Last month, I saw this article shared by a friend on Facebook, and its title grabbed me: “Most Public Engagement is Worthless.” It’s a pretty bold statement, and I was inclined to read. The piece, by Charles Marohn of the organization Strong Towns, discusses the process of helping people to improve their own locale by realizing solutions to their needs. Marohn writes about focus groups and about how questions are framed, then toward the end, he provides this brief to-do list:
1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
3. Do that thing. Do it right now.
Earlier in the summer, I wrote about this myself in a post called “A Thousand Small Changes.” The small roles I’ve taken in my community have included being a Cub Scout, doing yard work for elderly neighbors, and as a teenager, working community theater productions. Before “Buy Local” was a thing, my family shopped with locally owned businesses. Before “green” was a thing, we turned out lights when we left a room, turned off the water when we brushed our teeth, and ate vegetables from a backyard garden plot that we fertilized with grass clippings. In the 1980s, my parents also started and led our neighborhood watch program, and my brother and I did plenty of canvassing to help out. Now, as I watch the progressive movements of the twenty-first century take hold of these tried-and-true ideas and try to institutionalize them for organizing and fundraising purposes, I’ve been watching and wondering how all that will work out, getting everyday people more involved and such.
Back to Marohn, he’s exactly right about direct action that meets a need. But that doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of volunteering. I write to Congresswoman Martha Roby fairly often, because I believe that Americans should take that action to make our representatives in Congress aware of their constituents’ positions, even though I only get back a form letter about her position, which is almost always diametrically opposed to mine. So, I’ll take action again this fall by voting for Tabitha Isner, because I want for her to replace Roby in Congress. Not because I prefer a Democrat to a Republican, but because Roby’s views don’t represent mine, and Isner’s views do.
Yet a separate factor does affect my morale and leads me to wonder whether, as Charles Marohn put it, “most public engagement is worthless.” Voter turnout in my county is typically between 15% and 30%. Even in a good year, two-thirds of voters don’t show up. In a bad year, six of seven stay home. I have no doubts about who I would prefer as my representative in Congress, however there is firm evidence that a majority of the voting public is unwilling to act on its own behalf. What I’m driving at is: I still believe in the value of my action as a conscientious constituent and as a knowledgeable voter, however I have less faith in mass action, or even real dialogue, actually happening.
Earlier this summer, I went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s first State of the South discussion at Montgomery’s newly renovated Kress on Dexter. The series toured Southern cities to allow locals around the region to put in their two cents about where are we and where we want to be. That Saturday morning, a solid variety of Montgomery’s progressives were assembled, and most of us said our peace about change: economic, racial, educational, all kinds of change. Then, at the end of the short event, a white guy about my age, who I didn’t know, spoke up and asked, “But what about the people who aren’t here? How do we reach them?” Everyone looked around with various expressions that conveyed unknowing. We had shared our thoughts, taken action to express our ideas about the “state of the south”— but where were the people who would counter our ideas? Where were the people who support the status quo, who would say, “No, we don’t need change. I think it’s fine like it is.”
Charles Marohn’s article has given me more to think about, though I haven’t changed in my belief that direct action is the best way to face problems— certainly much better than sitting around and talking about them— or worse, ignoring them! Progressive institutions around the South, like Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Rural Studio, have made huge strides, and other smaller organizations have chipped away at a variety of problems, but everyday people have to chip in, too. Right now, that’s the missing puzzle piece: direct action from the people who don’t believe that public engagement is worthless and who do believe in the value of making a thousand small changes.