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Village Politics - Rebuilding Engaged Communities

by Paul Rogat Loeb

How do we respond to a political landscape where Meg Whitman can spend $80 million on her primary candidacy alone? Or where, aided by the ghastly Citizen's United Supreme Court decision, right-wing groups are pledging over $200 million for the November elections. On-the-ground activism is key, ordinary citizens reaching out to knock on doors, make phone calls, talk to friends, neighbors and coworkers, spread the word through social media, and do everything possible to convince undecided voters and get reluctant supporters to the polls. That's what so many of us did during 2006 and 2008, helping tip the balance in race after race. If voters are dependent on campaign ads and sound bites to make their decisions, the most manipulative politics tends to prevail. If we can reach out broadly enough to talk about the real choices at and reach out beyond the core converted to those who may have vastly different perspectives and experience hand, we can overcome the electronic lies.

If we do this well enough, even with lowered expectations, we'll be in far better shape working to create a more just and sustainable world. If we do it badly, or fail to actually reach out, we'll go backwards. So the next hundred and something days matter immensely.

One way to do this outreach while simultaneously building a base for the future is to work toward engaging those face-to-face communities we're already part of in key issues like climate change or the challenges of creating a just and sustainable economy. This means churches and temples, PTA's, block associations and Rotary Clubs, soccer clubs and softball leagues, the places we work, and all the other ordinary institutions of daily life. Building on the community that they offer, and on our relationships with colleagues, co-workers, and neighbors who already know us, they can provide powerful venues to engage our fellow citizens in our country's most critical issues.

I first saw the power of this approach initiated by a Baptist preacher in Florence, South Carolina named Bill Cusak. Although Bill had never organized anything more controversial than a revival meeting, he became concerned that the Reagan-era nuclear arms race was risking his granddaughter's future. The issue challenged him "like a crowbar to my soul." Bill approached a community college biologist who'd written a letter to the local paper, and they began building an activist community from scratch. They spoke and showed a video on the arms race at every church, PTA, and garden club that would have them. They enlisted a key African American pastor and asked younger church members to enlist their friends.

One of the first groups Bill addressed was the local Rotary Club, where he was a longtime member. "They kind of treated me like I had the plague," he recalled later. But eventually some responded. "Basically," he said, "it takes like to reach like: youth to reach youth; blacks to reach blacks; Catholics to reach Catholics. I even think," he added with a sly smile, "it takes Baptists to reach Baptists." Moving from this issue to others like homelessness, Bill began to change his community.

Granted, some contexts are more intimate and approachable than others. And some have been supplanted by virtual communities, which I'll talk about in a separate essay. But even megacities such as Los Angeles, New York, or Denver are vast patchworks of smaller communities, or potential communities. Every neighborhood, business, fraternal organization, or church group represents a potentially fertile field for public discussion. When we use these networks to promote humane social visions, we can build on existing bonds of human conviviality and connection, and have the advantage of acting where people know us. As Karl Hess, a former Barry Goldwater speechwriter turned Vietnam War opponent, once wrote, "To carry the message of a cause in a community when you are a generally respected neighbor is far better than when you do it as virtually your sole activity in public."

I saw another example of this in a University of Michigan student group called Greeks for Peace, founded after scattered fraternity and sorority members got involved in peace and justice issues and realized that they weren't the only ones. They organized events that brought critical social issues into the traditionally disengaged domain of Michigan's Greek system. People who otherwise would never have taken an interest began to respond. While these students wouldn't have walked across the quad to hear the exact same speakers discussing these issues, they responded when peers invited them to events held in safe and familiar environments, like the lounge of a major sorority. "So much politics," said one of the founders "is geared for those already involved. We wanted a vehicle for people to be with their friends and learn to take a stand together."

Mobilizing these kinds of villages can give us both the confidence and means to address often overwhelming political and economic problems. The community they provide can also ease the inevitable frustrations of working for social change, helping us endure the endless phone calls, meetings, and other repetitive tasks needed to galvanize people to act.

Most of all, engaging these communities can broaden the stream of those who participate in social change, drawing on common bonds that already exist, and drawing in those previously disengaged. In the wake of the Louisana oil spill, I think of how surfer (and computer scientist) named Glenn Hening began worrying about the pollution and deterioration of the California beaches near his home. He'd just become a father and wondered whether his daughter would be able to enjoy the beaches when she was older. Glenn was also increasingly angry at the stereotype of surfers as dumb blond party animals "whose total vocabulary consists of 'hang ten,' 'cowabunga,' and 'far out.' He decided to counteract that image by persuading his fellow surfers to "use their skills to protect the marine environment for all of us."

Glenn first talked to surfer friends who were similarly concerned. Their inaugural effort addressed a Malibu lagoon where spillage of polluted water was damaging the shape of the waves on an adjacent beach. The group, now called the Surfrider Foundation, next challenged the dumping of contaminated waste into that same lagoon. Fellow surfers enlisted in droves.

Surfrider went on to win the second-largest Clean Water Act suit in American history, stopping pulp mills from polluting northern California's Humboldt Bay. Members testified at hearings, filed lawsuits, educated schoolchildren about marine ecology, challenged destructive developments, and monitored coastal water pollution levels nationwide. They enlisted swimmers, divers, beachcombers, windsurfers, and sympathetic environmental scientists. The organization now has 50,000 members in chapters throughout the United States, plus affiliates in eighteen other countries on five continents.

Glenn has helped change the culture of his community, in a way that offers lessons for other communities as well. The challenges we face to create a more just and sustainable world remain immense, but because of his efforts and those of his compatriots there's one more group of people ready to try and take them on. "Before we started, a beach full of surfers would end up being a beach full of trash. We let developers wreck some of the finest surfing areas on the planet. That doesn't happen anymore. By now, the issues we've raised have gained the attention of surfers everywhere. They think about water quality, the impact of development, the need for government agencies to protect the environment. We created a new thread in the weave of what it means to be a surfer."

So what does this mean for November and beyond? We need the kinds of immediate practical outreach that tip elections, but we also need to keep building engaged community, as a base that makes everything else far more possible. If we do enough of both we have a chance to prevail.

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