Archives for category: community

A friend tells the story of a time he was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital. He was bedridden for a long time and was going to have to work very hard just to walk again. At one point, his doctors cleared him to try to move around. But they were concerned he might overdo it, or hurt himself. They gave him a pushbutton and said: “Use this to call someone if you want to try to walk.”

My friend is a grandparent, and the grandchild was learning to walk. My friend thought about the pushbutton and instructions he had been given, and compared his own situation to that of his grandchild — nothing was going to stop the child from learning to walk, and nor were his parents hovering over him to “support” him in this natural human endeavor.

The story came to mind when I read about recent research exploring a new concept, “civic deserts,” especially in rural America. The concept refers to “places characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement, and without institutions that typically provide opportunities like youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Underlying this concept, citizens are seen to need opportunities to learn and engage politically . . . which leads to a need for (often institution-delivered) programming. Such opportunities and programs are important and more are needed.

But there is another way to look at the kind of politics that takes place on a neighborhood, local level. This kind of politics is already happening, as people recognize shared problems and act. In thinking about improving the way politics in some local place functions, we might ask this question: How is it that people come to see themselves and act as citizens? It is the citizens doing the acting here. And about the worthy programs, we might ask to what extent such “opportunities” foster the insight in people that I am a citizen. (By “citizen,” of course, I do not mean “someone with documents,” but instead “someone who recognizes their shared role in solving local problems.”)

Of course, it stands to reason that if there are more such opportunities around, people in a community (youth and others) may potentially be more likely to act as citizens. But existence of such programs does not guarantee it, nor are such programs required. Many of the communities in whom one can see a robust community politics might in fact end up on the “desert” list.

I think of the difference between my bedridden friend, awaiting the delivery of “walking services.” What if he ignored the button, and got up and walked? That is what he did. “No one was going to stop me from walking,” he told me.

This, then, would be a study of citizenship: What spurs people to get up and start walking — and how is it that people come to see all the ways they already are and have been doing so all along?

Photo: Roberto de la Parra

Many ways to express citizenship, an incomplete list (add your ideas):

  • Read reputable news outlets
  • Examine the sources of news that you come into contact with
  • Read news outlets you disagree with
  • Read LOCAL news outlets
  • Talk with a friend or family member about their views; share yours
  • Attend civic and community meetings
  • Vote
  • Encourage others to vote
  • Protest
  • Protect others from injustice when you see it
  • Participate in dialogue programs on issues
  • Serve on a jury
  • Sign a petition
  • Discuss current events with your family
  • Read candidate web sites
  • Write opinion pieces and letters to news outlets
  • Start a blog to express your views
  • Volunteer as a poll worker on election day
  • Attend local government or school board meetings
  • Sign up to participate on a volunteer board or commission in local government
  • Run for office against someone whom you disagree with, or for an open seat
  • Learn about how your local government works
  • Donate funds to a candidate or issue
  • Talk to neighbors about a local problem or issue
  • Work with neighbors to improve local conditions
  • Volunteer for a political candidate or issue campaign
  • Start or participate in Neighborhood Watch
  • Attend local civic commission meetings

There are so many ways to act with others for the good of our local areas, our states, and our nation.

Also see: Civics ‘TQM’

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.

 

The story of Tom Newman and the Village of Hawk Creek gives a good example of “complementary production” (the kind I was trying to describe here).

There is a man, Tom Newman, in Cleveland, Tennessee who has spent years slowly gathering five frontier log cabins to his property and turning it into a kind of museum:

Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.

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Photo William Wright

Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.

“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”

The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.

Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.

In my household, November 18 is referred to as “You People Day.” We celebrate it.

Here is how it came about. My stepfather is an attorney. A long time ago, he was working at a mid-size firm. He and a few of the partners and associates decided they wanted to strike off on their own and start their own firm. The day came when they had to announce their intentions to the founder. He exploded and went on a diatribe that my stepfather describes in epic terms.

You People Day

You People Day

“I don’t know what you people are thinking. You people are betraying me. You people are going to fail utterly and you people will come crawling back.” The exact words are lost in the mists of time, but two things remain: The sentiment, which was clear, and the repeated use of that phrase, “you people.”

I know that today the phrase has a negative set of connotations that invoke race and ethnicity. It was not meant that way, but it was meant derisively and critically.

My stepfather’s new firm thrived and prospered. They came to know the day they decided to set up shop as “You People Day” as an ironic point of pride.

Knowing this background made it possible for me, many years later in 2003, to take action on a dream I have had since my youth. I quit my job and struck out on my own. November 18 was the day my arrangements were finalized.

I did not have a detailed plan and it was risky. But my little enterprise thrived well enough that I held up my end when it came to supporting our family. And with some pride I came to think of November 18 as “You People Day.”

Almost ten years after my own You People Day, I went back into the organizational world and took a traditional job. I love my position and it affords me the opportunity to do important work on a platform that I did not have otherwise.

But I admit I miss the sense of self-satisfaction I got from being an independent worker, foraging for my own sustenance and thriving in my own way.

And so, even though I am no longer an independent worker, I celebrate You People Day.