Removing barriers

The bushes are laid out on the side of the slope, riding it like the wind ruffled sheet hung up to dry on the clothes line in the backyard. Other small trees follow the curves working their way up the hill from a curving base of small boulders.

The landscape has an artistic feel to it, relaxing as you bend around the on ramp at the interchange at Broad Street and Interstate 95 in the city. VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University or Richmond City or maybe a cooperation) has done a great job sprucing up the interchange and I think it helps welcome people into the city. You drive through an area full of warehouses and billboards and when you arrive at downtown; voila, as you look up toward the city, it is right there.

For the 1,000 feet of landscaping it adds millions of dollars of value to the city when it inspires a good feeling about the city, and a big businessman doesn’t even realize what he’s experienced. The extra little boost moves him to locate his business in Richmond.

Linda and I were on our way home from our daughter’s baby shower when we saw the Richmond landscaping and it prompted a conversation about how to spruce up every vacant space on various streets corners in our neck of our woods.

With tight budgets and even tighter… it will require us to make our own county look great whereever there is a rough looking corner, a nasty section of roadway or trash thrown everywhere. Crazy isn’t it? Well, maybe not if we pay attention, work together and don’t let anything get in our way.

Crazy, isn’t it?

But we have to care, we have to be willing to take a little time of our own to get it done and we will become a model of caring and respect for community.

Crazy, isn’t it?

Dave Meslin, co-editor of “Local Motion,” a book about civic projects said, “How often do we hear that people just don’t care? How many times have you been told that real, substantial change isn’t possible because most people are too selfish, too stupid or too lazy to try to make a difference in their community? I propose to you today that apathy, as we think we know it doesn’t actually exist, but rather, that people do care, but that we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way.”

Meslin likes to make end runs around local government.  As an example he points to how zoning applications and ordinances are worded and advertised. Chesterfield’s notices of rezonings are printed in tiny print and in planning-ese, as are public advertisements for public meetings and ordinances.

“Imagine if the private sector advertised in the same way – if Nike wanted to sell a pair of shoes and put an ad in the paper like that. Now that would never happen,” Meslin said. “You’ll never see an ad like that because Nike actually wants you to buy their shoes. Whereas [local government] clearly doesn’t want you involved with the planning process, otherwise their ads would … have all the information basically laid out clearly. More like a Nike ad than an obituary.

If the county puts out ads only because it has to by law, they are not going to engage you and try to bring you into the process. “But that’s not apathy; that’s intentional exclusion,” Meslin says.

According to articles in “Local Motion,” it’s not about trying to be negative by throwing all these obstacles out and explaining what’s in our way. Quite the opposite:  people are amazing and smart and they do care. But in this environment where obstacles are always being put in the citizen’s way, as long as we believe that people, our own neighbors, are selfish, stupid or lazy, then there’s no hope. But we can change all those things. We can open up [the administration building.] We can democratize our public spaces.

If we can identify the obstacles that stand between us and what we want our community to be, then we can take them into our own hands.

During the Civil Rights movement many people knew what needed to be done, just like on less important scale, we know what needs to be done in our community to push our quality of life forward. But the issue is why we want to improve our quality of life. We must decide why and then work our way through how because we already know what.

Simon Sinek, wrote in his book “Start with Why,” that “No matter what we do in our lives, our WHY – our driving purpose, cause or belief – never changes.” But we have to decide why we want what we want and then we can move on to how.

If we can change the meaning of apathy, not just something inside of us, but as a web of cultural barriers that confirms disengagement, (There is always someone in local government that says you can’t do that,) we can clearly see what those obstacles are, and then if we work together with the help of each other we can overcome those obstacles, and then anything is possible.

It’s downright crazy isn’t it?    


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