This piece first appeared as a radio commentary on Vermont Public Radio on December 5, 2012
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, writer, educator and commentator Susan Clark is struck by the extent to which many of the best and first responders have been local.
From Brooklyn down to the Jersey Shore, Sandy has left its mark. But now, stories abound of community groups shoveling sand out of living rooms, feeding and housing the homeless, and arranging online help through listserves and crowdfunding. Somehow, communities have married the best of old-fashioned neighborliness to 21st century networking -- resulting in a steady flow of local energy against a sea of devastation.
Federal help is still critical. State and local governments can’t respond alone to disasters of this scale. As comedian Steven Colbert quipped sarcastically, “Who better to respond to what’s going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?”
But when physical infrastructure is swept away, it reveals another layer of community: its civic infrastructure. And just as storms have a way of revealing deferred maintenance on bridges and levies, disasters also teach us the cost of neglecting civic participation, neighborly communication, and a strong citizen decision-making process – qualities that FEMA and the Red Cross simply cannot replace.
Given that our world is likely to be threatened by more Katrinas, Irenes, and Sandys, it’s time to appreciate not just our federal government agencies, but our own, local, governance abilities.
Community democratic structures that are inclusive, deliberative, and empowered are a critical way to build trust and social capital. And in turn, those constructive personal relationships reinforce a functioning democracy. It’s an upward, virtuous spiral. That’s why a key recommendation in many U.S. cities’ emergency preparedness plans is that people get to know their neighbors. Social capital saves lives.
Increasingly, communities understand that the best investment against crisis is to strengthen citizen leadership. Reliance on "experts," a leftover from the industrial revolution, is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing. Governments and citizens who collaborate, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki, create more responsive and resilient communities.
In recent decades, “citizenship” has too often meant just being a consumer of policy, or a spectator of political showmanship. But when we’re treated as collaborative problem solvers, we show the value of local engagement. Vermonters are accustomed to governing themselves with town meetings and empowered school and town boards; and after Irene, Vermonters dove in immediately to take responsibility.
Sandy is revealing similar stories: at least at the local level, Americans haven’t lost the key skills of leadership. Creative, collaborative decision making, leading to well targeted action – these are the qualities we want in our governments.
Government is not a “they” but a “we.” And the skills we gain by governing ourselves year-in and year-out are powerful tools in a crisis. One of the most creative, low-cost ways to protect against problems — be they meteorological, social, or even political — is to empower community decision-making. We build community best by working together, over time, on common issues—in other words, local, sustained, slow democracy.
You can listen to this commentary here.