Forget national politics, go local

Fed up with national politics? Maybe you need to focus on your local community. Not local government, local community.

resilient city

Only 18 percent of Americans say the federal government does the right thing most or nearly all of the time. Even just before the last election,  only 29 percent of Trump supporters and 23 percent of Clinton supporters thought that electing their candidate would actually lead to progress.

All recent presidential candidates have run against Washington, pledging to change Washington. But none of them do. Trump got part of it right when he called for draining the swamp.  The problem is that fighting the swamp just drains us of all energy.

Along with lots of well-meaning people, I spent years going to DC several times a year lobbying for change for poor rural areas. Even though we did achieve some of our objectives (such as Delta Regional Authority and new programs to revitalize rural communities and build resilience of farms) these programs get stuck in a bureaucratic morass which undermines them. The bureaucracy molds them into pale ghosts of what they were meant to be.

So, I’m a recovering lobbyist. According to some polls, I’m like most Americans.  I believe lasting change comes from strong local groups–whether businesses, churches, non-profits, local governments or just small groups of people devoted to creating more resilient communities.

The story of Lancaster, Pennsylvania is a good one. In the mid-90’s,  the city was a crime-ridden ghost town at night. People were afraid to go downtown. The county’s dominant employer, Armstrong World Industries, was declining.  A group of people started gathering every Friday morning to plot a way out of Lancaster’s mess.  The first thing they did was check their politics at the door.  They were both Democrats and Republicans but they decided not to discuss national political issues or even state political issues at their meetings. Partisan politics was part of the problem, not the solution. They were united by one goal: they loved their community and they wanted to make it better.

The Lancaster group ended up forming a foundation called Hourglass because time was running out for Lancaster. The organized themselves because no one from outside was going to come and save them–no government program or relocating business would transform their community.

None of the members are in it for personal gain, or to lay a foundation for a political career. Most were retired.  None of them were politicians, they were just volunteers who wanted to figure out how to make their community better.  “There is big P politics — party politics — and small P politics. We check the big P at the door and just worry about solving the issues — not worrying about what Republicans or Democrats think about it. ”

They have realized “trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.” One of them says: “You can only get progress where there is trust. People trust that we are not in it for personal agendas and not partisan agendas. We will often host elected officials, and they will throw out ideas and we will give them feedback. And they are not worried it will go out of this room.” When they invite in politicians, they never invite the press.

They hold a “First Friday Noontime Forum” to get community leaders, business owners and elected officials into one room — with no press — to discuss all the components of fixing the city.

They had no authority, yet they assumed that good ideas would lead their community out of its spiral down. “Our first insight was that leadership matters” — and if it wasn’t going to come from the politicians, then it would come from them — and it would be devoid of party politics.

They didn’t come with the answers, trying to convince others to follow them.  Instead, they came with a burning desire to learn what had worked in other places and adapt it to their community.  “Who is the best small-city mayor? Let’s call ’em. Who is the best urban planner? Call ’em. Who are the education transformers? Call ’em. Who is doing the most interesting stuff in public health? Call ’em.”

The successes in Lancaster is not unique.  Many other cities have bounced back from their downward spiral.  They all have the same qualities.  Those qualities are the same as in any resilient system.

Resilient communities are multi-equilibria, open, dynamic, highly unpredictable, and subject to frequent disturbance. Observations of equilibrium in communities and ecological systems are transitory. Any particular “state” of a living system is but a waystation which is followed by continued disturbance, reorganization, rapid growth, maturation (often mistaken for equilibrium) and then another disturbance.  These four phases are referred to as the adaptive cycle (Holling, 1986). Resilience research studies how living systems persist and change in response to disturbance, not how to sustain a particular equilibrium. Reorganization, rapid growth, maturation and disturbance are going to happen.  A resilient farm or community manages their subsystems so some are in rapid growth, some are mature and some are reorganizing to provide the rapid growth and later maturity needed to keep the system resilient.

Resilient communities don’t focus solely on specific resilience to specific disturbances.  Such a focus leaves a system vulnerable to any disturbance it has not yet experienced. Resiilent communities on creating systems which can adapt to unknown, unprecedented and unexpected disturbances.

What enables such adaptation in a community? Resilience research has revealed eight qualities and necessary for a system to be resilient.  They are shown in the following chart.

CLIMATED Dimensions of Resilience

Dimension Description
Modular Connectivity “Networked but independent.” A resilient system is sensitive and responsible to feedback, while maintaining independence. Modular or independent sub-systems are insulated. Damage or failure of even a key sub-system has low probability of propagating failure throughout the system. Failure of one business in a community does not lead to the failure of others.
Local Self-Organization Locally organized processing and marketing systems. Community members like buying locally. The community is more likely to have locally owned businesses, co-ops, farmer’s markets, community gardens, and local civic clubs.
Conservative Innovation Resilient systems are open to new ideas while retaining ideas which work from the past.  Resilient communities value their history, but are continuously improving. The most resilient community is usually not the first adopter of a new technology or idea, rather, it employs the technology when it is proven, but far more quickly than most.  Since resilience requires the ability to come up with uniquely appropriate responses in diverse situations, the system needs a variety of approaches.  Ecologically resilient systems stress multiple, overlapping strategies rather than silver bullets.
Maintenance, Redundancy, Back-ups Redundancy means several of each component are present and they are replaced when lost.  Skills, abilities, functions are also reproduced and passed on to the next generation.
Accumulating Productive Infrastructure Resilient systems increase productive physical assets and natural capital, such as soils, water , storage of reserves and processing.  All these are assets which, if increasing, lead to increased resilience and, if decreasing, lead to less resilience in any system.  In communities this means transportation and utilities are maintained and improved.
Periodic Transformation At every scale, resilient systems regularly reform and even transform themselves either in response to disturbance or through self-reorganization. Resilient communities replace their leadership regularly. No leader hangs around too long.
Ecologically Integrated “Working with nature.” Resilient ystems obtain services from their surrounding ecosystem.  Resilient communities have plentiful parks and encourages farms and businesses which keep water and air clean and pure.
Complementary Diversity Resilient systems are highly diverse, but the diversity is controlled.  It is complementary in function, use of inputs, and generation of outputs. A resilient community will have a diversity of businesses, but all support each other and work for the improvement of the community.

Enhance these qualities in your community, your farm or any system and it will become more resilient.