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.

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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?

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Should We Look to Democracy for Some Answers to Our Political Crises?

Our current and deepening political crisis has made us all aware of the deep problems undermining our politics, our governments, and even our most basic ability to find common ground and work together. We are all looking for a way out of this nightmare and we are discovering that most of our current political leaders do not seem to be helping.

It might help us to realize that the problems we face — our deep divisions, widespread alienation from our politics and governments, corruption, and control by elites– are exactly the problems that democracy was designed to address. Democracy addresses these issues by creating a culture, norms and institutions that treat everyone as equals, by giving everyone a voice and role, and by helping people find the common ground needed to work together. Democracy has, historically, not only made progress on addressing the issues that prevent us from working together, it has also succeeded in unleashing the energy of countless individuals and produced periods of great creativity and accomplishment.

So, maybe it is time for us to look again at the 3000 years of our democratic tradition to find some way out of our current crisis. The story of democracy is a history of advances and retreats with slow but steady progress towards the goal of finding a way to organize a society that can both prevent a minority from seizing power and dominating and also create a way of life that respects and empowers everyone. It is a tradition that has, over the centuries, continued to evolve. It is still learning from multiple cultures, religions, and diverse practices. Today is has become a world treasure created and maintained by sacrifices and contributions from all sides: from our civil rights movements to Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring and to the countless other small and large struggles for voice and dignity. Democracy is still a hotly contested way of life always under threat from various forms of authoritarianism and elitism. While it may still be only an unrealized ideal in most nations, it continues to capture the hopes of the people of the world. As Americans living in a nation that has made significant contributions to the democratic story, we are lucky to have the ability to look to our own traditions for insights into democracy

It might also help us to know that we might have been able to anticipate or current crisis since some time ago we pretty much abandoned our place as leaders in the universal democratic story. About the start of the 20th Century, we all, led by our intellectual class, seemed to decide that science and scientific managers could do a better job at directing our nation than its citizens working together. There was a big debate about this then but democracy pretty much lost and we basically went from government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to just government “for the people”.

It is surely not a coincidence that this happened at the time when a large number of immigrants had flooded our cities. The nativist reaction to this immigration and the still dominant racism that kept black and white citizens divided, made it impossible to mount a challenge to the rise of our scientific managers and the abandonment of many of our core democratic traditions and hopes. This change did not go unchallenged then or even now, but the proponents of democracy lost and have continued to lose this struggle to this day.

This shift away from democracy took place not only in our politics. To justify this elitism, we began to adopt a more individualistic culture that downplayed community and emphasized special individuals –our celebrities, stars, geniuses, entrepreneurs, and “successful” people– as the source of progress. Today, we have pretty much taken that view today about as far as it can go, including in our education system now designed to train and justify our meritocracy. It is no wonder that the “average” person might feel somewhat out of place in the life we have created, a place quite far from the spirit of Jefferson’s “all men are created equal”.

But, just to be clear, democracies do not have a problem with experts, with talent, or with people of exceptional character. We have always needed these individuals and they have thrived in democracies. But in a meritocracy like ours, talent is defined too narrowly, the ability of experts is overestimated, and the knowledge and experience of non-expert citizens are underestimated. As a result, it seems only natural for experts to make decisions for us. In a democracy, things are different: the contributions of everyone are valued and respected. Experts still play a major role, but they use their expertise to inform and partner with citizens, not to make decisions for them.

So maybe we do have to rethink this turn from democracy and see if it might not be an underlying cause of our current political crisis. Here are four arguments to support this rethinking of our democracy, or our current lack of democracy.

First, only a more democratic society can realistically address the divisions and alienation that are contributing to our deepening political crisis. Only respect, a meaningful role and voice, and real power to shape our communities can overcome the alienation that is undermining our nation. It is not just about jobs and money, it is, above all, about respect and power. And only more democracy can address this deep need for a voice and role.

Second, we are making a basic mistake when we accept the common wisdom and assume that today’s world is too large and complex for democracy to work. How would we know if democracy might work in today’s complex world if we gave up any effort to adapt democracy to fit the modern world? The world changes so democracy, the infrastructure and customs, institutions and laws that make democracy work, also need to be adapted to fit a changing world. Jefferson was right when he said that democracy would need to be periodically renewed. Instead of following Jefferson’s advice and adapting democracy to fit the changing world, we abandoned it. And, of course, it is not an accident that those leading the abandonment of democracy were exactly the elites who would benefit most from this change either in wealth or power or both. We fell for the most ancient trick in the long history of democracy and gave over our democracy to those who claimed a special access to the truth, our “experts” and our “geniuses”. If we put a fraction of the energy and resources and creativity of our nation into rebuilding our democracy, we could find ways to make it work in today’s world. Democracy always looked impossible whenever it was tried, but it was always a question of priorities and not impossibilities. The fact is that a host of innovative new methods to enhance democracy have already emerged in the shadows. So, we need to recognize that the doctrine that democracy is out of date is really just another in the ageless attempt of elites to hold power.

Third, it is deeply ironic that we are coming close to completely losing our democracy today when we actually have the best chance ever of creating the democracy that our founding fathers could only dream of. Thanks to the tremendous contributions of our civil rights, women’s and LGBT movements, we have made great progress in overcoming the prejudices and practices that have kept us divided and unable to realize fully realize our democratic ideals. The issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements show that we have a long way to go to creating a fully democratic culture, but the progress we have made should not be forgotten or underestimated. This progress has created an opportunity for us to create for the first time in our nation’s history a deeper democracy and deeper democratic way of life. We Americans might even have the chance to make another significant contribution to the 3000-year-old story of democracy. Hopefully we can see our current crisis as a last-ditch effort of authoritarians and purveyors of all forms of discrimination to stop what they see as a real advance of democracy that is now possible and maybe even likely.

And, the fourth and, for now, final argument for looking to democracy to address our current crisis, think about this: If democracy really does capture our hopes and best fit the needs of us humans, then we should be seeing a real challenge emerging to the widespread turn towards elitism in Western culture. Well, just look, it is there in plain sight. The first and unmistakable appearance of a real challenge to the status quo might have been in the worldwide, diverse and often contradictory, but consistently democratic movements of the sixties. And since then, there have been countless movements and efforts for inclusion, equality, respect and democracy. We have seen experiments, many if not most in other nations, with a more participatory form of governance and a more democratic way of life. We have seen, to mention just a few, the use of broad collaborations to handle difficult problems; the many city-wide experiments of to tackle tough problems with deliberative conversations; the citizen panels convened to find common ground; the revival of neighborhoods and their growing role in cities; the use of the Internet and social media to create bottom up movements and engage more people; the worldwide experiments starting in Brazil with participatory budgeting; and, the widespread “Go local” efforts to develop local control and local power. In response to the decline of our democracies, people have been and are looking for and building democratic communities and practices that treat each other with respect and empower people and give them a voice and role. Not all of this has worked and the often volunteer democratic practices don’t always succeed or stay on track, but something is stirring and it is a sign that our current institutions and norms are once more being challenged by a new wave of democracy that is speaking again to the historic hope for a better way of life. We are set for a new and important step in the story of democracy. This is the struggle taking place now, not in Silicon Valley enterprises, party organizations, or in high profile foundations, but in everyday places like our neighborhoods, towns and cities. It is our best chance to rebuild our democracy and regain our place in the story of democracy. Look around. Join in.

Click here to download a pdf file of this essay:

look to democracy 1 13 2018


A New Proposal from Santa Rosa for Building the Movement We Need to Address our Political Crisis

Lawrence Lehr, current co-chair of Santa Rosa Together, and I have been working together and getting to know each other for the past five years. Lawrence is a conservative and I am a liberal, although we both feel uncomfortable with labels. And, even though we love the current increased level of engagement in our politics, we have not been happy with the current and mostly partisan models for fixing our broken politics. These approaches do not match our experience with the efforts we have made in Santa Rosa to improve the way we work together. So Lawrence and I decided to work together to come up with a new proposal for the work we will need to overcome our divisions and address the crisis in our politics. Our proposal is below. We thought that we needed to go into some depth to adequately explain our ideas so it is fairly long –ten pages.  We know that we need to find a more succinct way to tell this story for a larger audience and we are working on that now. But this we hope this fuller explanation will also be useful. If you like these ideas, we encourage you to share them widely and use them in your local or organizational work. Feel free to revise this proposal to make it better and share your ideas and experiences with us.

Here is a link to a pdf copy of our proposal that you can download.

Seeing Past Our Divides to Build the Movement We Need

And here is our proposal:

Seeing Past Our Divides: A Conservative and Liberal Work Together on a Proposal for Building the Movement We Need to Respond to our Political Crisis

By Lawrence Lehr and Hank Topper

The past year has brought us all face to face with the crisis in our democracy. We can no longer avoid the reality of an increasingly divided nation, widespread alienation from politics, unprecedented levels of distrust in our governments, corporations, and institutions, and an inability to work together to meet our serious challenges. It would have been great if one of our political parties had been able to recognize and respond to this crisis with a positive and inclusive solution. But they could not and they did not. As a result, many Americans expressed their frustration by voting for and helping elect the candidate who seemed most likely to upset the status quo. But we are all, despite how we voted, learning quickly that this election will only deepen the crisis we face. Our new President, whatever his motives, does not have a way forward for America that can solve our national crisis. Instead, we see increasing division at home and growing friction with our friends abroad.

That leaves all of us, no matter how we voted, with the difficult task of both ensuring that our democracy is not undermined and, at the same time, building a movement with a vision for our nation that can finally address the crisis facing our democracy. We are all searching for a way out of the kind of politics that has divided our nation and helped to create the crisis we are in. While we may be encouraged by the growth of engagement and the growing understanding of the importance of finding a way to address our crisis, we don’t seem to have found a clear path forward that can address the problems we face. Do we really think that we can just intensify politics as usual to get out of this mess? We seem to be stuck in exactly the kind of politics that helped to create this crisis. We have got to look to a deeper kind of change if we are going to really succeed. This is the time for all of us to join in a conversation to figure out how we can move forward.

This essay is an attempt to articulate an approach to building a movement that the authors think has the best chance to succeed in addressing our crisis. We know that our ideas are different and may not be popular, but our experience convinces us that it is time for a different approach. We don’t for a minute pretend to think that we are in a position to personally organize and lead the kind of movement we describe below. We are only hoping that our ideas and proposal will help start a broader conversation among all of us across our nation on the kind of movement we need.

Who are we? We are two members of the Steering Committee of Santa Rosa Together, a broad, diverse, and multi-partisan coalition of community leaders that has been working for the past seven years in our small city in California to try to overcome the deepening divisions and the adversarial politics in our city. We decided that to get to the root of this problem in our city, we would need to get more citizens engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and role in the city, and improve the way we work together. One of the authors of this essay is a conservative who voted, if reluctantly, for President Trump and the other is a liberal who voted, also reluctantly, for Hillary Clinton. Despite our differences, our work together over the past years has allowed us to get to know and respect each other and discover the values we hold in common. This shared experience is the basis for suggesting a new approach to the crisis we face.

We both are still having a difficult time understanding each other’s vote in this election. But we are realizing that, despite our shared experience working together, we each are still pulled into partisan worlds beyond our control that make it hard for us to understand each other. In the end, we have decided to trust our shared experiences and work together to find a way out of the kind of partisan politics that separates us and is now paralyzing our nation.

Our proposal for addressing our political crisis has four parts, each discussed below:

  1. Build a broad multiparty movement around a shared vision for America that can restore our common ground
  2. Develop and promote new and existing leaders who understand the need to work outside the kind of partisan politics that has helped to create our crisis
  3. Work at the local level to rebuild and empower the local communities that are the foundation for our democracy
  4. Organize to defend our democracy and our shared values and identify and promote candidates in all parties for future elections that share our vision and are prepared to implement it

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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.