One of our most critical needs these days is…to build and sustain great communities. While it’s important to be concerned about our world, our nation, our state and even our county…we actually live day-in-and-day-out in communities and neighborhoods. This is where we feel safe and fulfilled…or not. This is where we raise our kids…where we worship…where we celebrate our rites of passage…where we have holiday cookouts and dinners…where we feel most comfortable. So…why is it that we seldom discuss the well-being of our communities? This priority has been too low for too long: ‘Build a great community…together.’
This local agenda was already important before the financial collapse that led us into the Great Recession…but now it is urgent as well. With so much unemployment, so many foreclosures, and so many budget cuts at all levels…our neighborhoods and communities are now the only hope as a safety net for literally millions of Americans. This was unthinkable just four years ago. And…during the next two years, millions more will likely face the desperation of long-term unemployment without any assistance from any public agency. It isn’t really important to revisit who is to blame…or who should have done what. Our communities will be in crisis, because a huge number of our neighbors will be in financial limbo with no end in sight. Yes…this crisis will be increasingly serious on a local level, because our federal and state safety nets are politically expendable.
Let me tell you a story. In 1986, I reluctantly joined local and national disaster response efforts when a flood devastated a neighboring community. Through a series of interesting and sometimes convoluted connections, I ended up making a pretty significant contribution in disaster response management for the non-profit and religious communities at a national level…and became a trusted consultant for our national disaster response community of agencies. Then…in 1999, I was called to lead a workshop at Africa University in Zimbabwe to create a unique disaster response protocol for African disasters. My wife and I conducted a 6-week workshop with 25 participants from all over Africa. I brought disaster response methods and theory; Carole brought her skills in adult education and group facilitation; participants brought their on-the-ground experiences. Our task was to listen for and to understand the unique voices of authentic African disaster response…and it worked!
Our communities and neighborhoods have their own unique voices on problems, large and small. Residents in these communities are the experts on their local context…and many of them are willing and eager to participate in active problem-solving. But…they are realistically skeptical about our intentions in deliberative conversations…just like our workshop participants in Africa. It took almost 2-weeks in the Africa project before the participants realized we were serious…if they didn’t speak about their unique experiences, nothing would be written, and no solutions would be found. In our communities, we need to inspire trust by tenaciously focusing on the local uniqueness of their context…and the connections those communities have to the wider systemic causes and consequences in our states, in our nation and perhaps even around the world. When they glimpse this big picture, they can see better what they can do locally to engage, encourage, and care for their neighbors…and, they can see what might need to be done to deal with the wider challenges. We can help them…in connecting the dots of new knowledge and options through deliberation.
In our Africa project, we told our participants: ‘Here is how people talk about and plan for disaster response in the USA and in Europe…now, you tell us what works, and what doesn’t work, and what you’ve learned that is totally unique.’ I’m suggesting this approach to public problem-solving as well. We in the dialogue and deliberation community can offer in our communities across the country an engaging conversation: ‘Here is how people appear to be talking about this sticky issue…now, you tell us what works, and what doesn’t work, and what you would bring as a unique contribution to a sustainable solution that everyone could live with.’ I believe the public can solve some huge problems…but, they must be approached locally first, connecting the dots as we go. In the past, we’ve tried looking for national solutions that could then be simply applied locally…in our polarized, sound-bite context among politicians and media pundits, this method will no longer work. Let’s approach our communities with this worthy opportunity and challenge: ‘Build a great community…together.’ We could have thousands of BAGCT efforts across the country…and these efforts could create a whole new way to see our most difficult problems.