How the local can save us

Sam Smith – Depressing as the news is these days, it is worth noting that it almost entirely comes from places other than those where ordinary Americans spend much of their time such as in their towns, their neighborhoods and with their friends. News these days is almost entirely about power and those possessing it and so it is easy to forget how important the local can be.

It is worth remembering that most positive change comes from the bottom up. Consider the organizing that created labor unions, civil and women’s rights, or environmental consciousness.

This is the way that positive change typically occurs. Here is Wikipedia’s description of what would become known as the civil rights movement:

In March 1955, Claudette Colvin—a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery—refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in violation of Jim Crow laws, local laws in the Southern United States that enforced racial segregation. [Martin Luther] King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case… Nine months later on December 1, 1955, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The two incidents led to the Montgomery bus boycott.

We live now in a time in which change seems just another privilege of the powerful. We are taught, controlled and guided by huge institutions, mass media and bureaucracies that increasingly have little interest in human values, morals or cooperation.  In our schools, ethics and civics take a back seat to algebra and artificial intelligence Is making even the existence of humans seem a bit ancillary. If you have self driving cars who needs them?

The place where people can still function with decency and wisdom is at the local level. In my small Maine town I have never met someone as despicable as Donald Trump or Kevin McCarthy. Folks actually make judgements based on morality, wisdom or fairness.

Even in Washington, where I lived most of my life, I discovered that the local kept me close to those who were still fully human. So while writing about national issues, I also started a neighborhood newspaper on Capitol Hill and later was one of the city’s first elected advisory neighborhood commissioners. I learned early that this was not just a duty, but a favor to myself, keeping in touch with real people.

So would it be possible today for a 15 year old black girl in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat to a white guy who thinks power is the only necessary virtue? And if she did would it produce change?

Don’t know the answer, but I do know that the local is what keeps me going and remains the last sure haven of decency and democracy. Here are some ways to help it along:

  • Spend more time making it work. The powerful tend to discredit the importance of the local. Don’t listen to them. And it’s not either or. Just spare some time to keep democracy going in your ‘hood.
  • Reintroduce civics and ethics to your schools if they currently ignore them. Remember you can’t have democracy without each generation learning about it.
  • Open up your church for meetings on matters of local concern. We did this in DC in the 1960s and it helped a lot. The locale also reminds people that you’re dealing with decency and not just with fiscal or bureaucratic choices.
  • Create some local media. Google reports: “According to a report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, between late 2019 and the end of May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed across the country — and since 2005, the United States has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and will likely lose a third by 2025.” You can help by starting a Facebook page that features info from local sources.
  • Encourage multiculturalism: You don’t have to treat multiculturalism as just a bunch of problems to be solved, you can treat it as a local asset and help it thrive.

Remember: You can’t cure Donald Trump or Fox News, but you can make your community something to admire and enjoy. And if enough communities do this, reviving democracy and decency will be just one more great idea that got its start in a ‘hood.