There are only two more steps in the process of engagement that we need to consider (some will see more, others less), but for those willing to stay in conversation and deliberation mode long enough the benefits of the time spent now begin to accrue.
Engagement exercises don’t just pit various views against each other; often a kind of hybrid discovery results. I have witnessed this in official peace talks on other continents as well as within my local community. It’s a fascinating phase where what we end up with is not that with which we began. Effective engagement most often sees us empathizing with others, and this, in turn, persuades us to frequently alter our own original positions in light of not just new ideas, but a better understanding of those we are in community with. We are often broader in our instincts than the mere sum of our positions. Our upbringings and circumstances in life can sometimes limit our understanding at the same time as they define it. Engagement can often propel us out past those confines to a larger place, not only of other points of view, but of the broader community in general.
Democratic engagement, especially at the federal level, often pits one set of ideologies against another, one party against another. At the community level things become more pragmatic but contentious nevertheless – growth versus sustainability, sprawl versus intensification, downtown core versus the suburbs, wealthy areas versus more economically challenged ones, public transportation versus the car, and amenities for the elderly verses investments for the young. The list can seem endless.
In creative communities the future path is often found in the middle ground between these absolute options. This post isn’t long enough to provide a list of enticing and inspiring examples of such “third option” solutions, but there are many. Some communities worked together to fill in the vast spaces between the suburbs and the core. Others formed advisory committees with some political clout to propose public and private remedies for the inter-generational divides. One smaller city in British Columbia use volunteer drivers with their cars working in cooperation with city buses to provide more access and the ability to get around for residents. London, Ontario, my home town, has a group called Emerging Leaders that is working with numerous businesses, educational institutions and the city to develop innovative activities designed to retain keen young talent in the city instead of losing the younger entrepreneurs to larger centres. A community in Oregon has seen a number of its neighbourhoods join together in their celebrations of community, with each taking on certain responsibilities. In Toronto, an increasing number of charities and places of worship are co-joining their social and financial equity in order to invest in affordable housing units (the most recent being a 300-unit complex that will put a dent in the waiting list for low-cost housing). The list of solutions is as endless as the creative instincts of the people designing them.
Our communities are worthy of our best efforts, not just our leftover ones. They give us the promise of belonging and a future of security for our children after we are gone. They call on us to acknowledge our interdependence and to act as investors, owners and creators of the place we call our home. We cannot import the solutions required to better our cities – at least not very often. The best solutions – the most sustainable at least – are home-grown and home resourced. They are the products of context. The real solutions don’t emerge merely through intellect or good argument but rather through the daily grind of human existence, where people live, play, worship, act and deliberate together. Citizen engagement isn’t some kind of laboratory in which we place our specimens and opinions and analyze their virtues. Rather it is a call to action, a moving out of the lab and into the streets, parks, institutions, businesses and other important venues of our cities. In a world of increasing opinions and ideologies it is the way we find one another in the overlapping zones of human existence, cobbling together cooperative efforts the best we can on the basis of our commonalities, not our contentions.
Aristotle used to say that the perfect society was that in which everyone functioned as friends. That is clearly impossible due to the sheer size of our communities today. Nevertheless, we’ll come far closer to maturity as citizens through our friendliness and approachability than we will by having one sector square off against another. We are a community, not a business. If we do have one product we are attempting to sell it is our ability to build and sustain together. We must nurture a hopeful disposition among ourselves that we can face a challenging future, not by putting our collective finger in the dike but by reclaiming our community for the future. We can reconfigure. We can build. We don’t need to be confined by the pessimism of the day. When singer Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap,” she wasn’t talking about the music industry but the possibilities of tomorrow’s communities.
Tomorrow’s post – Implementation