As a consultant working across the nation to promote engagement, when I’m introduced to a community for the first time, I’m often told the story of so-called good ole days. Hanging on some sociologist’s assessment of the 1950s, the movies Gangs of New York or American Graffiti, or the memory of an old timer, these idyllic images conjure an America that might have been, and rues the country that is.
It’s not one side of the political spectrum that does this kind of daydreaming either, nor is it one socio-economic group, race, culture, age group, or religion. Instead, it’s like a national obsession to forget the reality of the moment and lament the status of the past.
What I’ve found as well is that none of this is true. The bellyaching, moaning and groaning about kids today, politics today, and the world today just isn’t real. Instead, it’s the product of over-active memory banks, under-analyzed social analysis, and over-ambitious historians who’d paint the world over in whatever shade of history they specialize in.
The simple truth is that our communities today are on a rapid and positive upswing. Young people are more engaged than ever in the health and well-being of the world they live in, and adults are paying attention like never before. There are robust debates happening every day over the very nature of democracy, and the propulsion of society towards social justice and equality is crescendoing as never before.
Before you call me a Pollyanna, I want you to consider this: I grew up poor in a low income African American neighborhood in the Midwest. I’ve seen that neighborhood continually experience blighting at the hands of indifferent, opportunistic white city leaders who don’t value it for what it’s worth. However, I’ve also seen its resilient nature and emergent desire to be different. I benefitted from the love and generosity of strangers in that neighborhood, and I’ve become who I was raised to be in that neighborhood.
I would suggest that’s the story of America today. If you look out and see a nation in disrepair and without regard for its own humanity, then that’s what you raised it to be, and what your foreparents thought it was. But if you look out and see the positive, powerful potential of people who struggle and survive and thrive and shine every single day, then that’s what it is.
Everyday, more than ever before, we’re witnessing the emergence of newly engaged communities. Rising out of the ashes like the mythical Phoenix, these communities represent the hopeful future of this country and the world. They are the birthing places of engaged citizenry, and like those cosmic explosions happening millions of light years away, these communities are launching the stars of the future right now! And they aren’t the upperclass suburban sprawl from the American dream of 60 years ago.
Instead, they’re the blocks in the hood where food activists have planted gardens and raised urban bounties. They’re the inner city schools where students have organized with teachers to improve the schools of today for the students of tomorrow. They’re the parks with volunteer trash patrols, libraries with banned book reading sessions, and nonprofits with spunky staff who promote the heck out of their minimum wage mission to save the world.
These newly engaged communities are our communities. They’re made of people, just like you and me. And they’re here now. These are our newly engaged communities, and this is our newly engaged life. So let’s live engaged, starting now.