Some thoughts on our upcoming city elections here in my town…
A few years ago, I heard that our Valpo Mayor Jon Costas was recommending a book called Community, by Peter Block. I got myself a copy and found it full of great, even inspiring ideas toward a goal of community transformation, partly by pushing back on our terrible social isolation.
Here’s one of Block’s nuggets: Our goal in politics and civic life should be to transform citizen entitlement into citizen accountability.
Meaning: voluntary, enthusiastic accountability — another way of saying commitment to the community. I think a lot of our Valpo residents get this and practice it.
In other words: we need lots of what are called Strong Citizens, people who want to go beyond just passively belonging to a place to “co-owning” it. This sense of co-ownership is the most powerful form of what we call “civic engagement.”
In this election year, I’ve been thinking about what engages citizens and — a subject rarely discussed — what disengages them. I know someone here in town who is very disengaged because of his personal conspiracy theory: he believes that all the powerful people — in City Hall, the developers, the business owners — get together and hatch evil plots.
I once tried to explain to the guy that his theory was too complicated. Leaders in a small community like ours don’t work together because they’re all in on some plot. They simply went to high school together! Or they belong to the same service clubs and churches and PTAs. So they trust each other. It’s these social connections, the friendships that underpin everything.
But civic disengagement can also happen when your town turns into what Block calls a Stuck Community: such a place “markets fear and fault, has a focus on problems to be solved, faces a future defined by the interplay of self-interests, is dependent upon the accountability of leaders (but not citizens) and is controlled by a small number of wealthy and powerful people.”
This situation is not caused by people’s bad motives so much as by the way they fall into “a patriarchal style, leading to civic dependency and citizens engaged only when they’re angry.”
And that means, in my view, we lose the ability to tap the biggest single resource available to any city: the creativity and energy of ordinary citizens.
Worldwide, communities are figuring out that it’s at the local level that we still have a zone of possibility and creativity for achieving a sustainable planet and society. Mayor Pete’s popularity is partly based on the practical wisdom in his localist approach to fixing the world.
Citizen power is not valued by all communities, however. If at bottom your city operates on the idea that the only true measure of community is economic prosperity, you will not build a strong community. As Block puts it, “job creation is the final argument for most of our mistakes.”
Civic leaders, in the author’s view, don’t so much need a finished plan as they need to bring citizens together to create an alternative future. City officials really shouldn’t see their role as supplying things; they should also be focused on bringing in people who’ve never been in the same room together. And then collaborating — “co-creating” — with them.
To embrace this sense of belonging to our place, we all need to become localists who can put aside the demolition derby of national politics in order to get to work on the beautiful landscapes — social and economic— in our own backyards.
And in doing that, we can happily ignore ideology in order to build a community in which we can form lasting civic friendships.