After writing about the election last month, I still felt a bit adrift. I wanted to go out and put SOMETHING good into the universe.
I would like to say that I was searching for something to do for the greater good, and while that’s partly true, I was also searching for something I could exert my control over. As someone with chronic anxiety, I find this power struggle manifests in various forms when a “big stress event” happens.
With COVID-19 closing in on its one year anniversary, I was trying to find something I could do safely that would have a positive impact on something I cared about. I thought back to a beach cleanup I did with my friend last summer, grabbed some gloves and a bag, and went to the beach.
I walked the length of the beach and came back with less than half a bag of trash, which surprised me. Still, I felt accomplished. I felt good being seen by other beachgoers cleaning up the beach, I felt good about improving the health of the bay, I felt like I was making a difference. I patted myself on the back and went home, not thinking much more about it.
That is, until I started taking morning walks around my neighborhood. My neighborhood is situated on the Sarasota Bay with storm runoff drains on each corner that drain directly into the bay. The more I walked around and got to know my neighborhood, the more I noticed the trash accumulated on the sidewalks and in the street. So, one morning, off I went again with my gloves and bag. I barely made it two blocks before I had to come back and drop off my bag, it was overflowing. I kept bringing full bags of trash back home to throw away.
There are no neighborhood sidewalk cleanups in my neighborhood, and I have never seen anyone pick up trash here before. The drains in this neighborhood and the bay access point, both littered with trash, touch the same body of water and disturb the same ecosystem as the trash at the beach. No one thinks about that when they think about the health of the beach, they think about the beach.
This got me thinking. The popular and easy way to participate in cleaning up the bay is a beach clean-up. You don’t have to do anything beyond showing up to the event, where you will be joined by other volunteers, and usually get some sort of pay off for your hard work. You get to be seen by your peers, you get to feel good about the impact that you had, and then you go about your life and don’t really have to think about it again. Some people don’t even get to the beach, they simply share about the cleanup on social media and then consider their work done.
But what about all the other neglected areas, like my neighborhood, that drain into the bay? They will continue to pollute the bay.
This act of civil service mirrors our election participation in a lot of ways. We come out on social media, come out and talk about the national election, vote in the national election, talk about issues on the national level, support candidates on the national level.
But do we know and tend to our own backyards? Do we know our neighbors and their struggles? Do we know and talk about local policies? Do we know our local politicians?
I don’t. Certainly not as well as I know the latest thing AOC said, the latest thing Mitch McConnell blocked, or the last idiotic thing Trump said. Local elections matter, certainly on the micro-level because the policy directly affects where you live, but also on the macro-level. The senators in Congress and the state governors today started as local officials. They are what ultimately drains into the “bay” of national policy.
Most of us don’t watch our local debates or show-up for midterms and then we are surprised and disgusted by what is offered up on the national mainstage. We don’t do the challenging work of talking to neighbors and friends that are different from us, we simply delete them off of Facebook and think “that showed them.”
We do all the superficial political things that give us instant gratification and then call it day. We vote once every four years and think it’s going to make a huge impact. You know, like the beach only needs to be cleaned once a year to make a difference.
If we started doing the real work, what would our national stage look like in a few years? If we start cleaning up our neighborhoods, would it improve the health of our nation? If we talk to our neighbors, can we overcome partisanship?
Maybe, maybe not.
But getting involved at the community level, getting to know and love our neighbors and neighborhoods, well, that seems like the right place to start.