Across the United States, voting for federal, state, and local officials and for ballot questions takes place in neighborhoods. The judges of election and poll watchers are our neighbors. It is important, vital, even, to know and recognize each other during the process of renewing our democracy.
Case in point: I got a call on Election Day to confirm that I had voted by mail. There was some initial confusion, human error, that made it seem that I had come into my voting place, Old Swedes’ Church, to vote in person. But a poll watcher — one of my neighbors — said she had not seen me come in. So, after a quick call from the judge of elections, the matter was settled. My mail-in ballot was counted.
With the exception of truly crazed conspiracy advocates, most people, no matter what their party affiliation, have a hard time believing that civic-minded neighborhood volunteers, many of whom have been overseeing elections for years, are crusaders for the “deep state,” ready to steal elections on behalf of alleged pedophiles and cheaters.
One of my biggest pre-November 8 worries was that fear of threatened violence would keep away the dedicated poll workers who protect our democracy. But enough brave citizens showed up to work every precinct. Courage is not just on the battlefield. Many, many thanks to these civic-minded neighbors. We are all grateful for a peaceful midterm election.
Neighborliness as a political philosophy
Last week Philadelphia Citizen Co-Founder Larry Platt wrote about Josh Shapiro’s landslide win for Governor of Pennsylvania as a triumph of communitarian values.
In Saturday’s speech, Shapiro in effect rejected the binary conventional wisdom that a Democratic candidate could either talk about how inflation and crime affects the individual voter or the more abstract notion of the threat to democracy. He tied them together as Obama would — by appealing to communitarian values. What, after all, is a more common value than being free to walk down a street without getting shot? For too long, Democrats have focused on a laundry list of policies without attaching them to any higher theme. Shapiro not only did that — he also made those attending and listening feel like they were all on the same team, one characterized by a careful mix of moral certitude and common decency.
Common decency: How many of us have yearned for that? Deep inside, most human beings want to behave as our mothers taught us: Tell the truth; help, don’t mock those who are injured; apologize when you have hurt someone; accept responsibility for your actions; don’t be a sore loser; graciously accept defeat when it happens and rise to compete another day. For the last two years it has been deeply disturbing to see those values undercut by political leaders. It’s time to return to neighborly values.
Historically, the United States is a nation of neighbors, united by the pioneering spirit. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic musical Oklahoma — a recent Tony winner for “best revival” for its honest reimagining of frontier life —we are taught that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.”
American stories tell tales of opposing factions coming together to raise barns, to put out fires, to rebuild after storms, to support each other in all manner of crises. Such stories form an aspirational American narrative.
On a personal level, my husband and I experienced this neighborliness across deep political difference. A few years ago on an icy February afternoon, we had car trouble on the Pennsylvania turnpike. Using my cell phone, I located an auto shop in what was identifiably (from lawn signs) the heart of Trump country. We were driving a Prius with an Illinois university license plate. Some would think we were in enemy territory and would be treated as such.
But everyone we met was a kind neighbor. The auto mechanic who could not fully fix our car did enough to allow us to get back on the road. When he declined payment, we insisted. He made calls to see if anyone else in the area could provide additional help. He consulted with others to assess the local accommodations in case we decided to get off the road and spend the night. He and his associates were our helpful neighbors.
Communitarian values may save this country yet.
Many areas do not function as neighborhoods
Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community warned in 2001 of the alienation and anomie afflicting American society. Bowling in leagues, rather than bowling alone, fosters human connections and a sense of community.
We see all around us that when an area is an engaged, involved neighborhood, crime goes down and community health goes up. The Philadelphia Citizen has highlighted those sets of city blocks that are real neighborhoods — with community gardens, playgrounds, and murals. One fundamental action to make a zip code a neighborhood is for the city to pick up the trash, regularly and reliably. (Are you listening, Mayor Kenney?)
Colleges and universities must be good neighbors: public squares, not ivory towers
The 21st century colleges and universities must be integrative, unifying neighborhood citizens. Historically, many universities were above their neighborhoods — literally built on hills overlooking the surrounding area. Town/gown was an insurmountable barrier. We have to turn the calendar all the way back to Socrates (470-399 BC) to find the basis for the university as a public square. Socrates taught in the agora (the Greek word for public square) in the midst of public debate and governance.
In the last several decades, universities and colleges have been trying to become public squares rather than ivory towers. But most have succeeded only in becoming gated communities within neighborhoods. Higher education has an essential role to play in neighborhood citizenship. Higher ed can start by teaching civic engagement across the curriculum, undergraduate and graduate. They can invest in their surroundings as full neighborhood citizens.
The University of Pennsylvania’s $100 million grant to improve the ventilation in Philadelphia public schools is a case in point — but only a start. The Drexel Promise is a step in the right direction. Community College of Philadelphia’s (CCP) Career & Advanced Technology Center rising now at 48th and Market has the potential to transform that area and attract many residents to post-secondary education. CCP’s Octavius Catto Scholarship offers free tuition, books, transportation and more to qualified students.
I’d like to see metro Philadelphia’s elite private colleges and universities offering full financial support to qualified local students. Hollins University, a prestigious university in Roanoke, Virginia, has an idea we should steal. Hollins offers a full tuition scholarship to students within a forty-mile radius of the campus. Now that’s being a good neighbor.
Things we can do:
- Thank your local poll workers — and consider being one in the next election.
- Get to know your neighbors.
- Support political candidates with communitarian values.
- Support universities that are public squares, not ivory towers.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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