The huge sticky post-it notes, the magic markers and the deafening silence when you ask the assembled folks “who wants throw out the first idea?”, are occupational hazards for a community organizer. After all, one of Saul Alinsky’s famous Rules For Radicals is “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” If you demand to be at the table, you’ve got to bring your ideas with you.
SUN is currently right in the middle of one of these processes right now. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has created ten Regional Economic Development Councils around the state. Each Council is charged with developing a 5-year plan that will guide the state in its efforts to develop new businesses and jobs for our areas. The Councils are also charged with identifying industries/projects for funding and the four Councils with the “best” plans will each receive $40 million. The 20 movers and shakers named to the Council hold private meetings to discuss where the money will actually go; the public gets to sit around and decide the rhetorical wrapping paper that will go with the gift of the monetary awards. (More on our challenge to that problem at a later date.)
In the meantime, we have to slog through the tedium of these “visioning” exercises with civilians, not the kind of folks that we organize, but the kind of good government, PTA and Junior League fussbudgets you often find in the suburban middle and upper classes. SUN’s priorities for development include things like ensuring that towns and city’s can fund the kind of infrastructure necessary to attract businesses to our area–schools, streets, housing stock, roads. The civilians talk about wonderful commute times. SUN would also like to see the unions, businesses and educational institutions work together to provide the kind of serious and in-depth job training that will be required for residents in low-income neighborhoods to be able to land some of the spiffy new jobs that will be locating here. The civilians talk about sustainability and the availability of locally-sourced arugula.
The first public participation forum was held last night. Amidst the flow charts and introductory remarks from our social betters, (S.U.’s Nancy Cantor and Centerstate CEO chair Robert Simpson) we had to endure endless numbers of suburban or University-area Babbits prattling on about how great our community is and that all we really need is to toot our own horn a little more. That got the middle-level management types to spout off about improving our “brand recognition,” as if we were a tube of toothpaste. It was actually refreshing to hear from some rural, government-is-the-problem, not-the-solution types, although I’m not quite sure they understood that the pot at the end of this particular rainbow is $40 million of state money.
I’m always reminded of the following Roz Chast cartoon from the New Yorker whenever I hear Chuckie Holstein from the Focus Greater Syracuse organization speak. Ms. Holstein is a very impressive person, a senior citizen with loads of energy and lots of enthusiasm for our town–the prototypical booster. But wouldn’t our community’s story be a lot more powerful, and a lot more believable, if we admitted to serious problems and then laid out our strategies for change? Far too many of our city’s neighborhoods deal with grinding poverty, rotten schools, few employment opportunities, deteriorating housing and rampant segregation. Our struggle is not to merely understand the gifts with which our region has been blessed, but to find a way to allow everyone to share in their bounty.