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Amid Disturbing Holiday Messages, Finding Rays of New Year’s Hope

Bill Dodge / Jan 24 2013

For Release Friday, September 28, 2012

Bill Dodge“You and I as citizens have the power to set this country’s course.”
-President Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech, Jan. 21, 2013

The recent holiday season was filled with strong messages for the New Year.

First, the Congress running lemming-like toward the fiscal cliff reminded us that political polarization continues to block our addressing the issues threatening the country’s future. Second, the mass slaying of school children and teachers in Newtown reminded us of the all-too-easy access to all-too-many semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines.

Third, the New York Times’ “United States of Subsidies” series on state and local government squandering more than $80 billion annually on business incentives reminded us that those offering these bribes are also cutting the classrooms, public services and infrastructure projects that make us globally competitive.

Fourth, the billions spent trying to buy the recent elections reminded us that some of the rich are more interested in preserving their own interests than saving the middle class, much less responding to the traditional holiday message to protect “the least of these, my brothers.”

I suspect you also were touched by equally disturbing messages. They disrupted the usually upbeat thoughts of family, food and festivities, and left us asking unusual holiday questions: Have we become so desensitized to violence that we are unwilling to protect our children from guns? Have we become so consumed with accumulating riches that we no longer care about our income disparities, already more comparable to dictatorships than democracies overseas? Have we lost the nerve to stand up for what we believe in and to engage those who think differently in civil discourse? Do we still share the democratic values that let us resolve our toughest challenges together?

I continue to hope that we want to respond to these messages. But is there anything we can do that will make a difference? The road is strewn with the wreckage of efforts, often tried repeatedly over decades, to deal with similar messages. But we keep doing the same things in the same old ways.

However, Starbucks employees might have identified a new “old” approach to unleash people power. Baristas, with management support, wrote “Come Together” on coffee cups, to encourage Congress to resolve the fiscal crisis. Similarly, congregations of the First Congregational Church and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in my community, Silverton, Colo., and other communities nationwide, rang their bells in unison for those killed in Newtown. Thousands of volunteers helped the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

It’s time for more citizens to respond directly, especially since polls suggest overwhelming majorities support restoring the federal government’s fiscal capacity, controlling assault weapons, and ending unlimited election spending by unknown contributors. When the numbers grow to movements “citizens have the power to set this country’s course.”

So what could we do? I offer a few thoughts, to prod your own.

We could put “Come Together” on everything from coffee cups to wristbands to roadside posters, until the federal government is fiscally responsible. We could ring bells weekly until guns designed for mass slayings are controlled. We could boycott businesses that pursue government incentives, until they stop. We could refuse to vote for candidates until they repudiate super-PAC attack ads.

Given the usual focus of my writing, you might wonder what this has to do with regions. Plenty, because regions struggle with the same holiday messages.

That is especially obvious with business incentives, all too many of which are used for wooing companies from within the same region. Those incentives do not add jobs or increase tax revenues, they just squander scarce resources that are needed for critical public services.

Citizens could petition their local governments to stop offering business incentives and to combine their resources with other jurisdictions to invest in initiatives that benefit the entire region. Then they could push for sharing tax revenues arising from these investments region-wide, so all jurisdictions benefit from economic development regardless where it occurs.

Similarly, people could call for making their regions free of the guns and ammunition used in mass slayings. I suspect the first regions to act to do this would quickly attract entrepreneurs, investors and, most important, families from across the country and the world. They could foster similar efforts in other regions and pressure state and federal governments to adopt legislation to achieve this ambitious goal.

Finally, citizens could address the demise of the middle class. Again, regions might be the right place for citizens to come together. Regions are large enough to encompass all income groups and interests, yet small enough to test new approaches for increasing the middle class and serving the poor.

Citizens have already played a critical role in negotiating regional agreements for building affordable housing in affluent jurisdictions and sharing tax revenues with struggling ones. Could they find creative ways to push for investing in new economic opportunities, such as responding to climate change, and for shrinking the federal debt burden? And find ways to do this without compromising the Social Security, Medicare and jobs programs needed to rebuild a vibrant middle class? Retired boomers and pre-boomers could especially help organize a grass roots “Save the Middle Class” movement, given the civil rights marches and grape boycotts in their youth.

Let’s resolve to “Come Together” and engage in proactive yet peaceful citizen participation – individually and with our families, neighbors, fellow workers and community groups, across regions – until each of those holiday messages is heeded.

Bill Dodge helps community leaders and citizens increase their ability to address common regional challenges. He is the former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a book on regional charters and the future of regions. Reach him at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to