PUBLIC SECTOR COMMUNITY BUILDING:Porous Boundaries, Common Ground

No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Kofi Annan, UN General Secretary


Every person is unique and aware of her separate existence. Loneliness comes with consciousness. At the same time, from birth on, humans are social creations. If left alone we will die; if ignored we will not grow. “A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions but through an act of will and love on the part of other people,” points out Italo Calvino.

Our commonality, our membership in the human family, is expressed through our innate desire for connection: for love and acceptance if not esteem in our family, among our peers, and within our communities. Helping facilitate respectful and mutually-supportive connections -- building community – is both a strategic goal and an internal organizational necessity for advocacy groups as well.


Communities emerge from the group bonds people build based on a common identity, or based on time spent in a shared condition or on shared interests -- especially if the group feels different from or threatened by the surrounding society. Being part of a community engenders a feeling of connection to the group as a whole and a certain degree of engagement with organizations, programs, or activities linked to the group. Within communities, people develop individual relationships and friendship networks. But community is a group-creating process rather than an individualizing one. And, almost inevitably, communities are defined by boundaries: a separation of “us” from “them.”


While the loyalty and commitment that community creates is a huge boost for sustainable and successful advocacy, progressive advocates need to put just as much energy into working for inclusion, both within their ranks and in the large world. Handling the tension between group solidarity and non-discriminatory inclusion is a delicate but core advocacy responsibility.


EXTENDED FAMILIES

The two most important things about relatives, my mother used to say, are that you don’t get to choose them and that they take care of each other. Back in the day, when most families were extended, you had no choice about going to grandma’s for Sunday dinner and you simply accepted that Uncle Al was loud, that Aunt Sarah was obnoxious, that Cousin Bob told bad jokes, and that each of the other people in the room were just who they were. There was no option – family was your world: for some of us, a significant part of our social life was the regular meeting of our “cousins’ club.” At family gatherings, you learned not only that everyone was different but that it was possible to tolerate those differences and still share a meal – one of the fundamental understandings that underpin both families and democracy.


Today, despite some trends to the contrary and some lucky anomalies, most of our families are smaller and more scattered. Many of us have compensated by creating alternative families of close friends, often forming when everyone in the group is first having children. And those children, as they grow up, are now using email and social networks to maintain those connections, staying close to childhood and college friends. But these extended friendship circles are composed of people we’ve chosen to be with. Wonderful as they are, they do not force us to accept the validity of group differences.


So where do we learn to accept the uncomfortable other – which is what people from different social networks or groups often feel like – as a legitimate part of our daily lives? Where and how do we learn that we’re all in this together?


GROUP DYNAMICS

Humans aren’t inherently either good or bad. We’re simply born with a core set of generic drives derived from the necessity to eat, to stay warm, to be safe, to connect with others, and to empower oneself to achieve these needs. We have innumerable individualizing neonatal characteristics from genes, uterine conditions, and the conditions of our mother’s pregnancy. But we become who we are, the way those initial ingredients interact and develop, because of how surroundings – from family structure and culture to the accidents of location and history – shape the ways and degrees that we are able to satisfy our drives.


A child’s early years are the most formative. Many psychologists believe personality is formed by age three. The Jesuits are supposed to have proclaimed that “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. Even more: feminist theory teaches us that family dynamics shape society as a whole. The family shapes our deepest assumptions about interpersonal relations, gender and social hierarchies, and the nurturing or dangerousness of the outside world. We spend our lives living out and dealing with those powerfully formative lessons. And we collectively build social systems and societies that embody those assumptions.


Because we cannot survive on our own, throughout our lives we reach out. And the drive for connection is expansionist, so we reach out past the original infant-mother bond into our surrounding family structure and then into the larger networks of friends, colleagues, neighbors, co-religionists, and more. Family ties merge into tribal connections and these evolve into religious, racial, and national identities. Sometimes these overlap peacefully, reinforcing the most empathetic, compassionate, and cooperative elements of each. Sometimes one of them gets mobilized into an exclusionary and aggressive community – not only defining some set of outsiders as “not us” and turning others into “the Other”, but also willing to use “our” power to benefit “us”at the Others’ expense. This is all done, of course, in the name of our group’s most positive values and in order to defend against “unprovoked” attacks. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”


PEACE THROUGH POLITICS

Inevitably, interacting groups have conflicting interests. Managing this is the essence of every level and type of politics. Without a way of negotiating their differences – without participating in a mutually respectful and beneficial political process – every group begins to feel insecure and to treat the Others as a source of danger, perhaps even as an evil needing to be purged.


Fear and insecurity are powerful motivations, as recent electoral campaigns illustrate. But there is a significant downside: they can be self-reinforcing. In the name of self-protection and defense, anxiety makes people and nations get more aggressive, which may prompt rivals into acting in parallel ways that end up confirming and enacting each side’s worst beliefs and fears about the Other. Since fear is a stronger and more galvanizing emotion than hope, negative back and forth pushes us into even greater anxiety and preparations for the worst. Every opportunity for de-escalating compromise is denounced as an unacceptable humiliation. Each side becomes caricatures of what it denounces about the other. We are caught in a negative spiral that, if it spreads widely enough, turns domestic society into a “war of all against all” and international relations into murderous conflict. Most ethnic and religious conflicts fit into this pattern; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems a perfect example.


Appeals for everyone to “be nice to each other” are morally valuable, but usually ineffectual on a larger scale because all it takes are a few violators to kill the ceasefire and retrigger hostilities. This is as true domestically as it is internationally. Moral suasion is important, but there is simply no institution other than government with the mission and power to consistently protect citizens from the violence generated by the various types of competition that every society inherently develops. And advocates’ job is to ensure that this happens. Evil is what happens when competition is allowed to freely run its unchecked course, when government does not do its mediating job, when organized citizenship fails. Politics is not external to our lives; it is part of what allows us to live humanely.


MIXING IT UP

Advocates need to build inclusive communities within their organizations and campaigns – a task discussed in earlier chapters about attracting and keeping members and supporters. But they also need to make increasing inclusion a central theme of their demands for institutional change.


Because public mass organizations --schools, the military, government agencies -- are at least theoretically required to embody our legal vision of universal rights, they are often among the most inclusive places in society. In public schools, sports (at least for boys) is particularly important for social mixing, even though income and race segregation of our neighborhoods and the growth of private or home-schooling are counter forces. Similarly, the military is a place where youth of various backgrounds learn to work and live together – despite the increasing efforts of white supremacist groups to infiltrate and recruit there. (A universal mandate for all 18 year olds to participate in some kind of national service would extend this.)


The workplace is our society’s most important adult-education center. To the extent past advocacy campaigns and civil rights movements have reduced labor market discrimination, some private sector workplaces are also mixing bowls, although gender and class hierarchies still dominate their internal dynamics.


Although not typically thought of in this setting, the built environment – our buildings and public open spaces – are also a potential common ground. Years ago, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” He was right: progressive architects and city planners have long understood that their job was not simply to create beautiful and efficient spaces, but to also amplify the normal human desire to be together with others – to make it easy to socialize. Progressive architecture is actually a social enterprise, affecting a broad swath of people’s lives and wellbeing, both individually and as communities.


Included in the built environment are sidewalks, roads, busses and subways and trains – as well as the retail shopping areas, parks, and recreational areas we get to via these transportation systems. Unfortunately, traffic engineers still mainly focus on the level of service provided to cars, with much less if any attention given to the impact of their work on the quality of life.


Boston’s Main Streets areas, Cambridge’s Central Square, Somerville’s Union (and even Davis) Squares – in some ways, these are a contemporary replacement of our grandmother’s living room. Shared public spaces are, these days, where we most regularly see – and to varying degrees interact with – the rest of the world. People with salaries we’ll never earn; people without homes. People much older and much younger than us; people whose faces and families are nothing like our own. We see them. They see us. If we’ve been lucky enough to live or work in the same place for long enough, we may even say hello and ask how they are. (My wife had what she described as a “relationship” with the person who asked for spare change every day on one of the corners she passed coming home from work.)


Also powerful is pop culture – entertainment, music, movies – where the commercial imperative to stay noticeable and titillating leads to the absorption of fringe trends and a normalization of the presence (and humanity) of exotic outsiders. The multi-racial, multi-gendered, and multi-national nature of youth culture is one of the reasons so many young people were open to Barak Obama.


(However, the rest of the digital world is too virtual, self-centered, and self-controlled to foster social integration. We can “unfriend” anyone who gives us a hard time, automatically send emails from people we don’t like straight to Trash, only read articles and blogs we agree with, only listen to music we already like. For all its information, from a values and human inter-action perspective, most of the Internet is more of an echo chamber than a call for maturity.)


There is a circular aspect of all this – acceptance of others is one of the bedrock cultural requirements for democracy; democracy is one of the drivers of good government; good government programs shape the spaces that influence our daily life and the cultural attitudes that emerge from it, including the acceptance of others. But history shows that without constant advocacy, this circle is constantly broken.


GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS AS PUBLIC SPACES

There is another place where we come together, where we experience the reality that our individual well-being is intimately tied to our common wealth: the public sector. James Carroll has written that our quadrennial presidential election ritual is a major renewer of our feeling of “commonality.” But, as Carroll admits, elections are only episodic and mostly about hope, which runs into “the inevitable compromises of the officer holder….and therefore always disappoints.”


In contrast, on a day-to-day basis we live within the public programs and services that define the baseline of so many Americans’ reality – from road construction to Social Security, from garbage collection to the police, from public health to education. The public sector is not just a safety net to protect us from smashing our faces when we suffer the inevitable stumble, not merely a form of insurance through which we reduce the risk of personal disaster by aggregating small amounts of our collective resources. It is also the foundation from which we build our lives and families, the resources and tools from which we create our society and our wealth.


Even more radically, public programs are both created by and the creator of our feelings of shared citizenship. They are a public space that shapes our perceptions and attitudes about each other as concretely as the built environment. If we believe that everyone is contributing and getting back a fair share, if we know that our security and wellbeing depends on our continued collective willingness to treat each other’s basic needs as legitimate as our own, if we understand that we rise or fall together – then we are laying the foundation for mutual acceptance and respect across all the otherwise difficult social barriers. We are also maintaining the conditions that allow democratic government to exist.


Of course, it is not just the existence of government programs but the nature of their implementation that determines their community-building potential. Recent studies of the deliberately segregating operations of public housing and educational subsidy programs show that racists were quite aware of the potential unifying impact of these programs, and worked hard to structure in discriminatory policies and practices. Respect for others is undermined when government programs are designed to stigmatize or punish those who use them, when Government programs reinforce “the force of the blows levied on poorer people by our culture of insult….from religious doctrines that treat good fortune as a sign of heavenly favor and poverty as the reverse, to the insult implicit in the inability of people living on the edge to share in the obsessive shopping and consumption that constitute so much of our daily life.” (“A Proud, Angry Poor” by Frances Fox Piven, The Nation magazine, 1/2/2012, p.33)


Or public programs can be inclusive and welcoming, connecting people with each other and empowering them to work together to meet collective needs, thereby reinforcing our societal bonds – our willingness to emphasize our similarities rather than our differences.


RACING TO THE BOTTOM

Building community is a very different way of understanding public programs from the Conservative position that they are primarily about dependency versus independence. Portraying government as “the problem” leaves us without any non-violent defense against the forces, groups, and people who would (intentionally or incidentally) harm or exploit us – the criminal, the ruthless, the powerful, the robber barons, and those communities that wish to exclude the already disadvantaged. And it leaves us without any method for democratically solving the problems that inevitably arise from the complexities of human interaction and our need to wrest resources from the natural world. Without methods of communal decision-making – without government – we are dropped into a jungle of all against all, a descent into the brutality of the stateless regions of the world whose massacres and disasters repeatedly show up in our headlines, a world in which violence rules. There is no anarchistic paradise of either the Ann Rand egoist or the Romantic “natural order” varieties waiting to emerge from that chaos – just insecurity and fear that cries out for authoritarian rescue.


And the start of that race to the bottom is the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything we choose not to donate. The Tea Party is at least honest about where they are coming from with their slogan that “you are not entitled to what I earn” and the statement made at one meeting that sick people without their own health insurance should be allowed to die. Mitt Romney’s juxtaposition of the need to choose between an “Entitlement Society or an Opportunity Society” is a slicker, but no less slippery, path in the same direction. It is just one step from Ebenezer Scrooge’s reply to a request for Christmas charity: he asks if the prisons and workhouses are in operation and, when told that they are so brutal that many people would rather die than go, he says: “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there. If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides, excuse me, I don’t know that. It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”


Why are our trains and transit options so meager and poorly funded? Why is health promotion and disease prevention given such a small part of our health care budget? Why is our government so unable to effectively address the crises that we face? How do we nurture the continuing cohesion of our wonderfully diverse society? How can we foster the combined feelings of shared destiny and mutual respect that is the foundation of successful democracy? Perhaps, as current attacks on immigrants seem to suggest, we’ve forgotten that all of our families were once strangers in this strange land. Perhaps we need to remember the Passover prayer to “let all who are hungry come to our table” – if only metaphorically. Perhaps we need to find ways to reinforce the spaces and politics that contribute to our sense of ourselves, collectively, as a community of “we, the people.”


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