By Guest Columnist VALARIE WILSON, board chair of Decatur City Schools and executive director of the BeltLine Partnership
From tea parties to the tone of the President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address, populism is in the air. And it is difficult to have a discussion about policy or politics today without someone wondering aloud about whether our democracy is broken.
But as a citizen and public servant, I have to ask, is the problem the system and the powers that be – or is it us?
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to serve the public and the public’s interest as Chair of the Board of Education for the City Schools of Decatur and as Executive Director of the BeltLine Partnership.
While I operate a world away from the geopolitical challenges addressed in Washington, I understand what it means to tackle complex, multi-dimensional, often emotional issues. And I can empathize with people crying out on both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, I identify with people who are just plain “sick of it.”
The vast silent majority of Americans share a common vision for our country. We seek leaders who will represent our interest in that vision. But we often end up with representatives who cynically appeal to our fears rather than our hopes, dividing us for political gain.
If it is true that we get the government we deserve, then we must, of course, take elections seriously and invest time in understanding the issues, the candidates and the consequences.
As citizens, we must each begin with our own reflection on what we see happening in our respective communities. We need to ask ourselves if what we see seems right. We have to think about what we each believe. And based on that thinking, we need to elect representatives who we believe will move us to a common good.
We can blame the media for the polarized framing of the issues. But with more information than ever available to us in so many ways, do we really have anyone but ourselves to hold accountable?
We need to be individuals before we are Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians. We need to think about the issues before we lapse into ideologies. We shouldn’t take the lazy way out – choosing one of the cable network’s framing of the issues.
Whether you have a PhD, high school diploma or you dropped out, you have the ability to examine issues and form your own opinion.
We can lament the tone in Washington and other seats of political power, as if they are disconnected from us. But we elect our representatives. And the tone begins in our communities. In dialogue at every level, are we really listening to one another?
If we don’t acknowledge the real issues that are affecting us – the economy, poverty, the lack of a comprehensive healthcare system for everyone that focuses on prevention, loss of jobs – and engage in genuine dialogue about how to fix them, then we cannot expect change to come.
As many wise people have observed, to truly listen to one another, we must be open to the possibility that we are wrong. Is that how we – and, by extension, our representatives – are engaging in dialogue? When someone else is speaking, are we listening to consider how we might be wrong in our thinking – or are we preparing our rebuttal?
Talking points and key messages – whether memorized or jotted on one’s hand – are de rigueur for anyone communicating today.
What if, instead, we focused on key questions? What if, instead, we set out to listen and reconsider our own views before attempting to persuade others? What if we judged our leaders not by the strength of their assertions but by the depth of their questions?
I’m “sick of it,” too. But I can’t help but think the change we seek needs to begin with each of us and with our communities.