Protecting Our Homes & Communities
Making All The Difference You Can

By Dennis Church

This seems pretty straightforward. Finding the best match between what you have to offer and what your community needs and wants is the key to making all the difference you can. The better you understand your community, and the better you understand yourself, the more able you will be to find the best places to participate and, having made those choices, the more effective you will be in the roles and at the goals you have chosen.

If your highest priority as an activist is the climate crisis, you may regard local activist agendas as a distraction from what is most important. You may also think that local initiatives won't really add up to much, even in those cases where they do focus on issues you regard as important. This perspective is shortsighted.

You may think it doesn't matter much what your personal preferences are in terms of the roles you try to play, and you may think similarly that what the community wants is not very important as compared to life-or-death issues such as climate. These thoughts mislead you. The very real urgency of the issues can cause you to overplay your hand when you should be engaged in a "long game."

The Virtues Of The Long Game

There are two primary problems with the short-term thinking that seems to dictate both your role and the issues you should address. If you try to play roles for which you are ill prepared and ill-suited, you are almost certain to dislike the experience, and you will most likely "burn-out" and drop out. And if you try to lead your community to do what you think is important without considering what the community wants, your community is unlikely to follow. These outcomes would be, of course, mutually reinforcing.

The point of the personal assessment suggested earlier is in part to help you engage in ways that permit your sustained motivation over the long haul. And the point of the community assessment is in part to help you recognize where your community is already motivated so you can join in that. You need to join in because credibility and impact are established within the flow of community life. You must become part of that flow, you must jump into that particular river, if you want to be an effective activist and advocate. If you aren't willing to join in, to jump into the community's river, you'll always be an outsider no matter how long you have lived there. You must become credible to community leaders and respected by other activists to have the most impact, or for that matter, any real impact at all.

Building Your Credibility & Influence

If you are going to be a local activist for years, if this isn't just a one-time fling, then it will boost your effectiveness over time to cultivate a particular type of reputation. You do that by ALWAYS behaving in a manner that will be described by others using terms like these: honest, a straight-shooter, no hidden agendas, always bargains in good faith, consistently fair-minded, displays good will toward all, shows community spiritedness, very courteous, respectful, even-tempered, calm under fire, level-headed... You get the idea. You get the reputation you earn. Be a person of honor, be that person whose word is their bond, and your ability to make your community a better place will grow. Maybe by a lot.

Finding Connections

So your greatest concern is climate, or maybe it's public safety, or maybe it's keeping everything in good condition (roads, bridges, sewers), or maybe it's the local budget, or the local schools, or particular local problems. The list is long.

The problems your community has are likely interconnected in various ways. Multiple problems usually make each other worse. But less widely appreciated are the connections between improvements. Things that help solve one community problem usually make it easier to solve other community problems. There is a virtuous cycle, and we don't need to resign ourselves to merely fighting against the downward pull of a destructive cycle.

Too Much Variation For A Cookbook

There is no formula, no cookbook approach to finding the best match between you and your community. The best advice is first to be calm, very calm, and then look at things from all sides. Things may pop right out of this process, like the doctor telling his vulnerable patients about heat dangers and why they are getting worse.

You may decide that best approach for you would be a bunch of small things (tweaking how you carry out professional or business or community roles, for example), or you may decide to aim your self toward an ongoing role of community advocacy and leadership.

Regardless of where you land, be mindful that your abilities can be developed, your self-confidence can be expanded, and things you may consider beyond your reach today may look for like realistic things to do down the road.

If You Encounter Strong Divisions

Local projects often find that overcoming divisions and disagreements is central to their success, and they provide many examples of how to do just that. Sometimes local folks may simply ignore what they disagree about, sometimes they may explicitly call a truce up front. But however they do it, in successful local community projects people find a way to set aside their differences in the interest of accomplishing a shared goal.

If you end up working on a committee to pass a local bond measure to repair roads and bridges, and if your fellow committee members and you are aware that some of you are on the "other side" in terms of state or national politics, committee members may be jolted by some pretty significant cognitive dissonance. If you discover each other to be friendly, community spirited, well intentioned, and capable, you may, in spite of underlying anger and frustration, make the connection and understand that the people you're feeling hostility toward in the abstract are these very same people in the flesh. Hostility makes less and less sense as people work together on shared goals. Cooperation breeds cooperation by replacing hostility with growing trust in a virtuous cycle.

If, after the successful conclusion of your bond campaign to repair roads and bridges, you begin to respectfully voice your concerns about climate, including the dangers and opportunities the climate crisis brings to the community, you are much more likely to find people willing to listen and consider what you have to say. Want your views to be treated with respect? Start by showing respect for the community's desire for decent roads and safe bridges. Don't patronize those desires as a side issue to what is "really important." Show respect to get respect, and show respect by joining in, becoming part of the flow of your community.

Local Initiatives Are Vital

Millions may be engaged on a local level, but their efforts never make the Network News. As a result, we miss, never have the opportunity to be inspired by, all the good and successful work already being done. It is only natural, as a consequence, to fail to appreciate the potential to greatly increase the change accomplished locally.

Many people, particularly those of a more conservative view, see advantages to maximizing the amount of problem solving done at a local level. But that view is actually redundant. Local initiatives are vital to local communities because nobody else will secure their futures. State and federal governments won't be up to the task. If communities are to have a positive future, they will need to build it by local effort... we must save ourselves.

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