Last week the Santa Cruz City Council officially accepted the recommendations of the Citizen’s Public Safety Task Force. Appointed in May, the Task Force had spent the past 6 months hearing from experts and members of the community alike, about the many complex and interwoven issues regarding public safety, including homelessness, substance abuse and addiction, mental health, at-risk youth, the judicial system and violent crime, among others. In an astounding showcase of support, community groups and individuals packed the chambers to the brim, and each individual member of the council surely received more emails than could fit in a single post office box. This wasn’t just an ordinary topic, no. Judging from the community reaction, it was obvious – this was something special. This really mattered.
I, too, was blown away, both on a personal level and as a professional community organizer. Not only was the interest in the chambers tangible, but the Civinomics workshop I had created, no more than 36 hours before, had received over 1,400 views and accumulated over 750 votes.
Yet as excited as I was by the outpouring of interest in this local policy discussion, I feel a little uneasy about the future. My worry, which transcends any particular issue, is that people are quick to galvanize over something they deem important at the time, but are completely indifferent to other, less glamorous issues, at least until they become a problem. Said another way, I am skeptical that the civic momentum generated from everyday people getting involved in local issues can be sustained beyond the hot issue du jour.
Clearly the public safety debate didn’t just spring up out of nowhere, it was years in the making. Many of the problems that are seen as primary considerations in the debate have been on the minds of local policy makers for decades. From surging gang violence, to increased use of heroin and methamphetamine, these problems have been around for years. The tragic loss of our two police officers thrust these issues into the spotlight, but before then many in the community simply hadn’t bothered to pay attention.
Parallels can be seen with other local policy, take water. For nearly 20 years, both the Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water districts had evaluated the need for a secondary water supply, and both agencies elected to go with desalination, independently of each other, before joining together. Yet in the years leading up to the Measure P vote, you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of individuals who had been a part of this process from the beginning. But the second someone waves a potential plant on the west-side around, people immediately come out in droves.
So here is my question. Why weren’t these people more involved from the get go? Why do we as a society refuse to be proactive and address oncoming problems before something terrible happens?
From a cost/benefit perspective, it’s obvious that taking preventative measures to most problems is the more optimal approach. Look at healthcare and medicine. Hell, look at our infrastructure, a known series of potential problems just waiting to happen. Yet we continue to choose willful indifference and the convenience of not participating.
So now that a lot of you are engaged, and some for the first time, let me pose you this simple challenge: Keep going.
Keep learning about the issues. Keep showing up to public meetings. Keep voting. Keep discussing these and other problems with your neighbors, co-workers, friends and family even. But go even further than that…
Keep sharing these issues with people you don’t know. Keep talking about these issues at PTA meetings, during church, or at the bar even. Keep raising the collective awareness about what we all know is important.
Momentum is like a snowball rolling down a hill, the more it rolls that faster it goes and the bigger it gets. But if it hits even just one big bump, it has to start rolling all over again.
So come on Santa Cruz, let’s keep the ball rolling. It only gets easier from here.