- Special Projects
Our national government is failing. Everything seems so impossible.
Here is how a high-level official who worked for each President Bush describes the problem. National politics, he says, has become “an exercise in cultural signaling—who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on—rather than about actual governance.”
Question: What do we do to counter this road to dysfunction, which it is likely to continue even after Trump’s disastrous presidency?
Answer: build a community merry-go-around.
Did I watch too much “Mister Rogers” while my kids were growing up? I’m serious. Politically and socially it’s a beautiful day in neighborhoods across the country because of activities like carousel construction.
Why? First, people have a great faith in their communities. Polls showing people’s pessimism about the federal government also show that they are quite upbeat about their own locales.
Second, localism has always driven American politics. For a while grassroots democracy became a conservative buzz word, but it’s much more powerful and historically enduring than that. In fact in recent years states and cities have led the way on increasing the minimum wage, free community college, environmental regulation and pre-K education.
And that leaves out an enormous amount of lower visibility activities that writer James Fallows and his wife documented in their look at communities all over the country.
Third, localism is trending. As Fallows who has monitored these developments more closely than anyone else points out, “a new world (of local activity) is emerging, largely beyond our notice.”
Fourth, grassroots work has many advantages. It is concrete and relatively non-ideological, making it easier for people of different political beliefs to work together cutting through the crap.
This kind of work strengthens the social infrastructure. That has all kinds of positive consequences from reducing isolation to reducing fatalities in natural disaster. Close proximity to neighbors reduces loneliness and increases your sense of trust.
We’ve become demoralized. Everything here seems so impossible. We’ve become much better at stopping than creating.
Fifth, there is an actual carousel project that should be a model of the kind of local work I’m describing.
Albany, Oregon, is a town of about 55,000 south of Portland. About 15 years ago a private citizen got the idea of building a carousel as part of the town’s attempt to revitalize its downtown.
They started with $150 and a broken down early 20th century merry-go-round apparatus with no surviving animals.
After more than 200,000 hours of getting the old mechanism to work, hand carving and painting new animals (each taking 2,000 hours to carve and many more to paint), the working merry-go-round and its new building opened in August 2017.
Most carvers and painters had no previous experience. They were taught by those who did (really just one man living in Albany) and then taught others.
Around 300 volunteers from all walks of life have put in well over 100,000 hours. The work continues.
The carousel project has brought neighbors, friends and strangers together to produce something concrete and resilient. It gave people, including a whole lot of older folks, the chance to challenge themselves by mastering skills they never dreamed about trying.
The word that volunteers commonly used to describe their experience is not obligation or politics. It’s joy.
I’ve been there twice, once in the old building a year or so before the carousel and its new building were ready, and a few weeks ago — about a year since the working carousel and its museum opened to the public.
An Oregon Public Media description captures what I experienced walking around and listening to the people operating the upstairs merry-go-round and museum as well as the folks carving and painting in the downstairs workshop:
“When the volunteers talk about why they participate, there is one recurring theme: joy. As volunteer Cliff Page carves away at the leg of a Griffin sculpture he says, “I like to see something emerge from the wood, and I like the people I work with, and I love to have people come in and look things over, and every once in a while you hear an ‘oooh’ or an ‘aah’ — that makes you feel pretty good!”
The country is filled with carousel-like projects. Hawaii could use some. We’ve become demoralized. Everything here seems so impossible. We’ve become much better at stopping than creating.
Sure, our cynicism is well taken. HART and the airport are deservedly poster children for pessimism, but enough already. Get on with the other things in life, a politics close to the bone that you can be proud of because, hey, it’s yours.
So, take a closer look at the Albany carousel. Then think of what grassroots carousel-like projects you can see for Hawaii, particularly ones that you could feel joyful and productive working on.
Then send your suggestions to me either through this article’s comments page or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
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