INVESTING IN AND EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES

The image of the state as a sovereign, self-contained and geographically circumscribed guarantor of public welfare is dead, if such an image ever really existed. In its place we are increasingly confronted with the reality of delocalized power centers and competing city regions struggling to win and hold a place within a hierarchy of cities defined in terms of trade and territorial interests.

For the generalities, let me explain. A “nation” is a collection of cultural, ethnic and social identities organized around a common public discourse – a founding myth, a shared language, a unique geography – and shared rules concerning public intercourse. It is commonly agreed that a nation’s authority is sovereign in defining its national and territorial interests, and that authority is maintained through a monopoly power on the use of coercive force.

The reality of nation building is that nations are built-up through alliances of wealth-producing territories, generally city regions organized into hierarchies. Such hierarchies are arbitrary and user defined, reflecting criteria as diverse as the number of books published over a period of time, the number of births per thousand women, tax collections, or commercial banking deposits.

Whatever benchmark one uses, one must always come back to territory’s ability to generate sufficient wealth to maintain and grow its position within the relevant hierarchy.

Wealth and the local economy
A city may be thought of as a closed system, an economy endowed with a certain ‘patrimony’, or capital. Local production systems employ that ‘patrimony’ to support production for local consumption, for the local market.

Inputs for manufacturing and service production are provided locally or outsourced. As local demand grows in volume and sophistication, more local suppliers are brought into the production process, replacing factors that were formerly imported. The process of import replacement combined with a culture of quality improvement then combine in a virtuous spiral to create more jobs and better products at ever more competitive prices driving growth and wealth creation.

A city region is a collectionof markets, ranging from machine tools and parts manufacture to health, social services and public safety. Production for local markets is exchanged locally with wealth remaining within city limits. Surplus production and energy (in the form of ‘services’) however, may be exchanged in neighborhing economies where a product or service may enjoy a differential advantage. Such exports bring ‘new’ wealth into the local economy in the form of ‘profits’. Within city limits, such ‘new wealth’ is redistributed through cultural activities, taxes and transfer payments.

Local production and community problem solving
In this simplified view of a closed system, local production satisfies local market demand: a local solution to a local problem. In the real economy, multiple production processes operate concurrently operating according to rules of fairness and equity.

Local production, whether cultural or in terms of goods and services, is a measure of an economy’s market capacity. Vibrant cities are attentive to local markets. They organize and reorganize markets to meet local demand. While production capacity can be augmented in the form of technology transfers and non-local producers may enjoy differential advantages, local production alone creates and sustains the conditions necessary for local problem solving and technological appropriation. No amount of money investment can make a technology transfer sustainable without local appropriation.

The UNDP and the ISI@MED program
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP, www.undp.org) has found a way to support and encourage local capacity development in the Mediterranean area, networking local and regional producers (who are in the business of local problem solving) into communities of practice. The Information Society Initiative for the Mediterranean (ISI@MED) is focused on empowering local communities through information exchange and the use of information and communications technologies (ICT).

ISI@MED is a three-year program underwritten by the UNDP and supported administratively by the Marseille Center for Mediterranean Integration (www.cmimarseille.org) to promote local capacity development by helping territories shape participatory and integrated approaches to local problem solving based on information access and sharing techniques.

The focus is to bring information and communications technologies to bear on solving local production problems. Working within a framework of decentralized cooperation (the United Cities and Local Governments and other peer networking organizations), ISI@MED will target three Mediterranean city regions, Latakia in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon and Oujda in Morocco to develop exchange and dialogue on addressing community information issues to solve local problems.

ISI@MED will produce a best practices manual for ‘information society’ practitioners in those communities before working to build peer-to-peer cooperation between city and regional governments of the southern rim of the Mediterranean, including Dakar, Senegal.

Turtle Island and European-American Settlement Patterns

Like so many of my generation of European-Americans a significant part of my conscious being has been devoted over the short span of my life to answering the question “Who am I?” In the face of the material well-being of my generation what could I possibly want? Surely, life was more than about wealth and material comforts.

I suppose the idea that I should know who I was started when my father, seeking to humor my awkward teen existence shared a cartoon parodying the “now” generation with the headline, “Who am I?”. I didn’t think it was terribly funny but I knew that adults were themselves humored by what passed for consent so I let the remark slide. My father probably never thought again about the subject or knew how deeply he had influenced my thought process.

The issue was undoubtedly that I should be constructing a focused adult life in anticipation of assuming an adult identity. He probably did not understand for all of his preoccupations that my life was already under construction and that my adolescent rebellion was already about community and my identity within that community.

The first question then concerned the observed asymmetry of power between the local production system and my privileged ‘colonial’ status. What was it about the encounter of two systems that created unfair advantage? Why was one system local, the other not? Which of these systems was my community? And if my community was the local production system, how could I accept an advantage originating outside of the local community?

[ Before I go any further, I should explain what is meant by “an advantage originating outside of the local community”. I was born and raised on Hummingbird Island, the eldest son of a professional manager responsible for a food processing business that purchased and transformed local farm produce for sale and consumption in Europe. Payment for the transformed produce was made in the United States to merchants who “hedged the risks” associated with the local production system, using the profits to finance additional production operations. ]

To my young eyes and 20/20 vision, since augmented by 40+ years of hindsight and a clear sense of what we know today as “globalization”, this international production system produced a redistribution of wealth, from Europe to South and North America. The redistribution in Europe took the form of purchasing economies (production and sale of less expensive, grain-fed livestock) resulting in lower market prices (increased disposable incomes to consumers) and for producers, lower factor costs at given market prices. For the land- and labor-rich host country this produced employment and land rents. Nothing was taken unfairly.

But this was only one facet of the colonization process. Other facets have since become apparent. The transfer of wealth from one economic system (Europe) to another (North and South America) produced a streamlining of local production processes from credit to manufacturing machinery and data processing, generating ever more wealth; it encouraged population growth and replication of European-style systems of social hierarchy, mobility and social geographies. Economic forces encouraged the progressive removal of natural ecosystems from their primary organic function supporting Earth communities of life and biodiversity. In short, this form of colonization succeeded in reproducing European-American settlement patterns, disenfranchising Native Peoples and advancing the day for “Mother Earth’s Great Purification Ceremony”.

More profoundly speaking, the success of the European colonial system, the “dominance paradigm” now fully mature and “in possession of Turtle Island” must inevitably turn to its next challenge, global scarcity and the control of food and water production systems. This is what is happening today all over Africa and in less developed areas of the world where land, water and labor are plentiful.

Where will it all end?

An old Indian friend whose life model is deeply rooted in community practice and collective intelligence, and who actively anticipates Mother Earth’s Great Purification Ceremony reminds me that the civilization disease which expresses itself as a belief in “individual”-ity, is a social cancer that can only be checked by

Human Persons in-Community, and so in-tune with the Song ‘n’ Dance of Life Herownself, whatever the geographical origins of their Ancestors…

In answering the question “Who am I?” my old Indian friend might as well have said “it is not so much ‘who’ we are that matters, but how well we DO what we ARE”.

This is in fact what he said.

Poverty and the Ohio Media Circus, or When is a circus not entertainment

Recent buzz in the blogosphere has concerned itself with Kelly Williams-Bolar (Kelly Williams) a socially ambitious, presumably single mother of two young girls “trapped in poverty” and condemned to substandard schooling.

I became aware of the facts through an article on the progressive website, Truthdig: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste–Except in Ohio. The dramatic headline was accompanied by a picture of a straightened, nappy-haired black woman whose bloodshot eyes were on the verge of tears. Nothing like the attractive, forty year old woman pictured in the press

The reading trail led me to essayist, Marcia Alesan Dawkins www.marciadawkins.com and an abundance of media spin, from local ABC affiliate WEWS’ report on the sentencing, Woman Gets Jail Time in School Residency Case, to the Cleveland Leader’s confusingly headlined article, Mother Gets Jail Time for Lying to Get Kids in a Better School System and the Akron.com Community News and Notes website, Walsh Defends Prosectution of Williams-Bolar, moves to dismiss deadlocked charges

Headline writers and editorialists must be having a field day.

But this is the way a free press works.

The contest is between those who feel justified, by virtue of professional achievement or material wealth, living in an exclusive neighborhood and school district and those who believe that the dominant, materialistic discourse of our society has condemned a large segment of our citizens to permanent social disadvantage, an attitude we might forgive among certain minorities. The entire process, if one believes the Summit County Prosecutor (and we should believe her as the legitimate representative of the public order), was exacerbated by defendant Williams’ brinkmanship and insistence upon access to neighboring public spaces.

Did Kelly Williams and her father bring the problems upon themselves?

Only the people of Ohio and Summit County can say for sure. Even then, it may take judicial remedy, a lengthy appelate process and possibly even legislative remedy for justice to be served.

So where then does the issue lie?

At issue are the social values that define our public spaces, the right of public access and the old question of separate but equal. In a larger sense it is about how citizens in outlying counties, townships and municipalities insulate themselves from the social problems of neighboring jurisdictions. It is about metropolitan governance and a shared idea of citizenship.

The problem is not Ms Williams’ social ambition nor even her questionable character, but the failure of the State’s education system to anticipate and remedy the special needs of individuals trapped in poverty, the failure of the State to remedy something that is obviously separate and just as obviously, not equal.

The war on poverty is not something that is happening in far away Africa, South Asia or in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro. The war on poverty is happening in our own backyard. Ms Williams’ fight and the media circus that she inspired simply call attention to the rigidities of a system built around economic priviledge and material access.

The Kelly Williams case reminds us that ours is a shared destiny and that poverty has no place in the equation.