What is Community Building?
(Oregon Planners' Journal, June 1996)
By Richard H. Carson
The next craze in government is upon us -- and its called "building community." You can spot such trends because they start showing up in the political rhetoric around campaign time. So it was no surprise to me when President Clinton started his State of the Union speech by saying it was a "report on the State of the Union. Not the state of our government, but of our American community." Community building as a movement has promise, but in some ways it is also just a knee jerk reaction to the increasing verbal (and occasionally physical) assaults that government officials are enduring.
I thought about this on the day that Bill Naito -- Portland's great civic leader -- died. That same night I went to the annual Oregon City Citizen Appreciation Dinner. I sat through three hours of eating dinner, friendly talk and recognizing the hard work of the citizens of Oregon City before I realized who wasn't there. I realized that it was the people who complained and railed the loudest against government -- the complainers and finger pointers weren't there. And who are they?
They are the new McCarthy's -- the new Torquemadas -- hunting for the unseen enemy. It's illegal to persecute racial minorities and the horrible commie pinkos are gone. So who is left to blame for the fact these hate mongers have a miserable existence? Why government employees.
These inquisitors are hunting for someone to blame for their personal failures of character and their lack of a generous of spirit. For these are the key ingredients I have found missing in them. They are not people who give. They complain before they praise, they demand before they volunteer, and they want a scapegoat rather than admit they have a problem.
Have they cleaned up the local cemetery? Have they served meals to the elderly at the community center or delivered "Meals on wheels?" Just what are their credentials? Complaining is not a credential. Pointing a finger in accusation is not a credential. I can tell you what their credentials are. They are people who give nothing to anyone but themselves. They always claim that some divine right -- usually from God, the Constitution or the free enterprise system - has led them to righteously persecute others. They never seem to realize that God, the Constitution and the free enterprise belong to all of us. In the end we seem to find that these same people are of little character, give little, and never contribute to "the community."
The great challenge of community building is to help people understand that citizenship is an office no different than that of mayor or governor. The people who live in a city need to become participating "citizens" who work toward positive change, and not just complaining "taxpayers" who only blame government. The word "civic," by definition, means "relating to a citizen." And civic virtue can only be practiced by an individual who lives in a definable community - a city.
The next American social fad may have appeared on the horizon and its called "rebuild community." But rebuilding it needs to apply to both rebuilding citizenship and citizen trust in the institutions of governance. By the way... I define "community" as "common unity" and the place we must start is City Hall.
Richard H. Carson is Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.