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?