Unity in the Community

alone-we-can-do-so-little

Spirit and connectedness.

I’ve been thinking about those two words lately.

What binds us together as a community, as a state, as a nation?

The word united comes first in our national identity: United States.

We are Americans first and foremost, country before party right?

Right?

Yet, we seem to be living in an age of hyper-partisanship. Red States and Blue States. Liberals and Conservatives. Republicans and Democrats.

The divisions are large and seem to be getting larger. And interestingly enough, the divisions are now extremely pronounced even among members of the same political parties. Establishment versus tea party. Establishment versus the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Any student of American history understands that politics has never been a gentle affair–dating back to the days of Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton our nation’s discourse has always been spirited and at times vitriolic and even violent.

But doesn’t this feel a tad different? Isn’t this year perhaps a few degrees beyond the typical?

Is it possible to unite anymore? Are we beyond sharing a common national spirit? Can we connect?

I’ve always been oriented to the local. So that’s the prism in which I view things.

When I began my career in journalism, I aspired to practice community journalism. I had no desire to cover Washington or the world even though I was interested in both.

When I tried politics it was with the goal of serving in local government. I never aspired to work in state or federal government.

I sensed it was easier to find spirit and connectedness in a small city than on a bigger canvas. And that was important to me. If you can find a tribe that’s committed to building community you can experience real progress. I always felt Delray was large enough and diverse enough to be interesting and small enough to get your arms around and make things happen.

And so it has been.

Boca too…although it’s a vastly different place.

For a long period every initiative, every project, every amenity was viewed through a wide lens not a narrow self interest. Did it build community? Did it serve the long term vision of citizens? Was it a net gain or did it detract from what people were trying to build here?

I think the key to spirit and connection is to have a vision.

The vision must be citizen driven and include a process that is inclusive and invites stakeholders to share.

The process is almost as important as the outcome when it comes to visioning; you want to make sure people are invited to share their thoughts and aspirations in a safe environment that encourages intelligent discussion and deep conversations. People should be encouraged to think big but it’s also important to inject facts and best practices into the conversation to drive the process.

The best visioning exercises are community builders; civic projects that bring people together.

In my mind, that was the real value of the All America City Award which required people to work together in an effort that inevitably tore down barriers and built civic pride.

It’s hard to do this on a national level, but possible. It seems nationally, we rally when threatened; in times of war or terrorism.

On a city level it’s not easy but it’s essential and very doable.

That was Delray’s secret sauce.

And it worked.

When visions are accomplished or grow old and need refreshing and leadership fails to take the time to do bottom up planning you inevitably end up with drift, division and an erosion of civic bonds.

After several successful visioning processes, Delray rushed a visioning process ahead of a mayoral election and major staff upheaval a few years back.

The timing was horrible and the process and its aftermath felt different–somewhat empty not energizing as previous efforts had been.

As a result, Visions 2020 has been mothballed.  It doesn’t drive conversations or inform decision making and even connected citizens can’t remember what it said.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try again or that visioning is flawed.

Smart elected officials welcome exercises that build community and forge visions. It helps them make decisions: if something fits the vision you support it. If something is contrary you vote no.

But without a vision there is no real direction– just ad hoc decision making, personal preferences, a whole lot of politics and people feeling disconnected.

Small cities have an option to bring people together. Only the small minded, egotistical and optically driven elected official can’t see that logic. A word to the wise: nobody cares what individual elected officials think. Your job is to forge a vision by bringing as many smart, caring and committed people to the table as you can. That’s leadership because nobody cares if you don’t like the color of a snow fence or the taste of garlic.

It’s not your town or your staff, it all belongs to the stakeholders–those that hold  a stake. Elected officials are stewards and ultimately they work for us; or at least they should.

Congress lost that truism a long time ago. There’s no excuse for local government to follow suit.