Fort Report: Reclaiming Community
Last week I was back in Nebraska for the Fourth of July congressional work period. On the way to work one morning I turned on the radio to one of the news talk shows in which I occasionally participate, expecting to hear a dialogue about the latest crisis du jour in Washington. Instead, the conversation was about fireworks displays: the traditional one at Oak Lake Park in Lincoln, or perhaps an expanded one at Holmes Lake. It was a vibrant and fun debate, but with all the intensity in Washington and around the world, I wondered why they were spending so much time discussing the finer points of fireworks.
Then it dawned on me: this is exactly what we should be talking about in local community. In other words, the constant emphasis on every traumatic event across the world, played for you 24 hours a day, is disrupting the natural social ecosystem in which we live. This ecosystem is the space where most of life takes place: in the home, in the neighborhood, at school, at work, and at church. The proper care of children, going to the doctor, meeting with the teacher, producing and selling things at work, participating in the life of the community, and engaging in good entertainment—all exercise the mind, heart, and spirit. That's very far from the corridors of power in Washington.
Of course it's essential that we have a national government that works well. A country that is strong and safe, one about which we can be proud, with legal and regulatory structures that create the conditions for jobs and social flourishing is a first order priority. Here’s our problem: power and responsibility for our daily interactions has been outsourced to Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood. More and more, local people who care deeply about solving human problems are losing a sense of agency. Agency is the ability to envision and create real solutions critical to fostering meaning and personal accomplishment—in small business, in the arts, and in charitable institutions.
Last Friday I met with three organizations—Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Family Services, and People’s City Mission of Lincoln. Each offers an example of Nebraskans taking responsibility for the strengthening of civil society, exercising the deeper values of commitment to those in need or suffering. It was inspiring to see them taking action to improve the lives of Nebraskans. Yet, in our conversations with these leaders, they relayed the challenges to overcoming fragmented structures that do not serve the whole person, such as inequities that limit the integration of services like physical and mental health, nutrition and child care. Or worse, government hostility toward the values which compel them to help others.
Right near my office in Washington, I can see the Health and Human Services building. It is a monstrosity. Built in the 70s, it looks like a concrete bunker—well fitting, perhaps, for Stalingrad, Russia in the Communist era. It was built as an extension for congressional offices. Some time ago, Congress rejected it because it has so little aesthetic appeal. It exudes a sense of rigidity, command, and conformity. It's ugly. It projects disrespect and a disconnect. With no words, it speaks to you: Leave your ideas at the door; better yet, go away—we will tell you what is best, you the unenlightened masses. And that's a real problem, especially when it comes to health policy, one of the most deeply impactful personal matters.
On many issues, Washington should have minimal interaction with local life. North Korea—that's Washington's problem. Seeing and feeding the person under the bridge is the local community’s opportunity. Healthcare is a bit of both. And a conversation about fireworks can signal the desire to celebrate what our nation is and what we still hope for it to be—a place of responsibility, a place of opportunity, and a place of belonging.