The list of progressive innovations at the grassroots level goes on and on, dealing with one big, complex issue after another that small-minded, corporatist ideologues refuse to tackle (often under the “principle” that government — that is, the public, such as you and me — shouldn’t be involved). Not only should we be involved, but we must be, for our activism is the only hope of restoring America’s democratic principles and uniting us with the ethic of the common good.
For instance, homelessness, we’re told by pious politicos, is impossible to cure, and so more and more cities are resorting to criminalizing people struggling to live on the streets. But wait, say proponents of a new way of thinking: Yes, some street people are addicts or mentally ill, but the vast majority of them are out there because they lost jobs, got hit with major medical bills, suffered family violence or had other personal crises.
And, get this: They’re homeless because they don’t have a place to live! Until the 1980s, when former President Ronald Reagan reduced tax incentives for developers to create low-income homes, America didn’t have mass homelessness. But now we’re millions of units short of housing that hard-hit people and families can afford. So why not address the cause?
Follow me from downtown Austin, Texas, to the eastern edge of Travis County, turn onto Hog Eye Road and go a short distance to where you’ll come across a giant sign saying, “WELCOME.” It fronts an astounding success named Community First! Village — a 27-acre, master-planned community (as opposed to temporary shelters) for 250 chronically homeless people.
It’s the creation of a small nonprofit group, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, that’s richly rooted in the religious mission espoused in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” admonishing the faithful to serve the needy. Indeed, the village doesn’t proselytize, it serves — by providing a welcoming community for the very people who have previously been publicly disparaged, shoved out of sight and denied even minimal human dignity.
Here, “home” is an eclectic collection of 140 micro-houses, each with a front porch to encourage engagement and communication with other people. Rents are affordable, and all residents put their unique skills and talents to work — in the woodworking shop, gardens, chicken coops, medical facilities, art trailer, communal kitchens, laundry, beehive and aquaponics operations, outdoor movie theater and 500-seat amphitheater for music and plays, or on the elected community council. By treating people as valued assets rather than problems and then providing a secure and supportive community, homeless people can become their own solution. Imagine that!
Or imagine this: Instead of constantly conniving to stop poor people, minorities, students and others from voting, Oregon officials choose to make democratic participation easy with automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots. Or a rich, white suburb (Morris Township, New Jersey) and the neighboring urban community of Morristown of mostly poor families merging their school districts in a deliberate attempt to establish some racial and economic balance and striving to be “a model of diversity and togetherness,” as the Century Foundation put it.
Or cities around the country rejecting the tar sands and fracking wells of Big Oil’s climate-changing fossil fuels and following the energy-and environmental sanity lead of Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah, by committing to move steadily away from fossil fuels and produce 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources within the next 15 years (a goal already achieved in 2015 by Burlington, Vermont).
The place to focus our intense activism is where the action is already happening — right in the communities and states where we live. Yes, Trump Inc. is out to turn Washington into a plutocratic heart of darkness and, yes, we must rally together to resist the horrors it promises. But our greatest strength is not in Washington rallies and protests; it’s in our ability to organize and mobilize masses of local people around issues of populist justice and progressive solutions, mounting campaigns all around the country to elect candidates, pass initiatives and enact reforms in city halls, school boards, legislatures, and regulatory boards.
If we commit to steadily amassing a people’s movement — bigger and bolder than what the corporations and media deem possible or desirable — that movement can become the government.