Talking in Circles

When we keep bringing the same people together, covering the same ground.

Oh hello — don’t I know you from somewhere? Was it the trash meetings? Traffic? Zoning? Town Hall..?

You don’t have to go to many community meetings before you start recognizing faces and phenotypes. It’s a special breed of neighbor, who will willingly sit through 90+ minutes of organizational updates and public discussion that, for the most part, carries little actual impact. Still: someone has to go to these things! Every neighborhood has its own pool of individuals, faithfully making the rounds each month.

TRUE STORY: if you want to participate fully in your neighborhood – and really know what’s going on – you have to attend a whole lot of meetings. Who has time for this?

Hands-down the biggest demographic you will see at these meetings is seniors, no matter what community issue is at hand. Only a tiny sub-set of attendees will take the floor when it opens for comments, but some people really seem to savor the attention. I find it super interesting how they’ll recycle the same talking points, and indulge the same feedback from meeting to meeting.

I used to think we were wasting time, but eventually I came to see a process in which neighbors are learning and bonding, a kind of a community call-and-response. We’re also marking territory and putting in facetime with local leadership. That all this stuff can help advance personal interests has never really concerned me until a recent conversation at Historic Germantown, where so many familiar faces shared their thoughts on preserving local history.

Bridging Blocks” is an initiative of WHYY and the Free Library of Philadelphia that gathers residents together to talk about important issues like immigration, gentrification, and racial justice. This April, about 20 people came out for “Considering the Future and the Past” where moderators split us into groups to answer three questions that were later posed to the group as a whole. We never got past the first question:

How should historic communities judge the historic buildings worth saving versus the historic buildings we need to demolish or renovate?

Everyone had an answer, many of them quite radical and exceptional but nothing we hadn’t heard before. And when the moderator Chris Norris asked resource center director Sheena Thompson how she thought her clients would answer the question, the look on her face was all, “Aww, honey…” Like it wouldn’t even register.

When we followed up with Sheena afterwards, she explained that people who are in survival mode don’t even notice the buildings around them, let alone learn the history. “What do you care about architecture, when you can’t eat?” Point taken.

And how do you attend meetings, when you have to work, and care for your family, and go to school, and do a million other things to keep your head above water? How can our local civic process be remotely democratic with a handful of people speaking for the neighborhood?

Philadelphia is the so-called poorest US city – 24.5% of us live in poverty. I’m no expert, but I think what we’ve got here is the root of our worst problems. And I’m beginning to think all these meetings are by design, keeping us spinning our wheels on theoretical solutions while our neighborhoods are sold out from under us…

Imagine the progress that might be made, if all our collective problem-solving resources could be focused on poverty/income inequality? With record numbers of industries now investing in Philadelphia, how is this not part of the plan already? Why are we talking when we could be doing?

Who benefits, when people who care about their communities are trapped in a never-ending merry-go-round of meetings..?

To all our civically-engaged neighbors: Thank you for trying! For now, meetings are our only tool at this level of governance.

To all organizations seeking public input: your local grassroots news providers  <ahem>  can help you reach out to more neighbors and disseminate information to a much wider base. We can also be a powerful force for mobilizing people, and inspiring change.

Revive Local is Here to Help!

As a growing collaborative, we’re like a Swiss Army knife of community engagement with media partners connected to audiences of all ages and cultures throughout the city via radio, print, art, music, food, students, seniors – the content featured in this month’s paper is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s no reason we must settle for “top-down” governance when we have means to reach multitudes of new voices outside traditional avenues. We can use grassroots resources to better inform and empower all citizens, even ones who don’t have the time to sit in meetings. Let’s hear it for more representative and democratic local leadership!

Email to brainstorm how we can use all available channels to supercharge neighborhood meetings with new voices, energy, and ideas.

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