Rebuilding Communities Requires More Spirit Than Cement
(The Business Journal, March 8, 1996)
By Richard H. Carson
The next great innovation in American politics is "rebuilding community."
In recent years, both Oregon and the national political landscape have degenerated into one that is divisive, spiteful and mean-spirited. However, this anti-government backlash has begun to weigh heavily on citizens. We have begun to realize we are in denial - for we are the government and we are the problem.
I have come to believe we need to rebuild community, so I went in search of some answers. I started in Missoula, Mont., where I met with Mayor Dan Kemmis. I wanted to talk with him about his first book, "Community and the Politics of Place." Kemmis writes that "something is profoundly wrong with the way we make public decisions" and believes "the common ground is there, but our prevailing way of doing things block us from realizing it?" That statement describers Oregon.
Kemmis says it isn't a matter of changing our elected officials. Instead we need change the way we conduct the affairs government. He wants people to realize "citizenship is a voice" no different than of mayor or governor, and that citizen I participation is a "civic virtue?" Mayor Kemmis wants people who live in a place to become participating citizens who work toward positive change, and not just complaining payers who only blame the government their problems.
By definition the word civic means "relating to a citizen." It cannot be practiced by corporations, political parties, non-profits or political action committees.
Civic virtue is practiced by an individual who lives in a specific, definable place - a community. It is practiced by an individual who cares about that place and who wants to make a positive change. The aforementioned organizations often serve to be divisive because they represent larger political agendas that transcend the community where the citizen lives. Their tactics drive the citizen out of the political process.
When citizens come to speak at a public hearing, they find their words lost between the rhetoric of well-organized special interests. The problem is not just that the developers fight with environmentalists or that the Democrats argue with Republicans. The problem is that for every organization worth supporting, there is an opposing organization someone else supports.
We, the people of this place called community, are being pushed out of our city and county governments by special interests. However, we can blunt their influence. We can vote. To achieve a new political paradigm. We don't vote one party line over another. We must vote for people of any political persuasion who will work with us and not against us.
How do we know these people when we find them? Kemmis says that, "Such citizenship must demonstrate a genuine and reliable responsiveness to the place, a full-fledged participation in the human project of living well in that place." It is not what people rail against that counts. It is what they work for - what coalitions they achieve that will deliver a better life in our community.
Understand that this view will make anyone who states it a heretic. Special interests on both sides will burn you at the stake. Such is the result of holy wars. The people who live in the holy place get burned.
The antidote to this anti-government attitude is a vibrant, inclusive and responsive democracy. It will be hard work. There are no fast-food, instant-gratification answers here, folks. However, if you are willing to work hard, there are three levels to work at:
The New Citizen. The basic community building block is City Hall - because it's where the average citizen comes to file a police report, pay a water hill or get a building permit to remodel their house. The lesson of community policing is that if you want to take back the streets, you have to be part of the street life.
In order to bring citizens hack into city government we have to start at the beginning - with our children. We must start in the schools and begin a whole new civics education program for our children. For the real meaning of community should be "common unity." We the citizens of the city - the business people, elected officials and civic leaders - must spend time teaching our kids to be participating citizens and not just complaining taxpayers.
The New Community. The rebuilding of our communities will be done from the city up. And those who will do it will he consensus builders. They will be people who forge a new civic consortium from neighborhood associations, academic institutions, private enterprise and government. They will make a new democracy which will embrace conflict and dissent. They will throw open the City Hall doors by any means possible in order to bring people in.
The New Region. We need a four-county, two-state citizens' group that is open to every person in the greater metropolitan area. According to national columnist Neal Peirce, such a group will encourage debate and foster local solutions built on the consensus of individual citizens. Such a group would speak the language of the regional community, as it is spoken by the people this place. However, it will need to represent all of us - not just the 32 percent of the region's population living in Portland.
Richard Carson is Oregon City's community development director and managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.