"From the roots up": Notes on the 12th Annual Florida Neighborhoods Conference

"...we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions." Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

The 12th Annual Florida Neighborhoods Conference brought some of Florida's most dynamic people together in Tallahassee this past week for three days of conversation, networking, exploration and celebration. Imagine the energy when you combine hundreds of grassroots activists, many of whom have been the catalysts for major change in their communities. They talked, schmoozed, toured, learned, argued, danced and partay-ed.

Sen. Bob Graham kicked things off with a hilarious account of how his career began somewhat inauspiciously when he got kicked out of his third pre-school. Along the way he said:

"We are past the point of top-down government. . .. We're now in an era where our solutions and our energy come from the roots up."

In a way, that was the watchword of the entire event, where Grassroots organizers shared their experiences, and gathered insights from some of the people who have made it their life's work to fight to reclaim the dignity of a more open and just society.

There were workshops about process: Legislative process, advocacy, even one about building healthy relationships with government officials. There were nuts-and-bolts sessions on code enforcement, event planning, affordable housing, senior safety, revitalization, environmental custodianship, disaster preparation and more. There were awards, music, and superb food, thanks to the hard work of Tallahassee Neighborhood Community Services Director Tom Lewis (right) and his staff. Lewis seemed to be everywhere at once, always calm, always making things go right, and always giving - of his time, his care, and gifts from a seemingly bottomless treasure chest of door prizes.

Speaking of giving, one of the themes that resonated through the event was something articulated by southwest Florida activist Michael Raposa in his talk on Asset Based Community Development: "A gift is not a gift until it's given." Everyone in a neighborhood has something to offer - and you really don't know what you're capable of, or what your neighborhood is capable of, until each person starts using his or her gifts.

This was also the theme of Michael Chatman's stirring keynote address: much of what we do depends on choice, not on chance, except often we forget, or unlearn, our potential, glued by fear or pain to our immediate circumstances. He spoke movingly of how his life nearly got derailed by a brutal father and an impoverished upbringing - until, with the help of others, he recovered his own potential.

Debbie Marks of Sarasota's Neighborhood Services invited residents from Sarasota, including John Krotec and this writer to talk about some of our neighborhood groups' organizing experiences. Marks' team works within the county's planning department as a liaison between the government and communities who are facing the challenges of improving themselves without the extra oomph provided by strong dues-collecting associations that exercise deed-restrictions.

The key is to get people to be involved - because, as Raposa said, if people don't build the playground themselves - if they wait for the government to do it - not only will they have a long wait, but when it's built, it won't last if people don't feel like it's part of them. When your own blood sweat and tears are in that playground, you're going to fight for it like it's your family.

That message resonated in many forms over the three days through keynotes, side conversations, workshop discussions that turned the Tallahassee Conference Center into a hive of activity.

There's no way to do more than give a few highlights:

  • Tallahassee Mayor John R. Marks III shared a video about the transformation of Frenchtown in his city, calling neighborhoods as "the lifeblood of the community."

  • Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, packed a semester's worth of insight into her presentation on "smart growth" -- brilliantly explaining community land trusts and pointing to new directions in land use that bring together high-quality development with affordable living.

  • John Krotec (with Debbie Marks, left, and Teresa Mast) of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance in Sarasota told a rapt audience how he knocked on 1,200 doors when a big box developer threatened to overwhelm his community, and how he learned (1) how nearly everyone believed they were helpless in the face of government and big business, and (2) how today, having defeated that developer, 30 invigorated communities have come together with a lively sense of what ordinary people can do when they begin to talk and to care.

  • Care was also the theme of Michael Raposa's speech as he accepted an honor for his years of community work. Raposa's message was loud and clear: the future of your community lies with you -- "don't let anyone tell you it's not worth fighting for."

There was so much more -- as they say, you had to be there. But that's even more true in part because something is not happening - not yet, anyway - inside Florida's community organizing network, as far as I can tell. I spoke about this briefly at the conference, and would be remiss to not mention it in closing. You "had to be there" at the Tallahassee Conference in part because the resonant messages and human guidance of neighborhood grassroots activism - at least in Florida - have not yet tapped into the powerful tools coming online through social media networking.

Across the globe a revolution is taking place in media that parallels the call to rise up that was heard so eloquently in Tallahassee. "Turning things around" has a potent corollary here: it means taking back your own voice. It is no longer necessary to wait for your conference, your issue, your neighborhood -- to gain the attention of the nightly news before you feel justified in thinking it's important. Mainstream media finds itself in a new environment in which people are speaking up for themselves. Communities are building identity, vision and purpose through blogs, websites, online groups, and a host of new and developing social media. The key is to connect, and that means not just to write about your community, but to link to others.

There's a fine book entitled Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger that captures the essence of what social media can mean for community organizing. It lies in the power of linking, which in turn rests on a key difference between physical objects and digital realities. The real world," says Weinberger, "is about distances keeping people apart. The Web is about shared interests bringing people together."

When you create a social space on the Web, you can link to others, driving the power of your attention to flow to them. The gift of that link ignites a spark, so individuals and communities begin to connect - to reach out, to notice each other and to be noticed, to link to each other and be linked to.

This turning toward others drives new links -- consider, on the level of individuals, the explosive power of Facebook, or mySpace, which claims 110 million active users a month. People are discovering common causes; their communities of interest are self-organizing online and passionately sharing best practices. And unlike the real world -- where today's mainstream media reports are tomorrow's hamster fodder -- these new media voices, dialogues and activities continue to persist in the ever-present, open and transparent digital record.

I don't mean to suggest that social media will singlehandedly perform technological miracles. It's up to people to take control of these tools - many of which, like Blogger, Google sites, Groupsites, Newsgroups, Outside In, Placeblogger and more are simple to use -- no need to be a geek -- and free. With these tools and others (have a look at the Deliberative Democracy Consortium), neighborhoods can progress toward becoming full fledged communities by connecting creatively with each other and to an abundance of resources

The real world isn't prone to move itself to purposive, vibrant action. But if we begin to speak in our own voices, connecting our neighborhoods to the extraordinary voices and resources of other neighborhoods, community coalitions, schools, group sites, community aggregations, blogs and forums out there, we might find that turning the world upside down, in the words of Senator Graham -- reclaiming the voices of where we live, working together from the grassroots through neighborhoods to the communities and institutions that are the fabric of society -- just got a whole lot more powerful.
- Tom Matrullo

More images from the Conference can be found here.


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