The local could save us

 Sam Smith – The powerful in our land these days consist mainly of the criminal and/or corrupt and of others afraid to do anything much about it all. This leaves any positive change in the hands of ordinary Americans and their local communities.

I live in one of these communities in Maine, population 8,000,  and almost daily have some experience that is markedly different from what I am learning and writing about at the national level. Further, hyperbole and lying have little value in my town because fellow citizens recognize it quickly and scorn it.

For example, we have a community services program with some 200 volunteers. It began in the 70’s as a group of neighbors helping neighbors, in a room above a volunteer’s garage. Our fire department is based on members who get paid by the incident and are trained, given protective gear, get a pension and receive property tax reductions. As it says, “While firefighting is our main function, we are constantly taking on new roles to serve and better the neighborhood. We strive to make ourselves available to our community whether it is an emergency, questions on fire safety, or are in need of other help and unsure who to ask.”

This is not the sort of thing you learn at business schools in America, which in the past fifty years have increased their students some thirty times. And it is certainly not what you hear from Mitch McConnell and other members  of Congress.

Unfortunately, a major reason we don’t hear much of this sort of talk at the national level is because of our media which is obsessed with Washington and other power centers and also with wrong doing rather than positive actions. I scan a couple of thousand headlines a day and still come up with only a tiny number that record positive alliances and actions by citizens.

We are being taught to discount the power of the local yet virtually every important social change in our country – civil rights being a prime example – started with local action and organizations.

There are other problems such as the decline of religious organizations which have failed to become gathering places and inspirations for the active. During the 1960s in DC, I attended meetings dealing with everything from ending freeways to giving the city home rule in the basement of churches. As a Seventh Day Agnostic I still had a number of close friends who were ministers because we shared what we needed to do next week. Our presumed posthumous destinations never come up.

Then there are community groups such as neighborhood “villages” for older residents. As the one on Capitol Hill in Washington puts it:

The Village Movement started in 2002 in Boston. A Village organizes volunteers to support members in their own neighborhood. Each Village provides slightly different services depending on what members want and need. Villages serve members within specific geographic boundaries. Villages help members to live safely and with purpose by coordinating access to affordable services and a variety of social, educational and entertaining programs. Today, there are more than 250 established villages, and over 100 in development in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

Through our volunteer-first mission, we engage neighborhood residents, including older adults, to support one another to improve our community and live fulfilling lives. We also provide case management, and social, educational, and wellness programming. 90% of our activities and programs are designed and coordinated by members and volunteers and most are free and open to the public.

Our schools are critically important as well. There has been an increasing shift toward aiding individual success at the expense of community, cooperation, civics, and multiculturalism. This a huge gap in our education that gets very little attention but the fact is that math and chemistry won’t make you a better American or more decent neighbor.

I have spent much of my life involved in both the national and the local. Starting out as a radio reporter in Washington I might cover a White House press conference, a murder and fire on the same day. I later started a neighborhood newspaper in a community that would soon have two the city’s four major riot strips in 1968. While editing the Progressive Review I also started a Facebook page for my Maine town which now has a readership of about one tenth of our community. I learned that not only was there no conflict between spending time on the local and the national it has been a key to understanding either one.

We need community organizations, schools, and churches to aid each other with joint gatherings and actions that help people understand that the value and meaning of their lives is not dependent on what they see on MSNBC but on what we can do together as real citizens.