Encouraging Little Acts Of Citizenship

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

If you want to kill your community, ensure that people don’t find it attractive: Have cars parked in yards for everyone to see as they drive through town. Have dilapidated buildings to show them. Have run-down storefronts on main street. Allow litter to blow around in your streets.

These ways are all a variation on author, economic development specialist and community “therapist” Doug Griffith’s theme of “Don’t Paint” from his and Kelly Clemmer’s’ book “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.”

 “If you want to ensure that your community fails then you have to make sure you don’t paint. Of course, painting isn’t the only factor included in this concept – it encompasses anything that may beautify your community such as sweeping, cleaning, planting flowers, mowing grass, pick up garbage...” they write.

Communities are judged by first impressions, Griffiths says. Often you get just one chance to attract a family to your community to live and work in. Waste it because your town looks disheveled and all the work an employer does to woo someone to fill a critical opening in their business may be lost. The employer isn’t the only one that loses.

That family that was going to buy a house or renting an apartment is now looking in neighboring communities. They are buying groceries, gas, hardware or clothing somewhere else. They won’t be employing your electricians, plumbers or carpenters. You won’t have their kids, attending your school bringing in additional state education funding that helps and prevent further cuts in programs and teachers.

Benson will again be decorated with large flowerpots on its downtown street corners this coming spring, summer, and early fall as part of Mayor Terri Collins’ Beautify Benson initiative. This year even more sites around town will get the pots, and there will be hanging baskets on some poles. Not just the business districts, but also the entries to the city will be beautified.

Collins has raised funds for the flowerpots and this year the city is getting volunteers to water them. It will provide some assistance with equipment.

Aesthetic beauty is what young people today are looking for in the place they call home, Griffiths says. That makes community beautification economic development.

In their book “The Gardens of Democracy,” Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer talk about renewing a sense of citizenship in people.

While we think of citizenship in grand terms of such things as voting, or serving in public office, helping with a petition drive, or attending a public meeting, there are many smaller acts that fit the role as well, Hanauer and Liu say. It can be as simple as picking up an empty pop bottle on a downtown city street because you care about what your community looks like. It can be opening a door for someone or helping them with a bag of groceries.

 “True citizenship is about treating even the most trivial choice as a chance to shape your society and be a leader,” they say. “It is laying down habits that scale up throughout society. It is not just setting an example; it is actively leading others to copy you…small acts, tiny everyday choice, accrue compound into tipping points.”

Positive attitudes are infectious, just as negative attitudes can be.

Small acts of leadership multiply. “Tiny acts of responsibility are replicated, scale upon scale, and thus every act is inherently an act of leadership – either in a pro-social or anti-social way. Every one of us sets off a cascade. Understanding thus, the habits and culture of citizenship aren’t good for social health; they are essential for it,” they write.

When we think or say, “It’s someone else’s responsibility. That’s the city’s job, not mine. It’s too much trouble. Or, I’m too busy,” we are abandoning our role as citizens of the community.

Liu and Hanauer also write that local “government at every turn should be helping citizens take responsibility in small ways.” The mayor’s Beautify Benson effort, supported with volunteer help, is an excellent example of just how it can influence small acts of citizenship.

Drive through other communities in rural America where the population is declining, young people leaving and not coming back, and businesses closing, and you will find that many look as if they are just biding time until they blow away. Benson faces these same challenges, but it isn’t going into a defensive crouch or shrugging its collective shoulders accepting decline as an inevitable fate. Yet, it has work to do. That is obvious from a drive around the community.

That work doesn’t just involve the city addressing blight and cars parking in residential yards with new laws and enforcement of current ordinances – though, unfortunately, those measures are required for some. It also involves citizens taking pride in their community and their homes.

Driving around the communities in the area, as well as in the countryside, you will see homes that will draw your attention because the homeowners have given to their yards and houses special care.

These homeowners show the pride they have in their home and keeping it looking good; their pride pays the community dividends in that they make job seekers give us a closer look. Their attention to their homes and yards enhances the community’s curb appeal.

It has been suggested that a community post a list of things it needs to get done around town for everyone to see that require volunteer help. This could lead to an individual or group taking on those small challenges. When a task is checked off the list, and the community made aware of it, those who did the work are recognized, and others are motivated to do their part; more items are crossed off this list.

Spring is a time for cleansing. Winter’s dirt and grime, and the wind-blown garbage are revealed as snow banks melt away. It is also a time when local residents can participate in little acts of citizenship and leadership.

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