A Message of Hope from Santa Rosa Together

This election has been a wakeup call for all of us.  It has revealed serious problems with our national community and politics.  In a way, this should not be a surprise.  We have known for some time that we have record levels of mistrust in our governments and in all of our national institutions.  And we have known that the alienation and cynicism with our current politics is widespread across all sectors of our nation.

We now face a difficult task.  The best approach for all of us, both Trump and non-trump supporters, seems to be to support initiatives of the new administration that will help us address our nation’s needs.  And, since most of us understand that we have elected an untested president with many flaws, we should also be ready to work together to defend the basic values and laws of our nation if they come under attack.  We all need to resist any form of discrimination and any policy that works to isolate some of us and further divide our communities. If our most basic values as Americans and citizens are challenged, we must all be uncompromising in our resistance.

But somehow we must, at the same time, finds ways to begin the work to heal our communities and overcome the deep divisions that now separate us. It is the divisions and the alienation in our communities that make it possible for leaders to turn us against each other.  In Santa Rosa, California, we have made some progress in this work to heal our community and our efforts may be worth considering.  For the past five years, a diverse group of volunteer community leaders in our small city has been working to get more people engaged and improve the way we work together.  We created a volunteer and non-partisan organization, Santa Rosa Together, to create a space for us all to focus on strengthening our community and it seems to have made a difference.  We came together around our belief that the lack of a meaningful democracy in our city is an underlying cause for our current division. We believe that we cannot rebuild trust and overcome alienation unless we all have a meaningful voice and role in the work of our city.  And we cannot learn from each other and find common ground without rebuilding our faith in democracy and without creating a politics that brings citizens together to share ideas and find common ground.  Providing a meaningful voice and role and a process for finding common ground is exactly what our democracy was designed to do.  A democratic government and a democratic way of life that respects each person’s unique contribution and engages the talents of all of our citizens is the goal of our democratic heritage, the gift given to us by generations of sacrifice and struggle.  We believe that if we want to strengthen our local community, the best way is for us to reaffirm our commitment to democracy and rebuild a politics that is based on our democratic values.

To renew our democracy, we believe that we will need to first recognize how far from our democratic heritage we have drifted.  For the past century, we have gradually replaced our democracy with an ideology of meritocracy.  Our national leaders across all sectors now consider democracy to be out of date and unrealistic in today’s vast and complex world.  We have gone from a nation that understands the unique value of every voice and the unmatched power of united citizens to a reliance on expertise and “gifted” individuals as the source of all progress.  As a result, we have gradually concentrated power in the experts of our governments and corporations.  The voice and role of average citizens has been reduced to voting every four years to choose among competing elites.  It is, in short, government and organizations for us, not by us. And, as we should know from the history of democracy, this rise of meritocracy and the concentration of power in our elites, despite their best intentions, would lead inevitably to inequality and corruption.  And, with our national culture and discourse so dominated by the ideology of meritocracy, it is no surprise that few, if any, of our national leaders understands the significance of the loss of our democracy and none is prepared to lead the struggle to regain our democratic heritage.  Instead our current political process makes democracy impossible by dividing us into adversarial camps and manipulating our fears to gain power.  In our current politics, we are not given the chance to act as citizens and encouraged to meet across party lines, learn from each other and find common ground.

Our current crisis may seem bleak and hopeless, but here in Santa Rosa we do not see it that way.  We believe that the reality is that we now have the greatest potential in our nation’s history to fulfill the fondest dreams of our founding fathers for the democratic experiment that they launched.  Beneath the surface and contrary to the apparent election results, our nation is now more united than ever.  Thanks to the leadership, struggles, and sacrifices of all those historically excluded from our democratic community, we have made tremendous progress on the work to create the basis for a democratic community.  Our cities and towns are teaming with diversity and in their day to day lives our citizens are building bridges and community as never before.  Many of our local governments are working to find new ways to partner with citizens.  If we can only now just recognize and reject our turn towards the ideology of meritocracy and the politics of division and rebuild a democratic politics, we will create a democracy that will flourish beyond our own wildest dreams. Jefferson was right, democracy does needs to be fundamentally renewed periodically to make it relevant to a changing world.  That is our task today.  It is nothing less than the daunting task of rebuilding our crumbling democratic infrastructure and it will be the task for a generation. It is our chance and our challenge to restore and renew the democratic experiment that has been and can again be our main gift to the world.

What do we need to do?  All of us can start by reaching out to our neighbors and co-workers who disagree with us and begin to build bridges.  Then we need to find ways to restore power and function to our local organizations and our neighborhood level communities.  Neighbors working together with real resources and power to affect their communities could be the foundation for a renewed democracy.  Neighborhood and community organizations can be the schools for our democracy, the place where more of us can get engaged, experience democracy first hand, and develop the skills that we need to find common ground and work together.  If we rebuild our local communities and empower them to solve problems, we can overcome the divisions and alienation that plagues our current politics.  Neighbors who know how to find common ground will be prepared to reject the divisive tactics of our current politics.  Across the nation, many of our cities are already learning how to engage their citizens and help them organize to control their communities.  We can do this.

We also need to find creative new ways to bring all of our diverse communities and citizens together to share ideas and learn from each other to find common ground.  We need to create new processes for making key decisions that give citizens a real voice and role in the work of our towns, cities and nation.  We also know how to do this, to bring information and resources to our neighborhoods to engage more of our citizens in the decisions that affect our lives.  And we know how to organize cross community meetings to share ideas and find common ground.  In Santa Rosa, we have organized a broad Homeless Talk coalition that is now taking the conversation on homelessness out to our neighborhoods and working to develop the kind of process we will need.

And we need to transform our governments, so that they understand that in a democracy they have a primary responsibility to help citizens organize so that they have a voice and role in the work of the nation.  Expert administrators and staff should not make decisions for us, they should help us to organize, bring their expertise to us, and partner with us to address our cities and our nation’s concerns.  In Santa Rosa, with the leadership of our City Council and a new Director of Civic Engagement, we are poised to begin this transformation.

It is regrettable that we have had to experience the deepened divisions and the threat to our core values that our current form of politics and our meritocratic ideology have created.  But if this experience motivates us to work together to rebuild our democratic community and create a democratic politics that helps to bring us together, it will be worth it.  We invite towns and cities across the nation to get organized and join us to rebuild their local democracy to meet this challenge.

The Full Story of Santa Rosa Together

If you are interested in the full story of the first five years of the work we have done to rebuild our democracy and strengthen our community, you can access it through the link below. Our story was published in the National Civic Review early in 2016. I would love to hear from you and learn about your experiences so add a comment or contact me.

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