The People’s Army

by Glen

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EVERY MORNING ENTIRE FAMILIES WOULD WAKE UP,  emerge from their houses and face the devastation from the night before.  They were called “The People’s Army” – a suitable phrase, given all that they had to endure.  Every night forces from a distant part of Europe filled the sky with airplanes and bombs, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake.  Adolf Hitler, their leader, felt it was only a matter of time until he broke the will of the so-called People’s Army.

We now know how badly he underestimated the will of a people once they had set about the business of protecting their communities.  The people of England, Wales and Scotland arose every day to “reset” their cities and villages, restoring their way of life.  They weren’t soldiers, pilots or navy personnel; they were seniors, parents, boys and girls, and people from every walk of life.  In the end, Hitler not only failed to break the spirit of British military, he came up against the will of mobilized communities in such a fashion that even his great “Blitz” strategy failed.

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was in London, Ontario, last weekend and showed slides from the great floods that his city had faced months previous – “the greatest natural disaster in Alberta history,” he called it.  The devastation being so great, city leaders had no idea how to mobilize the citizenry to begin rebuilding again.  They needn’t have worried.  Of their own accord, and through great natural instincts like the migration of birds, tens of thousands of Calgarians moved through the city, helping strangers and neighbours alike, to dig out, repair, and bring a great city back to normalcy.

Nenshi then confessed to the large crowd that he has been ruminating ever since about how to take that kind of mobilization and bring it into the everyday life of the city.

The truth is, it can’t be done.  Granted, any time our communities come under major calamities, the resourceful efforts of citizens are always a wonder to behold.  But what do we do when everything returns to normal and all appears fine?  Can citizens still be counted upon to assemble in such numbers to build the city in good times?

It’s too much to ask.  People need to get on with their lives and sustaining such an effort indefinitely is only as possible as the scope of threat confronting them.  The Calgary mayor gave out a couple of ideas he has been working on to continue engaging his citizenry, but it remains an uphill battle.

Another speaker at the conference, Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, looked out over the same sea of faces and put a bit of a different spin on it: “You – the people in this room – are the game changers.  You are the ones that show up every day.  You are here on a Saturday morning because you are the ones that journey that second mile for the sake of your neighbours and your children.  It will be specifically you that will set the wheels in motion to bring your city into a more productive future.”

Two great speakers, with a bit of a different take on what people like us are capable of.  Both were right, but the circumstances that would call out Nenshi’s army are distinct from those that Oliphant was recruiting.  In effect, the greater challenge was Oliphant’s.  How do you take thousands of good citizens who follow their own pursuits and convince them to join together to combat those kinds of threats to their shared community that aren’t as obvious as bombs or floods – poverty, joblessness, loss of productivity, incivility, political dysfunction, citizen disinterest?

The reality is that, barring some kind of disaster, unless Oliphant’s key influencers discover ways of coming together and cooperating for the sake of community, Nenshi’s army will remain largely out of touch, perhaps even unaware, of the great challenges before our communities.  Or as Aldous Huxley aptly put it in his Art of Seeing:

“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.”

There it is: for our communal awareness to be improved we must change our circumstances, which, in turn, must be prompted by citizens moving in a similar direction.  Such is the way that all historic change has occurred.  And for that to work, we require those citizen leaders committed in extra measure to the fate of those places where we live to at last come together, lay aside our own selected interests, at least for a time, and work together to introduce change into our cities.

Naheed Nenshi was successful in reminding our city that Canadians are good people who respond with alacrity and compassion in times of remarkable challenge.  None of us doubt it.  But when things are stuck and our citizenship remain dull and inert, there requires a new army of networkers, investors and implementers, to lay out a new vision for a citizenry to believe in.  Oliphant showed how it was done in Pittsburgh over a period of two decades, but it’s a story that’s also being lived out in San Diego, Vancouver, Mumbai, and, thanks to Nenshi’s influence, Calgary.

We used to tout the adage, “I think, therefore I am.”  The new cities of tomorrow must make a slight adjustment: “I move, therefore I am.”  It will take an army of citizen leaders more committed to the future than the present to make that happen.