There’s an article in Rolling Stone that’s making the rounds on social media these days. The article, written by Wade Davis, reports that the U.S. is in trouble. Davis offers evidence to show that the grand democracy that is the U.S. is unraveling as evidenced by what’s happening in response to COVID-19. Davis is a cultural anthropologist, and he offers the kind of detail that a cultural anthropologist does when making a case. Unfortunately, in this case, he’s really looking at the wrong evidence – or at least incomplete evidence.
If you take a picture of The U.S.’s national political landscape right now, the resulting portrait is a mess. Look at the gridlock in Congress; look at the daily circus that is the presidency; look at our international relations; look at our internal strife; there’s much to see that’s going wrong. There’s not much in that landscape perspective that’s positive. I can see where someone looking at that level would see the nation unraveling. However, I look at a different level. To me, the strength of this nation has always been at the local level; and that’s where I look. By looking there, I see something different than Davis does. I see a vibrancy and a commitment that promises a different future than he sees.
The sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote famously about “third places.” His work explained how local communities gather in informal places like coffee shops and barber shops to generate a sense of connectedness and community identity. Donald Oliver went further and described not just the places, but the institutions that mediate interactions. In The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center, Oliver and his co-authors explain that it’s not just places that are central, but also organizations and institutions. Oldenburg and Oliver have something to teach: A community is the sum total of the places, institutions, and people that bind it together. Building from their ideas, it’s valuable to understand that a nation is a compilation of those communities, and the core of a democracy is always at that community level.
And that’s what Davis is missing. Davis misses the opportunity to look at the micro level of American society by focusing only at the macro level. It’s at that micro level that the U.S. experiment in democracy really works. We can’t ignore the impact of the larger national political scene. As he rightly points out, the current pandemic has exposed the inequities, fractures, and mismanagement that divide the nation. However, it’s a mistake to confuse that with a complete picture and to assume that those national issues foretell a looming destruction.
I know this because of what I see. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with leaders and organizations that focus at the local level. And I’m now fortunate to have seen decades of those efforts’ impact. What I’m seeing now is that while the national systems are strained, local organizations and leaders are finding renewed strength. The next generation of leaders, those people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, especially, are finding the current crises as opportunities to look at how their organizations can be better at what they do. Local organizations and leaders are bringing people together; local organizations and leaders are using the power of community to build. That looks very different than a dystopian unraveling of the nation. In fact, it looks like people gaining power through their joint and collaborative efforts.
What does it really look like? The picture is impressive. And rather than trying to tell all of the possible stories, I’m going to leave this statement with a list of a few organizations that are the future of this nation. Follow the links and you’ll see what I’m talking about. These are organizations that perform amazing work every day. They are committed to their communities because they are committed to people. The result is work which makes communities stronger, which makes the nation stronger. If you want to know why I am not in despairing in a belief that the nation is unraveling, follow some of these links and see a small portion what’s going on in just one region of the country. I know it’s happening elsewhere, too.
These aren’t political action groups, but their actions do have political implications. As they do their work, they change their communities to be more responsive to the needs of those communities – and that’s fundamentally a political act as more people gain the knowledge and freedom to be engaged in a community. It’s the politics of action and change as these groups advocate for and impact their communities’ needs to be responsive to all members of a society.
The brief list below contains names of organizations from my e-mail interactions in recent months. I used that criterion to limit the list. If I went beyond my recent personal contacts, this list could go on much longer to include many more organizations. Take a minute and look through the list and see how these people are generating and sustaining their communities through engaged, democratic actions. Then let me know if you think the nation is unraveling.
If you want to add some organizations to this list from your own experiences, include the organizations and their URL as a reply to the posting.
Literacy Source: https://www.literacysource.org/
Neighborhood House: https://nhwa.org/
St. James Immigrant Assistance: https://www.stjames-cathedral.org/immigrant
Seattle Education Access: https://seattleeducationaccess.wordpress.com
Seattle Goodwill Jobs, Training, and Education: https://seattlegoodwill.org/job-training-and-education
South Seattle Emerald: httpss://southseattleemerald.com