – researchers, community leaders, citizens with expertise, politicians – whose responsibility it was to craft a broad approach to a more healthy civic future, primarily by expanding the public space and empowering as many citizens as wanted to take part in the overall community life.
Such initiatives aren’t one-time efforts, culminating in some grand plan. They represent breathing organisms, malleable, easily capable of adaptation, can handle failure, and they depend on relationships of earned trust. In fact, it is these relationships that are mostly responsible for citizen successes. Much of the new thinking in politics is about just how important relationships are to an initiative. The idea of effective citizen groups is to construct relationships that are conducive to problem solving on a larger scale than mere isolated efforts. Why? Because the historical encounter between citizens and their governments has been advocacy based – championing a cause and hoping for some kind of response. Seattle, and other communities like it that have discovered successful models, avoid such a confrontational practice if they can, focusing instead on new development models that are more collaborative.
A mosaic requires glue to hold it together if it is to be something more than just a collection of individual pieces. We need a new kind of thinking; one that brings together all parts of the community, in all of their differences, because the one thing they all have in common is a desire to see their community thrive in all the possible dimensions. Creating situations where ultimate victory depends on the 50 + 1 model is just regurgitating the divisive politics we see today. Better yet that we bring together those citizens capable of being captured by the larger vision and not just empowered by the individual cause, white-hot though it may be. I learned this week from those I encountered in that downtown meeting that, despite our difficulties in getting our heads around how to proceed, there are caring, sharp and enlightened citizens who are up to the challenge. The secret of success of such groups will be their ability to lift their gaze higher, bringing the world to their community as opposed to engaging in individual fights that for all their effort leave a community just as fractured as it ever was.