Amid all the calls for economic and policy packages in Washington, it’s time to mobilize Americans to rebuild their communities. Let’s not delay. But let’s also be smart. Because the truth is, we’ll need more than ordinary volunteer programs to make hope real. We must take a different path. Here are 5 keys.I spent much of January in Michigan. Discussions about the state and other hard-hit communities are usually framed as though these places are nothing more than “job sites” – mere locales for economic development. We often assume that most people want to flee these communities. But, in Detroit, Battle Creek, and Greater Lansing, people tell us they want to stay in their hometowns. When asked about what changes need to occur, they consistently express the desire to create safe, connected, and caring communities. Of course, people want jobs. But let’s be clear: people want to rebuild their communities, not simply create a job site.The good news is people are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. We must tap into this energy and spirit as it can launch us forward. But this must be a common effort – not simply more programs imposed on communities from the outside. To mobilize America, we must bring people together with a clear purpose and path forward.
1. Turn outward toward the community
– the very first step for anyone interested in mobilizing America is to turn outward toward our communities. Too many volunteer, civic engagement and other well-intentioned community efforts are done with an organization-first approach – a narrow view that often starts and ends with fulfilling one’s own programmatic goals, strategic plans, and metrics for community involvement. To have a fighting chance for success, we must make the community the reference point, not our individual programs.2. Focus on people’s shared aspirations
– not the community’s problems – people feel the full weight of their individual and community “problems.”And yet, when asked about their aspirations, they are quick to offer an alternate view of what can be. These aspirations don’t arise through “visioning” exercises and happy talk. People must come together to define their shared aspirations, for only then can we find points of common action. Our shared aspirations are the starting point for mobilizing America.3. Get people doing actual work together
– people don’t simply want to volunteer for an hour here and there. Instead, they’re yearning for the opportunity to build deep and lasting relationships and be part of something larger – indeed, to address the sense of connection and caring that has been weakened or severed as they’ve hunkered down to ride out the storm. Thus, more “plug-and-play” volunteer programs won’t do the trick this time; people want to roll-up their sleeves and work together – and over time. They want to do something real.4. Move in a common direction
– too often volunteer and community efforts are based on episodic, ad hoc activities where the emphasis is on making the individual volunteer “feel good.” The focus is often scattered, all too often not directed at the public good, and as a result yield limited impact. Simply calling on people to volunteer will not help people rebuild their communities. We must create, together, in individual communities and across the country, a common sense of direction to guide what we do, and to make sure what we’re doing add up to something real.
5. Tell stories of self-trust and hope – in many communities, the common narrative is one of decline, diminished hopes, even defeat. And yet, as positive actions occur, we can combat this ingrained narrative. But we must be careful. More business-as-usual storytelling – hyped public relations and cutesy vignettes – will only dampen people’s spirits. While those stories “seem” real – people know better – and feel their reality is being manipulated. Instead, we must tell authentic stories of change, ones that reflect our trials and errors, successes and failures, and lessons learned. Let’s call them civic parables. These stories, when real, help us restore our faith in one another and in our individual and collective ability to build stronger communities.
There is enormous potential to mobilize Americans today to rebuild our communities. The truth is people don’t need to wait for Washington to get going. In fact, the real energy and spirit lives in our communities. So, let’s start now. Let’s mobilize people. Let’s rebuild America.