“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” Muhammad Ali once said.
It appears that some folks are paying more rent than others. It’s unlikely, I suppose, that evictions from these “rooms here on earth” will follow.
I am impressed by the people in every community who get engaged — who see the wheels of society grinding slowly and realize that their energy is a valued and necessary input.
In Red Deer, Alberta, where my roots go back about 50 years, I recently attended an impressive evening for the Mayor’s Recognition Awards. It was impressive not because of any particular pomp, ceremony, or artifice. It was impressive because the room was filled with hundreds of citizens each of whom had invested hours, days, even years of personal energy into making the community better. Young adults, mid-career professionals, middle-aged parents, senior citizens — supporting causes that ranged from hospitals to drop-in centres to search-and-rescue teams and urban gardens.
Looking around the room, I wondered where that city would be without its true public servants: the people who get involved because it’s in their nature and they care. Beyond the room, of course, are many more who deserve our recognition. People who perhaps don’t volunteer for formal organizations but pick up the slack wherever they see it, helping out neighbours and neighbourhoods.
As impressed as I am with these people, I must admit I am somewhat baffled by the majority who seem to assume that community-building will just get done for them. Many, of course, are at stages in their lives where immediate personal and family concerns are paramount. Fair enough.
But we know that, for most people, the day when they will turn off the TV or set down the game console or step back from their money-making business to walk down the street and lend a helping hand never comes.
It seems that Western society increasingly values independence, while devaluing collaborative, cooperative and community-based initiatives. I commented on this trend recently in two blog posts about libraries.
We want children to “stand on their own two feet.” We want user-pay systems in our public services, ignoring the broader community good that comes from shared resources.
Perhaps we need a different system of citizenship — one which requires everyone, regardless of place of birth, to apply for and qualify for citizenship papers. No, of course not. That would just create a new bureaucracy.
I hope that this is a pendulum that will swing back towards more community-based public service. An encouraging trend is ‘new urbanism,’ which values high density city environments with connected, interdependent citizens. New urbanism realizes that if we all just retreat into suburban garages with automatic doors and our private residence cocoons, then no one is left caring for our streets, parks, community centres — or one another. Community gardens, street parties, block garage sales — everything that brings people together builds our sense of shared responsibility.
And it may just be a case of self-selection, but I have found a community of energized, action-oriented people on Twitter — many with an interest in improving urban life.
How we interact in the urban environment is, after all, going to be a key to the future of our civilization, if for no other reason than the fact that we are increasingly an urbanized species. The communities that we create as we all come together in the world’s cities and mega-cities will be a direct reflection of how much personal energy we invest in our neighbourhoods and community organizations.
“Hands Up” Wikipedia