An earlier post in this series was the Preface to a book I am writing about my experiences on the City Council in Davis, CA. A preface deals with the genesis and purpose of the book. An introduction deals more with the point of view of the author hopes the reader will adopt. What follows is the introduction to my book, and it provides a focus–the importance of commitment to the “local” that I hope readers will adopt when they read it. To get there, I needed to offer a “confession.”
Long before I ever read Patrick Deneen, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, or Rob Thayer, with their focus on living with “limits” and committing to living locally, burrowing deep and investing in one’s home place… Long before any of that, I had doubts about the work I was doing dispensing health “best practices” in extremely poor (economically at least) communities around the world.
I was a globetrotting cosmopolite. My advanced degrees opened doors for me to travel widely and advise on various community-based health projects. I was a child health specialist with tools to help reduce child mortality in resource-poor environments. I applied my learning faithfully and (however imperfectly) always in partnership with local communities and local organizations.
And yet, the longer I worked, the more I realized that I did not understand the power dynamics of the communities in which I worked. Sure, I had interviewed enough women to know that they systematically faced exclusion and suffered the harm of decision over which they had no control. I had learned from them that they sometimes faced abuse, and more often, were simply neglected as they bore the burden of endless pregnancies, absent spouses, and sick children.
And I had also interviewed former slaves (yes, they still exist as do actual slaves), and knew of the structures, social and political, that kept them bound. I had a cursory understanding of tribal structures in one nation and realized that tribes and the patron and client “ladders” in them restricted people’s choices and kept many destitute and in dire need.
And yet, knowing all of that, I never directly worked to “take on” those structures, to challenge them, or advocate for change. Why? When I finally got down to being honest with myself, I knew that to challenge them in any direct (or even indirect) way would likely mean I would not be invited to return and work in the communities to which I brought aid.
And for a long time, I lived with that realization but told myself that the good I brought was better than nothing and that if I could not be there (not “me” but the programs I brought), things would undoubtedly be worse.
But I also knew I could leave if things ever got “bad” due to violence or natural disaster. These places were never going to be my home. I was only ever merely passing through—a stranger dispensing knowledge and cures, if not healing and real change.
Over time the contradictions of wanting to bring change but being too cowardly to work towards it became too much. For a while, I channeled my growing dis-ease into challenging my international health and development colleagues to consider the role of public policy and human rights advocacy. I taught on it and found plenty of examples of how people used it to fundamentally challenge the “structures”—be they local or global. I taught some classes on this and did some writing. It was a way I assuaged my guilt.
In all that time, I never gave much thought to what all this might mean in my own country, my state, my local community. My entire identity was being a “world citizen.” I was proud of that and saw no reason to change.
But then it all changed kind of quickly.
Maybe it was the post 9/11 environment in which travel and getting to all those places became harder—exhausting and, frankly, scary. I had visas in my passport from countries with “Islamic Republic” in their name (there are not many of them, and I think I had them all). I used to show up at the airport in some far-flung place and be told (typically by private security firms hired by the airlines), things like “Mr. Davis, I don’t think there is any way we are going to allow you onto the plane tonight…”. I would then turn on my computer, show them my training materials, answer dozens of questions, and talk my way onto the plane. It got so bad (and things in the world felt so uncertain), that I wrote a poem at one point entitled: “Will I get home before the end of the world?”
Or maybe it was because I started paying attention to my hometown of Davis, CA. I rarely “lived” there after I moved there in 1999, but it was home, and, gradually, I began to be aware of its pathologies. Mind you that is not easy in a place like Davis (as we shall see). By any estimation, it is a wealthy, highly educated, and privileged community. Its problems are not evident at first glance; hidden behind the carefully trimmed lawns, the outstanding world-class university, the high-performing schools, the endless green belts and parks.
Maybe it was because I came across Deneen and, through him, Berry and their disdain for people like me who acted like they lived without limits and had no concern for their “nearby.” Why I chose to listen to them, I don’t know.
Maybe the realization of years before finally took hold.
Maybe it’s when I went to see “Hotel Rwanda” and could not stop crying during the scene when all the Europeans left during the genocide and all the Rwandans had to stay. Maybe the guilt finally found its home.
Guilt is not bad—if it gets channeled into something else, something good.
But I think what lit the fuse and blew up my international career was the night at City Council in Davis, CA (I was not there) when scores of people showed up to protest a City Council action on “the homeless.”
Months before the various congregations in Davis had gotten together to develop the “Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter” (IRWS) to provide shelter during the cold and rainy months in our region. They intended it to rotate from congregation to congregation every week, but neighbors of a downtown church complained almost immediately.
This led to a City Council action to limit the number of “guests” that a given location could host (I seem to recall the limit was 25). The decision passed with little notice until, a few weeks later, temperatures dropped into the 20s (very cold for Davis), and more than 25 showed up for shelter. The law-abiding citizens running the shelter that week dutifully turned the excess away.
And then, large numbers of community members found out what had happened. At the next Council meeting, scores of citizens showed up expressing a firm conviction that “this is not who we are.” They were joined at the mic by a former justice on the California Supreme Court who had just moved to Davis and publicly wondered whether he had made a mistake.
The Council quickly changed the ordinance.
The whole event solidified a few things in my mind. First, I realized that there were critical public health and social needs in our community, and clear forces arrayed against the community playing an active role in meeting those needs.
The former was not news to me—but having been involved in work with homeless individuals showed me how difficult the challenges were. The latter surprised me because I thought there was a consensus in our oh-so-liberal college town that homeless individuals’ needs should be a community priority. I was wrong (and later experiences on the City Council confirmed this).
Second, I started paying attention to the City Council and policymaking in ways I never had before. I saw the critical role it played policy making that affected people’s lives—and how community members, if they had the will, could influence it.
Third, I also started paying attention to things like poverty, exclusion, addiction, racism, and other public health challenges close to home. While they were qualitatively different from the public health challenges in Africa, the poverty and lack of comprehensive health services—including mental health and substance use disorder treatment—excluded significant numbers of citizens from the ability to thrive in our wealthy city.
Finally, I realized that I could apply the tools I had developed throughout my public health career to help solve challenges in my hometown. What’s more, because I was living inside my own “culture,” I could better grasp and learn, in a meaningful way, about the power dynamics that created and maintained unjust structures.
I felt that I could work not only toward “cures” for my community but also for its health.
And so, sometime after that winter, I decided to walk away from my international public health career and figure out how to work towards public health improvements in my “nearby.”
It was a decision that changed many things for me, not all of them happily and positively.
In reality, this decision was not JUST about recognizing local needs and trying to figure out a way to address them more holistically. I was also struggling with my own “acquisitiveness” and my overconsumption of natural resources, and how they were related to what Deneen and Berry called living without “limits.”
Making this switch away from my proudly globalist identity to a confirmed “localist” was painful, and I often regretted it. But as the years unfolded, I increasingly understood that it was the right choice.
The more I dug into my community, the more I was invited to “pick up a shovel.” After a while, I was the one sitting around the table discussing local policy, local power structures, and local means to address the many health and social problems of my hometown.
This is my confession.
Since then, Berry has continued to write about place, what it means to be anchored in it, and what it means to create a truly sustainable world. Deneen has gone on to summarize his entire critique of life without limits by calling into question the whole liberal economic order that enables it. Both they, and others like my Davis friend Rob Thayer, have caused me to think more about what sustainability means. With my globetrotting days over, I was forced to consider it concerning what Thayer refers to as my “bio-region,” my “life place.”
In what follows, I share a part of the path I trod after I made these decisions. Specifically, what they ended up meaning for me as a policymaker. What is, perhaps, ironic, is how even as I tried to focus on the “local” the “nearby,” the national and the global consistently played a role in the debates.
Even our nearby is infused with the global. As localists, we act within that reality.
I will share some of what I learned about sustainability—especially what I think of as social sustainability. I will talk about what I learned of a statewide challenge and how it played out in our California town: housing. I will reflect on how international politics can and do play out locally—be they in the form of hate crimes, immigration, the militarization of the police, or statues of Gandhi. And, in the end, I will try to explain what it all taught me about the power of the local, the importance of the giftedness in our “body politic,” and what it means to be a “localist local” leader in an irreversibly global world.