Ed Everett is on a wake-up tour. He recently made a stop in Napa, at the invitation of community builders, who listened while Everett explained how to solve problems big and small in an era of shrinking budgets. I will cut to the chase for skimming readers. The answer is community'just as it was before we morphed from neighborly citizens into complaining consumers who want someone "out there" to make things right.
"We have to begin convincing people that strong community is the way you will solve most of your problems," Everett said. Although not the first to preach the gospel of regrouping humans in old-fashioned units of trust and co-labor, Everett brings credibility that has been street-tested and proven successful in the South Bay. A growing number of towns and cities are curious to learn how functional community is the answer to everything from global sustainability to better schools.
"It's not just sustainability that benefits," Everett later told me in a phone interview (he was driving to meet the next group waiting to hear him expound on the topic). "If you really want to get a handle on the educational system, you have to have a pretty strong community. If you want to get a handle on crime, you have to do it as a community."
The former manager of Redwood City, Everett was part of the renaissance of that municipality, which created change on a block-by-block basis, increasing social capital to replace the dysfunctional "vending machine" model of local government. That mechanical model—the money-in, solution-out approach—has not worked, Everett says. The new model, which is actually a very old model, is based on individuals believing themselves to belong and to matter, serving the greater whole as members of families, spiritual communities and local interest groups.
Referencing Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, Everett says that communities with low social capital have more problems. "Putnam rated communities according to 15 criteria for social capital," Everett explained. He showed that as social capital goes up, "crime statistics go down, and there is a corresponding rise in the quality of education, in people's physical and mental health, and in the collective ability to solve problems within the community."
Everett has been spreading his message throughout California and as far east as New Hampshire and Maine. He claims his main job is consciousness-raising. "You have to raise people's consciousness before they will go on a journey with you," he said. "If there was an unlimited amount of money, maybe government could solve some problems, but community members will give longer lasting solutions to problems. Cities, school districts and counties haven't been paying attention to communities. City councils don't think of it that way, either. And unfortunately, the other detriment is that residents have clothed themselves in the garb of consumers." Everett summarizes the consumer model as "I blame someone, and someone has to fix it for me."
Economic hard times have a bright side in terms of community building. A strong community remains something that takes great effort, yet is attainable, regardless of budget cuts. "We've been going down in our social capital skills," Everett said. "We have lost the skill set of community, but it's lodged in our reptilian brain. Go back four generations, and you came from very strong communities. Your great-, great-, great-grandparents knew what it meant to be in communities. Cities and citizens have to change the way they behave. If we can figure out how to do this without poking each other in the eye, there is unlimited power with which to solve problems."
City managers in Napa and Yountville plan to follow up Everett's presentation with a training. According to Everett, everyone stands to win by raising social capital—during and after everyone figures out how to do it. "Anyone who lives and works in an area has the responsibility and accountability for that area and for the quality of life there," Everett stressed.
"Most people can figure it out once they think of it. We've all got it in us. We just have to wake it up."