It’s not enough to just survive! That’s why this simple mission statement for communities is so powerful…and why it can become a pervasive public engagement effort in many places across the country: ‘Build a great community…together’ (BAGCT). It’s a bold statement…open-ended enough to be meaningful in many unique settings, yet action-oriented and totally inclusive. BAGCT can be the focus of projects by city and county governments, non-profit coalitions, dialogue and deliberation practitioners, community organizers, religious organizations, foundations and ad hoc neighborhood organizations. Let’s decide first that we will actively shape our circumstances…rather than passively let our circumstances shape us.
No, it’s not enough to just survive…sustainability must be an initial and foundational goal, but the ultimate goal should meet many more human and environmental needs than just the basics. And…in order for BAGCT efforts to truly empower communities and to impact the nation as a whole, they need to have enough common factors, so shared values and actions can be seen clearly by researchers, the media and politicians. But…in order to have some common factors in our decentralized practice, I think we need to basically agree on a set of terms we might find to be helpful as we share our experiences and outcomes. Here are some inter-connected concepts that might be helpful as we begin to envision BAGCT in many places…let’s toss them around a bit.
Every problem and every vision for building a great community has a context…an understood jurisdiction with clear boundaries. We can talk about a context being the world, the nation, a state, a county or city, a neighborhood, a professional community, any organized group, or even a family or relationship. The boundaries of a specific context can be geographical, political, membership, job-oriented, familial, personal, etc.
Every context has a population, and most have a specific space…a public and an environment. The public gives us an idea of who needs to be at the table ‘together’ to pursue a BAGCT project…they are the active stakeholders in any decisions that are made within and for the context. The environment, on the other hand, is the term we generally use for the passive stakeholders…the actual physical space and the non-human, biological inhabitants of that area.
Where there is a public, there is an opportunity for public engagement in problem-solving and in building a great community. Transparent and inclusive public engagement is essential because vitality and sustainability are determined by how we live…together. And…how we live includes all public decisions that are formal and informal…conscious and unconscious…short-term and long-term…strategic and situational. They are public decisions that contribute to either an upward or downward spiral of sustainability of everything in the specific context. Here is where the dialogue and deliberation community of practitioners can add huge value to BAGCT projects!
But wait…here’s the most important part…public engagement mobilizes the public in a specific context to engage in carefully-crafted and moderated conversations on how we live in order to maximize contentment and satisfaction, to minimize frustration and uncertainty, or both. Contentment is a unique condition…the emotional recognition that all needs are satisfied ‘enough’ to no longer cause concern. It doesn’t mean our problems have all been ended in the ways we would prefer…it means they have been resolved to the point where they no longer cause us to feel unsettled or troubled. In essence…they are no longer an ‘issue.’ We’re not going to solve every problem…but we can get close enough to be content. That’s why the BAGCT mantra identifies our goal as a ‘great’ community…where all members of the public are at least content with their own quality of life, and are content with the prospects of a satisfying quality of life for subsequent generations.
Here’s my short list of six essential, inter-connected concepts to implement the ‘build a great community…together’ goal effectively in many communities: context, public, environment, public engagement, how we live, and contentment. If you check, these are the same concepts we’d be using to address a myriad of sustainability issues…land management, water priorities, air quality, climate change, etc…but also the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people globally, our continued dependence on consumer debt, the out-sourcing of food production, our dependence on fossil fuels for global trade transport, etc. If it’s not enough to just survive, we’d better get busy!