Communities Don’t Build Themselves

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Most people have never heard of Bob Holmes, Egidio Teixeira and Nelson Merced. Likewise, the names of George McLean and Vaughn Grisham mean very little to most folks anywhere in America.

However, for the residents of Dudley Street in Boston or to the small business owners in Tupelo, Mississippi, these names, when uttered, evoke the kind of power usually reserved for war heroes, celebrities or sports legends. Yet, all these people are ordinary citizens whose only claim to fame is being a change agent that helped empower a community to make life better for all the residents. They are in short, community organizers.

Scholar and author Robert Putnam knows all these names. He writes about the people who everyday are building, maintaining and restoring communities all over America. The stories are compelling and inspiring. Absent the work of these ordinary citizens, the fruits of their labor may never have been realized.

Beyond the stories themselves, what’s truly interesting is that few if any of the heroes profiled by Putnam in his many works ever held elected office at the municipal level. Nonetheless, these men and women were genuine leaders regardless of the fact that they wielded little statutory power. Their power comes from skills in listening and an ability to work with diverse groups of people. Most of them were not great visionaries. Some were even loathed for their activism. Yet all managed to give voice to the aspirations, hopes and possibilities of those who otherwise were abandoned, avoided or overlooked.

Elected officials may not see themselves as community organizers. But listening to the success stories of the small neighborhood associations that were nurtured by city councilmembers and mayors from cities as diverse as Clarksburg, West Virginia and Riverside, California, one can’t help thinking that Putnam will soon pen the exploits of several local officials in a forthcoming book.

Communities don’t build themselves. Sometimes it’s one person acting alone that makes the difference. Other times, it’s a collection of elected leaders who bring the skills and the vision and the energy that draws the citizenry together. Regardless of how it starts, success, as Putnam writes, “involves making connections among people, establishing bonds of trust and understanding.” What better definition might there be for the title “community organizer,” or for that matter, the title “public official?”