This message was co-written by Lawrence Lehr, co-chair of Santa Rosa Together and Hank Topper
We, suspect that most Americans, like us, are experiencing a deep anxiety about the current state of our politics. Despite the fact that we know that we are a nation full of talented and decent people, despite our resources and great potential, for too many years we have not found a way to come together to get anything significant accomplished. We feel powerless in the face of the serious challenges facing our nation.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a New Year’s Resolution for 2020 that would help us overcome our divisions and find the common ground we need to meet our challenges? Here, in a small city in northern California, we may have figured out a New Year’s Resolution that could get us started on a path to do just that. Ten years ago, a group of neighborhood and community leaders here in our city noticed that our local politics was getting too partisan and we decided to do something about it. We formed a volunteer organization of community leaders from all parts of our city and set about the work to get more of our residents engaged, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together in our city. The first thing we learned when we got started is that almost everyone across the political spectrum from conservative evangelicals to secular liberals supported our goals and wanted to help. Over the years of working and meeting together, our diverse group of volunteers have gotten to know each other and we have developed strong relationships that have enriched all of our lives. We have, together, gone about the work of developing our city’s potential to get things done: we have held countless face-to-face conversations to help get people engaged and we have organized many city-wide neighborhood meetings to give people a chance to get to know each other across the city. We have worked to strengthen neighborhood organizations and we have organized conversations on key issues throughout the city in faith-based organizations and neighborhoods to give more people a voice. We have worked to make everyone feel respected and valued as a member of our community.
Now, with our growing ability to work together, we are just beginning to sense the potential that we have to in our city to get things done. We are poised to launch our first ever neighborhood-based planning process to build affordable housing. This bottom-up planning process will allow us to share housing fairly across the city, give neighborhoods the opportunity to design and locate the housing that fits with and strengthens their communities, and build the city-wide consensus that will enable us to actually meet our housing needs. If we succeed, we will experience the power that a more democratic politics will give us to meet our challenges and to aspire to create a great city. If we succeed, you will hear more about us as our reputation as a city that gets things done grows.
So, consider this for a New Year’s resolution: Let’s all step out of our partisan and issue-focused organizations and spend some time getting to know our neighbors, especially our neighbors who have different views than ours. Listen to their good ideas, share yours, and you will discover, like us, that there is a wide lane of common ground that will let you accomplish great things right in your neighborhood. Join and spend some time helping build the community and neighborhood organizations that will be the key to getting to know each other and engaging everyone in public work. You could also help form a volunteer city-wide organization to support and coordinate the work across your city or town to get your neighborhoods organized and to develop the opportunity for city-wide conversations to find the common ground you will need to get things done. If you are interested climate change, housing, gun violence, immigration, or any other pressing challenge, then doing the work to build neighborhood organizations and your city’s or your town’s ability to work together may be the most important thing you can do. This is the work that will develop the common ground, the commitment, and the engagement we need to meet all our challenges.
Of course, focusing on strengthening the ability to work together in the places we live does not mean that the upcoming national elections are not extremely important. We all need to think deeply and choose wisely, and even try conversations across party lines if we can, to ensure that those we elect are committed to helping us overcome the divisions that are paralyzing our nation. But, our divisions will not be solved by our elected officials alone. The fact is that we have gotten ourselves into our current political crisis because we have, too often, let our national parties define our neighbors for us and keep us divided as a part of their electoral strategies. We have let experts and governments make decisions and do everything for us, so we have lost the ability to organize ourselves and get to know each other by working together in our local communities. We have lost our ability to tap into everyone’s energy and ideas to solve problems. If we work together now and relearn how a democracy can work in our towns and cities, then we will gradually be able to find and elect representatives who understand this and will know how to restore our ability to work together in Washington. Let’s resolve to make 2020 a year of hope and healing, starting in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities.