I have been lucky enough to work with community organizers and politicians throughout the Midwest and throughout the world. As a result, I have helped craft and implement to a wide variety of community development initiatives from the “usual” (building roads and schools, providing health care, fostering employment opportunities for youth) to the “surreal” (addressing python infestation currently tops the list). Part of the process in developing countries is teaching people about key principles for civic education and engagement, which is something Americans all know about, but we sometimes forget. The Chicago Tribune recently asked readers to submit ideas about a plan for Chicago, and while drafting my plan to address crime and violence, I put together some ideas about civic engagement and government, and how we can re-engage in city decision-making.
We need to talk to each other more and be aware of our larger community. The decline in civic engagement is not specific to Chicago, and there are volumes written about why we are “bowling alone,” so I will focus on the easiest way to re-engage, which is simply to start talking to each other again. When we don’t know our neighbors, we cannot work with them to create a stronger city. When we don't know our neighbors, we can’t say to the family down the street, “Your kid might be hanging with some people you wouldn’t like.” When we don’t know our neighbors, it’s harder to recognize that your favorite solution may impact someone else negatively. We can engage in these conversations on our front porches or by volunteering for churches, civic groups, political campaigns, and nonprofits. And we need to remember that our neighbors are not just those on our street, but in other wards, and on the opposite side of the city. What happens in one ward can, and likely will, affect another ward. For example, closing schools and clinics in one neighborhood affects the entire city because it weakens our ability to present an educated and healthy workforce to potential investors. Chicago is a sum of its neighborhoods and ignoring even one hurts our community.
We need increased government transparency and to hold our government accountable. Although increased communication is a good first step, the more decisions we make in the public area, the more we can hold our aldermen and mayor accountable. We are in the middle of the 2014 budget process right now one new line item that shouldn’t be overlooked is the funding an Independent Budget Office which would be instrumental in increasing transparency in city budget and contract decisions. Another important piece of legislation is the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance which would require a committee hearing before any services are privatized in try to avoid another parking meter debacle. The ordinance has been stuck in the Rules Committee for almost a year. We need to tell our aldermen that we support these two initiatives to increase transparency in the system, and we need to hold our aldermen accountable if they do not act.
We need to be specific about our solutions and acknowledge we cannot have everything we want. Once we have community solutions and increased transparency, the hard part begins. We are very good at proposing broad solutions. “Don’t close the schools and clinics and create more jobs and there will be less violence.” We need to remember that like our own pocket books, the city’s budget is not bottomless. Which schools? Which clinics? What are we willing to give up to increase the safety of our streets? I love the Taste of Chicago – the fried food and the people watching – to me the Taste means means that summer has arrived. But I would give up the Taste if it meant significantly more police on the streets to make our neighborhoods safer. With more communication and information we can develop more specific solutions and engage in compromise.
We need to think beyond short-term fixes and develop long-term, multi-issue plans. Although there are many good sides to electing public officials, the election cycle can perpetuate the use of short-term fixes over long-term solutions. Politicians need to show they are effective in order to be re-elected and as citizens, we have a tendency to demand change faster than is sometimes realistic or sustainable. Both of these reinforce the urge to rely on short-term fixes. But we need to remember that big changes require big plans and more time to implement. For example, if we want to reduce violence, we need to address not only policing, but also education and job creation, all of which might take years. Plans need to be multi-issue, vetted by the community, and as citizens, we need to be vocal about support for long-term plans so if elected officials do change, the agreed upon plan does not.
I know I haven’t reinvented the wheel here, but I have tried to frame a path by which we can be more engaged and solution-oriented as a city. I used the word “we” to remind us that we are in this together and we are responsible for electing public officials (and worse, for re-electing them when they are don’t act in our best interest). TheTribune’s challenge for “A new plan of Chicago” exhibits exactly the kind of mentality the city needs to affect real change in our communities. By engaging its readership in the conversation, we are sharing different points and developing new and creative solutions. It’s up to us, as citizens, to take this conversation out of the newspaper, into our communities, and demand our politicians to work with us to create a better Chicago.