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—i.e., the public, i.e., you and me—shouldn’t be involved). Not only should we, but we must, for our activism is the only hope of restoring America’s democratic principles and uniting 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 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 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 where you’ll come on 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—about a fourth of Austin’s street dwellers. It’s the creation of a small non-profit group, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, that’s richly rooted in the religious mission espoused in Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount,” admonishing the faithful to serve the needy. Indeed, the village doesn’t proselytize, it serves—by providing a welcoming community of, by, and 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 others. Rents are affordable! All residents put their unique skills and talents to work—in the woodworking shop, gardens, chicken coops, medical facilities, an art trailer, communal kitchens, laundry, bee hive and aquaponics operations, an outdoor movie theater and 500-seat amphitheater for music and plays, or on the elected community council. By treating the people as valued assets rather than problems—then providing a secure and supportive community—the homeless can become their own solution. Imagine that!
Or imagine this: Instead of constantly conniving to stop poor people, minorities, students, et al. from voting, Oregon officials choosing to make democratic participation easy with automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots. Or a rich, white suburb and a neighboring urban community of mostly poor families (Morris Township, NJ) 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.” Or cities around the country rejecting the tar sands and fracking wells of Big Oil’s climate-changing fossil fuels and following the energy/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.