Warding off Polarization with Community Engagement

by Vision Long Island Director Eric Alexander

Each day in our news cycle we are fed a menu of conflict and polarization.  One poll showed that 75% believe our nation is headed into a civil war with no end in sight.   Trust of all things big, government, business, media, is at an all-time low.  As we brace for the 2020 presidential elections these divides are poised to continue.

While that sounds bleak we don’t have to be part of it.  We have a choice to communicate and collaborate with our neighbors.  On Long Island, despite the hand wringing and negativity that is publicized about our region incessantly, we actually know how to work together on the local level.

Main Streets are managed by local mayors, town officials, chamber and civic leaders where folks come together regularly on a range of plans and decisions.  Public interest groups lobby together in Albany and Washington to get our fair share of resources.   Most importantly, Long Islanders of all cultures and backgrounds celebrate together at events in our downtowns that have tripled over the last decade.

This work of collaboration was the theme for the 1200 community, business and government leaders at this year’s LI Smart Growth Summit.  Downtown, transit oriented, and affordable housing plans and projects have been approved in Westbury, Baldwin, Smithtown, N. Bellport, Amityville, Riverhead, Island Park, Port Jefferson Station and Bay Shore, among other places.  Infrastructure projects for water and sewers are being built along with billions in transit investments.  An unprecedented $50 million for pedestrian improvements, legislation and funding to better protect water quality, affordable housing and downtown investment were also passed in Albany.

These accomplishments were all achieved by folks working together in a bipartisan fashion from the local level on up.

There is also an alternate universe of elitism, extremism and social media.  Like an episode of Stranger Things, this upside down world exists where we sometimes forget our abilities to communicate, listen, reason, and collaborate on decisions facing our community.   We go from being neighbors to “them”, stakeholders to “special interests” and most sadly from human beings to “fill in the expletive”.   Most of this bad behavior is online where we may not communicate in an emotionally healthy manner and see each other’s value.

This upside down world is a threat to the things that real people want.

Some of them are basic quality of life needs involving local governance like public safety, security and good schools.  Despite a good economy, folks are struggling with the cost of everything, including housing, and the need for higher paying jobs.  Residents want to see their downtowns redeveloped, safe, clean water and funding for sewers. Investments in transportation infrastructure like rail, bus service, and walkable streets are desired.  No one wants to tolerate discrimination in housing or really anything.  Lastly, folks want and have a voice in our local town and village governments who largely keeps these issues well managed.

We can choose to lower the volume from the elitists, extremists and strange behavior on social media and lock arms to collaborate and improve our communities.

For our region, the results of the LI Smart Growth Summit and the work of the LI Lobby Coalition and LI Main Street Alliance help to develop a policy agenda in Albany and Washington.

For our local downtowns, the neighbors themselves make those decisions.  If you live and work in a community, join a civic or a chamber and get engaged in its growth and preservation.

On a personal level here are a few things we can do to build up trust with each other:

  1. Care about people and local communities and have your heart in what you do.  Work also on lessening narcissism, greed, power, materialism essentially all the values that make people insufferable and miserable to be around. 
  1. Get your priorities in order. First the mission, then your business/organization/government and lastly yourself.  Too often we have these radically reversed.
  1. Build trust through meaningful work that helps people.  Limit exposure to social media and communicate directly with real people in real places.
  1. Keep a positive attitude.   There is a lot of bad news in a polarized society that combined with endless sets of needs real folks have can make you ineffective. Hug your kid, spouse/partner, mom, dad and friends along the way.
  1. Put yourself in other people’s shoes and stay humble.   We are blessed to serve and support each other.