Citizens’ Brigade

I admit to a certain kneejerk cynicism but I also have faith that things can change for the better when a group of informed and engaged citizens puts their concerted minds and goodwill to the undertaking.

June 15, 2010 | | Back Issues | Departments | Editor’s Desk | In Every Issue | Summer 2010

That was the headline Jeff Rollings suggested for the story he wrote for this issue on community-based planning, now headlined “Imagining the Future.” I was the one who vetoed his suggestion. To me it projected a whiff of patronization onto what I consider very earnest and worthwhile undertakings

But I have to declare a conflict of interest in that. I am a member of Headwaters Community in Action and sit on the committee that has been working on the community well-being report for the past nearly three years. I also participated in the Mono Visioning Conference this spring. Although I admit to a certain kneejerk cynicism by nature, I also have faith that things can change for the better when a group of informed and engaged citizens puts their concerted minds and goodwill to the undertaking.

Like a good journalist, Jeff brought a healthy dose of skepticism to the story. Among other things, he queried the point of spending all that time and energy to come up with the less-than-startling revelation that people who live in the countryside value the countryside, i.e., the environment, the landscape, the small-town feel and agricultural heritage.

Fair enough. I do recall my impatience at early HCIA committee meetings as we checked in again and again with the “community stakeholder” groups to come up with, well, the obvious: Okay, okay, we know what people value, let’s get on with it!

But as the process unfolded, I was converted. I came to think of the “slow planning process” as something like the “slow food movement.” A slab of pre-packaged, pre-cooked, factory-raised chicken may (or may not) contain the same calorie fuel as a free-range, organic chicken you cook your-self, but the former has nothing of the latter’s richness in terms of the complex connections between you, your food and, by extension, your sense of place in your environment.

Likewise with grassroots planning and its emphasis on consensus building. By taking the time to consult, review, consult again, and then again, the HCIA committee has built up a rich and complex analysis of our Headwaters community. And through the slow and sometimes painfully iterative process, it has begun to reveal new areas of common ground and forge new alliances across social sectors and municipal borders.

Still, Jeff poses the pertinent question for all three projects he profiles. If in the end it all comes to no more than a feel-good exercise for the participants, what has been achieved?

And, in the manner of slow things and acts of faith, we may have to wait for our children to answer that.

About the Author More by Signe Ball

Signe Ball is publisher/editor of In The Hills.

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