Country in crisis: Looking to America's mayors to rise to the challenge
That's why I believe the solutions the country is so desperately looking for are going to come at the local level - from our mayors and engaged citizens working with their communities. It's our cities, not the nation's capital, that are the real idea factory of our country. It's the mayor's mansion, not the White House, from which bold decision-making is likely to originate. It's from any house on your street, not the House of Representatives, where projects that will make your community a better place to live in are more likely to surface.
It's at the local level where we are still able to fulfill President Obama's exhortation last year "to sharpen our instincts for empathy" and "constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations." It's increasingly clear that for that circle to be widened nationally, it will have to be widened locally first.
And all across the country, there are mayors working hard to do just that. They are at ground zero of where the struggle is. And as more and more people lose trust in national institutions, they're turning more and more to what is local, to what they can see and touch and feel. This gives our mayors a great opportunity, but also a great challenge.
Many are meeting this challenge head on, like Newark's Cory Booker, recently named one of Rolling Stone's "12 Leaders Who Get Things Done." During the big blizzard of 2010, he put his network of over a million Twitter followers to good use, personally responding to pleas about unshoveled driveways and streets - and even showing up with diapers for a tweeter who said she had none. He also used social media to stay in constant communication with his city during Hurricane Irene, and uses Facebook and YouTube to organize night patrols that he often joins. And recently, he used Facebook and Twitter to challenge his city to get in better shape, asking residents to participate and tell about their fitness resolutions for the new year.
In Portland, Ore., while our national leaders are paralyzed on climate change, Mayor Sam Adams declared in his first State of the City address that he would make Portland "the most sustainable city in the world." To that end, he's put forward a Climate Action Plan that by 2050 would cut carbon emissions by 80 percent, launched a pilot program for green retrofitting and budgeted $20 million for "bicycle boulevards." He also took a $2.4 million federal grant and used it as venture capital for a Clean Energy Works program. "We could have doled it out to individual facilities and buildings, which would have been more direct and politically expedient," he said. "But instead, we wanted to create a return on investments in a new industry."
In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earned himself a spot on Rolling Stone's list by getting almost 70 percent of Angelenos who voted in 2008 to vote in favor of Measure-R, which would use a half-cent sales tax to fund $35 billion in transportation projects, including rail and subway. Yes, in a place known as the ultimate car city, instead of pandering Villaraigosa is thinking outside the 2-ton rolling box - and citizens are responding.
Another bright spot on the local horizon is the fact that for mayors eager to come up with solutions, there are an increasing number of innovative organizations to help. One is Code for America, which, following the Teach for America model, embeds young tech professionals within city governments that have plenty of data but not enough resources to organize it in a way that's useful to citizens.
So far, Code for America projects include "Adopt a Hydrant," which allows people to volunteer to keep a fire hydrant free of trash and snow, and "ClassTalk," which lets teachers communicate instantly via text and email with their students.
If real change is going to happen, the solutions are going to come from our communities and our cities. And it's our mayors who are best positioned to galvanize, champion, and take those ideas to market. If we're to get out of the multiple messes we're in, it's our local communities that will lead us.
(Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)