Santa Cruz Wisdom Council Process

by MARK PRIMACK

I promised to report on last week's homeless workshop.

First, a superficial list of participants. Protesting activists who "want to eat the rich until there are no more rich people." Pragmatic institutionalists who fight ungratefully to "work within the system". And peaceful warriors who never doubt "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." At first it looked like a bridge to nowhere, but over the course of this long, relieved weekend, something remarkable happened.

There were many moderators, none of them were superficial, smooth, manipulative or distant. They were community volunteers who had taken the trouble to learn how to have a constructive conversation and who, by their example, led the rest of us on this path. In addition, they organized on paper whatever we offered in the form of concerns, insinuations, questions or solutions. The mediators worked hard to be helpful, and we found ourselves doing the same. The results might have been different if you had been there instead of me, but not much.

You can win a debate, but you can't win a conversation. There is no point in asserting ourselves, and that was the point. Manifestos and plans were presented, statistics were cited, past failures were justified. We did not stop believing in ourselves. We gave ourselves permission to look for ideas. Since there was nothing to gain or lose, learning from the experiences of others proved far more rewarding than listening to our own repetitions. We were able to agree on solutions that were not yet perfect, but more than hypothetical.

We all agreed that a warm place in winter is better than freezing, regardless of who or where you are. This obvious and immediate truth kept us in the conversation and made it easy to learn or remember how far a little kindness – a safe place to store belongings, a shower or clean clothes – can go. We agreed with each other that homelessness, such as poverty, addiction, greed, fear and climate change, will not evaporate, no matter what we do or do not do. Huge truths cannot be answered easily, and so we have recognized our limits and decided not to devour the rich or abolish private property. And we will not drive the homeless out of the city once and for all, never and never. But we will continue to work together in this time and place to provide shelter for needy and worthy people from a growing storm. In short, we have agreed to think locally.

Is there a progressive thinker in this city who has not just once uttered the phrase "globally, act locally"? This bit of boasting has done much more harm than good. It has served as a camouflage for the gentrification that drives our own children into homelessness. The intergenerational resentment against "OK, Boomer" is just one indicator of the hole we have dug by imposing global "solutions" on local conditions. But I've seen how things have changed in this workshop.

That was the remarkable thing about this eight-hour conversation. Everyone had brought their own global perspective, a solution, a smoking pistol or a silver bullet, but in the end we talked about our own experiences and efforts here in Santa Cruz. No one in this room was two-dimensional. Everyone was more than just a protest activist, service provider or good Samaritan. There were many similarities, experiences, concerns and insights that were abundant. And homelessness is not two-dimensional either. The people here come from all sides and go in all directions. Some come out of the blue, others were born here, but are now even strangers to their own relatives, even themselves.

On this occasion, people have shown that they are willing and able to speak openly and constructively with those with whom they cannot easily identify. If you have ever attended a city council meeting, you will know the enormous importance of that. Better yet, they focused on the unique circumstances, challenges, resources, and spirit of this community, leaving the global grandstand lame ducks and broken records.

We only lead by example if we think locally. That is what we did when the land use was changed in Santa Cruz. We must do the same for the homeless and homeless among us.

Mark Primack is a former city councillor and author of "Divisible Cities": Acting Local in a Transient World. You can reach him under mark@markprimack.com.

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