Home > Cultural Movement, Editorial, Public Anecdotes > Community Engagement and the Leadership that Encourages It

Community Engagement and the Leadership that Encourages It

Thank you

Going to the polls

— A version of this commentary was originally published in the October issue of the Traverse City Business News. I write a guest commentary every other month for them…have any ideas? Please, let me know.

Tomorrow, we have an opportunity to take part in the most basic expression of citizenship. We will do so in predictable rates of 50 to 60 percent of the eligible electorate, carrying into the polling station varying degrees of uncertainty and indecision in our guts.

The presidential race curiously offers the clearest choice, as there is also a senatorial race, seats for the U.S. House, State House and local offices, and slurry of statewide and local ballot initiatives that await us (Get your sample ballot). When we enter the polls, yard signs and other messages will wash together in our minds forming cognitive associations that their creators never intended. “Was that “Yes on proposal 3”? “Was that ‘Coffia’ or ‘Koffia’?” “What candidate likes beer again?

Personally, I look forward to the day after the election.

It is far more interesting and effective working on what we do afterwards as citizens; people with rights and duties as members of a community. Organizing around a vote is certainly one way to impact change, but nothing equals throwing the full force of your knowledge, energy, and person behind a collective effort focused on improving the community.

Northern Michigan has a wealth of smart, talented, and empathetic people already being the change that they wish to see. Last month’s 40under40 (Ticker) highlighted some of the boldest. Local leaders, whether they are elected, appointed, on staff, or self-professed, would do well by reaching out to the people like them and ask, “how can we serve you in shaping the direction of our community?”

To rephrase a quote by Margaret Mead, the solution to community problems today and tomorrow depends on how well we empower young citizens today. Leadership needs incubating; leadership needs leaders.

Roadblocks to participation

Too often, citizens are discouraged from participating fully in community. There are the common time conflicts and other practical obstacles to participation–some which may even be intentional placed in their way. Either-way  often the work required to have any meaningful impact is perceived too great. These concerns are overcome when there is a real sense that what we have to contribute is valued (For a list of excuses, re-visit “I would, but…” from 2011).

To counter the cynicism that is already eroding social institutions, it is imperative that those in leadership roles reaffirm, through their actions, that they are indeed listening. That they are present to breakdown bureaucratic barriers. And, importantly  will embrace disagreement as an opportunity to build trust and a shared vision rather than see it as an obstacle to pre-established positions.

A diverse group of citizens, aided and affirmed by leadership, joining forces with each other to explore opportunities for the good of the community is fundamental to civic life. Simply put, people support that which they help create.


The late Nobel Prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, researched issues of economic governance applied to the management of common resources. In her work, fundamental to the creation of a new street project, a new dog park, or any other major community decision is one thing: Trust.

As she cautions:

Trust is the most important resource. If a community has been forbidden from managing it’s resources for a long time, the main obstacle to overcome is the lack of trust and the effort to get organized in the first place. It’s not a trivial matter.”

Politics is people; that’s all. If you don’t like people, you probably won’t like politics. I cringe when I hear the dismissive remark, “oh, that’s just politics” as if due to the nature of civic engagement we enter a world of strife, discord, and low expectations. In and of itself, politics is simply a means for a community to manage its resources and to make decisions about a future.

People want to make creative contributions and they want to feel great when they do so. This is achieved not only when people succeed, but also when they are asked to work in a process that is whole, nourishing and focused. Underscored by trust and a shared vision, community politics can achieve the extraordinary and the impossible.

Go vote. Then get back to work.


Previous articles in the TCBNews series:  The economic and civic opportunity of street vending (August)Walk: You’re designed to (June)Fostering connections in your community…by design (May).



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