Draft Presentation to Engage More Residents in the Work to Rebuild Democracy in Santa Rosa

In the summer of 2018, Santa Rosa Together decided to begin a new outreach effort to engage more people and organizations in the work to strengthen our local democracy. This is a draft presentation designed to be used for this outreach. It sums up the experience of the past several years and articulates a new and clearer focus for the work we need to do. 

Introductions: My name is ______. Thank you very much for the opportunity to tell you about SRT and to invite you to join our broad coalition of organizations and individuals. I live in….(a little personal intro________).

What is Santa Rosa Together?

We are a diverse non-partisan group of volunteer community leaders working to get more people engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and a role, and improve the way we work together in our city. We believe that our ability to meet our challenges and create a great city depends ultimately on our ability to engage and tap the talents of all of our residents, find common ground, and work together. We want to create a democracy here in Santa Rosa that can do that. Easy to say; a little harder to explain; much harder to implement.

Why did we get started on this work?

  • We got started with this work because we realized that too many of our community members feel alienated from our politics because they do not feel like they have a real voice and role in the city. We were concerned that our governments and community institutions were not doing enough to support and partner with residents and their organizations. We were concerned that not enough of us, as community members, are engaged and taking responsibility for our neighborhoods and city. We decided that it was time to try to rebuild our democracy to address these concerns and bring us together.
  • The deepening divisions and the gridlock in our national politics have only reinforced our commitment to this work. We believe that working our way out of this crisis will need to begin with efforts at the local level to repair our politics.
  • We are also deeply aware of the difficult lessons learned from the fires that devastated our neighborhoods. All of us witnessed the importance of neighbors helping neighbors and we learned that neighbors getting to know each other and learning how to work together will be the key to our survival in, and recovery from, an emergency like a fire or earthquake. We realized that Improving our local democracy and preparing for emergencies are really the same task.

We decided that we needed to stop taking our current way of doing things as a given.

Our concerns and experiences brought us together starting about seven years ago to look for a better way to live and work together in Santa Rosa. We decided that we needed to stop taking our current way of doing things as a given. We formed Santa Rosa Together because we are convinced that we can and need to do better. We believe that we can find a way of working together in our city that comes closer to our nation’s democratic ideals, a politics that brings people together and works to include everyone in the decisions and work of the city.

Who are we really?

It may help to tell you just a little about the members of Santa Rosa Together. We really are a diverse organization working hard to include all parts of our city. We have republicans, democrats, independents, conservatives, liberals. We include representatives from neighborhoods, churches, businesses, schools, governments, and not-for-profits. Despite our many differences, we have gotten to know and respect each other and we have learned how to work together to reach our common goals. In our own small way, we have demonstrated that a different kind of politics is possible and this experience and the friendships we have developed have kept us going.

What would our politics and our public life look like if it did a better job of reflecting our basic democratic values?

That is the question we asked ourselves and it is the question we are asking you and everyone in our city to join us to answer.

What are the democratic values we share? When we got started with this work, we took some time to remind ourselves of the democratic traditions, values, and practices that we all hold in common. Here is what we came up with:

  • At its foundation, democracy is a way of life and a form of government that treats all of us as equals, that values the unique experience and important contribution that each of us can bring to public life. No matter what tribe, faith, race, neighborhood, or ethnicity we belong to, no matter what our background, our democratic values ensure that each of is treated with respect as equals in our public lives. So, we set out to see what steps could we take right here in Santa Rosa to reinforce this democratic way of life that we all value.
  • Democracy is also a faith in our ability to set aside our tribes and differences, come together, learn from each other, and find the common ground we need to work together to meet our challenges and create a great city. So, we asked ourselves how we could create a politics that gives all of us a chance to meet face to face, learn from each other, and find common ground?
  • Democracy also is a commitment to get engaged, take responsibility and participate in the work needed to create a great city and to maintain a democracy. So, we asked ourselves how we could create organizations that have the capacity to engage all of us in the work of the city? And how could we create a politics that encourages people to participate and that empowers organized residents, gives them a meaningful role, power and responsibility?

The real question for all of us: How could we make our democratic values relevant today in a city of 180,00 residents?

After several years of work and a lot of lesson learned, we are now focusing on five areas to move this work forward. As you will see, each of these five areas will require real change and volunteer commitment. Right now, our coalition is are only capable of small steps in each of these areas. That is really why we are talking to you today. It will take many of us working together in our city to create a better way of working together.

  • Broadening the coalition of community leaders working to strengthen our local democracy
  • Creating strong neighborhood organizations across the city
  • Developing a new process for engaging everyone in making the key decisions on the direction of our city
  • Transforming our local governments so that it focuses on engaging and partnering with us rather than doing things for us
  • Reaching out to our youth and school communities to encourage them to take civic education seriously and prepare our students to join us in this work to rebuild our democracy.

Continue reading

Letter to My Neighbors

This letter to community leaders in my neighborhood was sent last spring as a part of our neighborhood board’s effort to strengthen our association’s organization and expand our work. About nine months before, in the fall of 2017, fires devastated several neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, all very close to my neighborhood. So that tragedy was still fresh in everyone’s mind the following spring when I sent this letter

Letter to my neighbors, Part 1

For the past year, if you are like me, you have been thinking a lot about both the vulnerability of our neighborhood and the state of our national politics. This reflection has led me to the following, perhaps surprising, conclusion: We all need to rethink our roles in our neighborhood and the role of our neighborhood in our city and beyond. Let me try to explain how I reached this conclusion.

Let’s begin with the fires that have devastated some of our neighborhoods. I think we all came away from that experience with a deeper understanding of the vulnerability of our neighborhood and a deeper appreciation of how important neighbors helping neighbors will be to our ability to survive and recover from a fire or an earthquake. The fires also made me realize on a deeper level the importance of being organized and prepared for a disaster. For years our neighborhood association has been working on disaster preparations at the block and neighborhood level and we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do, but the fact is that we have not been able to sustain this effort long enough to really prepare adequately for a disaster like the recent fires. These reflections on the fires and our vulnerability were first to lead me to conclude that we all need to rethink our roles in our neighborhood: Are we putting the time and effort needed to address the vulnerability of our neighborhood and really prepare for the next disaster?

This conclusion seems pretty straightforward. But I want to also suggest that the state of our national politics is another and equally compelling reason for all of us to rethink our role in our neighborhood. This will be take some more explanation.

For the past year or so, we have all become more aware of the deep and growing divisions in our nation. These divisions have undermined our ability to find common ground and work together to meet the challenges we face. We seemed to have stumbled into a real crisis in our politics that is challenging our basic democratic norms and posing a real threat to our democracy and our democratic way of life. If you are like me, this has added to your deep sense of vulnerability. We now know that we are vulnerable to both natural and political disasters.

If we honest about it, we know that the deep divisions in our nation are mirrored right here in our own neighborhood, in our city, and in our state. They may not be as apparent here in California since we have a dominant majority culture, but they are there. In our own neighborhood, we know that we have not created the kind of community where people get to know each other, especially people with different backgrounds and experiences. We have not created a community where we have a chance to exchange ideas, learn from each other, find common ground, and most importantly, work together. Nor have we created a way for us to exchange ideas and work with other neighborhoods across the city. It is just this lack of a strong community that knows how to work together in our neighborhood, and most neighborhoods across our nation, that has created the foundation for the divisions and dysfunction in our national politics. Since we don’t really know our neighbors, we are all vulnerable to politicians willing to define our neighbors for us and exaggerate our differences to support their own agendas and power. And, most frighteningly, we now seem to be stuck in the status quo with no real sense of how to overcome the political crisis we face.

That we have reached this point in our neighborhood and in our national politics should not come as a surprise to us. Our current political crisis is the consequence of long term trends in our nation that have hollowed out our democracy. We have been moving for a long time now from government “by us” to government “for us”, gradually delegating our political and community responsibilities to our governments and, for many of us, restricting our involvement largely to voting. When we do get involved, we mostly join with like-minded people in large issue-oriented groups and organizations run by professional staff. Our efforts are directed at petitioning and pressuring governments to meet our demands. While there is certainly a place for this kind of involvement, it is clear now that it is not enough because it has led us to become a deeply divided nation unable to recognize the common ground that we all share. We have not taken responsibility for our neighborhoods and communities, taken time to get to know our neighbors and learned how to work together to strengthen our communities. Democracy is a skill as much as a belief and we have pretty much given up on the practice of democracy that we all need to make it work.

Given the state of our politics and the history of the hollowing out of our democracy, it seems clear that we are faced now with the daunting task of rebuilding our politics and reclaiming our democracy. And that brings us right back to our neighborhood, the Junior College Neighborhood, Santa Rosa, California. Rebuilding our politics will have to be done from the bottom-up, neighborhood by neighborhood. If we want to repair our politics, we will have to create democratic communities in our neighborhoods and cities and make them places where we can relearn democracy. This has made me realize that the work we can do, not in Washington, Silicon Valley or Sacramento, and not even down at City Hall, but right here in our neighborhood to strengthen and build a democratic community may be some of the most important work we will ever have a chance to do. We, us, the people who live right here in this small part of the world– are quite possibly the key to finding a way out of our national political crisis. It may actually be up to us to figure out how to adapt our democratic ideals to make them work in the 21st Century. Is that enough reason to convince us that it is time for us all to rethink the roles we playing in our neighborhood? And, don’t forget about our need to prepare for the next disaster.

There may be another, and perhaps more appealing, way for us to view our current situation not only as a response to the natural and political threats to our community, but as an opportunity for us to create a very special place to live and do creative work. Just imagine for a minute if we were able to create a community where we actually got to know and respect each other and were committed to working together to maintain and improve our neighborhood.  A place where people from very different political perspectives and very different backgrounds –renters, homeowners, young, old, all races and ethnicities—all treated each other with respect, listened to each other, found common ground, and worked together. We would celebrate our differences and find ways to learn from our different experiences to create new ideas and do creative projects. Wouldn’t that make our neighborhood a great place to live? And wouldn’t that be the kind of democratic community that would be an expression of our democratic ideals and aspirations?

Continue reading