When things aren’t going well in our community, our first impulse has traditionally been to get upset. Our second impulse has been to look for someone to blame.
Typically, we may point the finger at government: Why, we demand, aren’t they making progress on___ (insert the painful issue of the moment here)? This approach is counterproductive — and communities are realizing there is a much better way.
There really is no they; there is only we. Getting angry at “them” solves nothing, and the community continues to hurt. When citizens get engaged and take ownership of the issues, big progress happens and it happens fast.
Struggling communities can’t wait on government to fix their problems. This is true even in the best of times, and with the highly complex issues today’s communities face, it’s even more so. Elected officials are short on resources; plus, they move in and out of projects due to the election cycle. If there’s to be sustainable progress, it must be driven by private citizens.
In other words: Don’t get enraged. Get engaged.
I’ve seen more and more communities come to realize revitalization is the job of ‘we the people. It’s a big trend, and it’s taking place all across the country. And the first step is a mindset shift. Citizens start to think: What can I do to reinvent my community, to make it a great place to work, live, and play?
Here are some ways you can get more engaged in your own community:
— Shift your mindset to one of ownership. The first step in getting engaged is to make this your mantra: “My communityis my responsibility. Every child is my child.” This mental shift changes a lot of things. You’ll stop thinking only about things that directly affect you and your family and start thinking about the needs of others. You’ll start feeling a sense of responsibility for the well-being of all citizens. This mindset is crucial for a vibrant community.
— Get to know your neighbors and their issues. Talk to people everywhere: at school functions, at church, standing in line at the grocery store. Ask questions and solicit their opinions on community issues. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and talk to those from different cultures and/or socioeconomic levels.
— Start a dialogue and keep an open mind. Listen to the other side before you make up your mind on a hot-button issue, even if you initially disagree with them. (There will be mixed levels of interest on different topics.) You might be surprised to find that your ideas change as you learn more. Even if you’ve publicly taken a position in the past and you change your mind, it’s okay to say that. People will respect you for being transparent and forthcoming.
— For sure, VOTE, but do more than that. It’s important to vote for smart, ethical elected officials who have the public’s interest at heart and who are committed to smart growth and community building. Do your research. Work to get people elected (or re-elected). You might even consider running for office yourself.
— Encourage and support engaged young people. For any community to thrive, it must attract young, talented people. Change cannot happen without them. Reach out to the youth in your community. Support their causes and show up to their meetings and marches. Also take your own children with you as you attend meetings and events. You’re showing them firsthand what it means to be an engaged citizen.
When you’re deeply engaged in building a vibrant community, it can be one of the toughest journeys you ever undertake. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Communities matter. When we improve them, we’re improving lives. I believe we have a human responsibility to do so to the best of our capacity.
This commentary has been edited for space. To read the entire article, visit the Sun’s website at: http://www.sanfernandosun.com.
Quint Studer is author of “Building a Vibrant Community” and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization in Pensacola, FL focused on improving the community’s quality of life. For more information, visit www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.