By Bruce Weik & Peter Schwartzman
The Zephyr, Galesburg, Ill. Sept. 2, 2010, October 7, 2010
We’re Going To Break This Spell
From many vantage points, our community looks to be under a spell. Why are we content with so much unemployment? Why are we willing to accept an elevated high school dropout rate (more than 10 percent above the state average)? Why do our teenagers have so much unsafe and unprotected sex—leading to so many acquiring STDs or becoming pregnant? Why are we not capable of attracting new high paying employers? Why do so many of our locally-owned businesses keep closing their doors? When did a convenience store become a substitute for a full grocery? Why is there still so much racism and homophobia in our community? These are just some of the questions that we need to take a hard look at. Here are a few more.
What are our leaders doing about any of this? Do we not have any creative people to lead us out of our quandry? Is our apathy so strong or our ways so entrenched that we cannot overcome them? Where did this spell come from? Did it just happen or did it come by way of what we did/didn't do over the past years? Whatever may have been, this is all about to change. We’re about to break this spell. But how?
This has not been a community that has encouraged nor rewarded creative thinking. We seem stuck, even paralyzed, in the past. Ideas that have run their course keep resurfacing. Our thinking is caught in a systemically downward spiral that continues to gather momentum. We romanticize about what has been, but cannot come to a realization about what is or visualize or dream about what could be. Our chosen road lacks direction and precludes many opportunities.
The question that needs to be asked then is, "How do we step away from what has been and what is, into the possibilities of what can be?" The answer, in part, is, "not easily." It takes hard work, dedicated struggle, and even some conflict. In the end, you cannot change the course of your life without a lot of effort. Now multiply this work by thirty thousand and you'll get a sense of how much we need to do. When someone, or a group, stands up and says that things need to change, that we need to do things differently, resistance has/will come. People will say it can’t be done. No can do this! No can do that! Why? They say it is because: "state law X says so"; "local ordinance Y restricts it"; "things have always been this way"; or, "people will not change." This is all too limiting. And, even when new ideas do surface, power struggles ensue. Some think that their ideas are better than others. Squabbles start over nonsensical issues. All of this "noise" is seemingly just part of the spell.
But spells can be broken. Not with a secret charm or a crystal ball, but with our collective minds and our willingness to work towards a better day. The spell can be broken by our willingness to celebrate creative thinking and to encourage risk taking. The spell can be broken by each of us investing just two hours per week in making our community a better place to live. The spell can be broken by organizing our neighborhoods into identifiable geographic areas, with the goal that the world surrounding each one of us can become more enriching, more engaging, and more enjoyable. The spell can be broken by using our time and money to create jobs locally, rather than giving money to companies with the hope that they will come to town and stay after the tax benefits run out. The spell will be broken when “we,” the people, begin to decide our own direction in the city and the county, rather than sitting idly by and waiting for the city council, county board, school board, or state legislature, to dictate our direction.
Over the coming months, we will suggest some of the things we could do to find our way back from the road that has been too well-traveled for far too long. We will discuss specific things that we believe can be accomplished. They may seem odd, far-fetched, and even undoable. They will challenge you to think differently. We will encourage you to not just look at external factors that affect your life, but to also look at internal emotions, feelings, thoughts, and expectations that you have towards yourself, your family, your neighbors, and the community.
We will offer these ideas not as the last word but rather to provoke a much needed dialogue. We'll definitely need others to share their thoughts. As a member of this community, we need your involvement as well. Do you want a better community? Do you/we have the spirit to make it so? If we can muster enough of it, then together, and only together, we can break this damn spell. What are we waiting for?
PART II: Local Government
Note: This is part two of a monthly series that began in the September 2nd issue. Here we lay out concrete statistics that capture where we are. We follow this with our first suggestion in response.
by Bruce Weik & Peter Schwartzman
There is a lot of talk about imminent collapse. Some believe
that the convergence of economic, environmental, cultural, and social
influences will push human civilization “beyond the point of return.” Much of
this doomsday vision stems from the infamous mythological claim that the year
of 2012 marks “the end of time,” as interpreted through the Mayan calendar. At
any rate, 2012 marks a high anxiety time in our history. It is a time when
instincts might dictate that we “dig holes to hide in” as a way to shelter us
from the turmoil. While few people will literally “dig holes,” hiding takes
many forms. Rather than succumbing to these fears, may we at last decide that
we had better get our butts in gear and build the future we want?
Galesburg sits at the precipice of this discussion. We are up to our necks in the muck. We seem, as they say, “up the river without a paddle.” Perhaps it is more appropriate to refer to us as well beyond “flood stage.” Whatever cliché you use, it is clear we have a lot of challenges before us. In a recent survey done by the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford (UICMR), 22 percent of the people living in Galesburg were living in poverty, with a staggering 34 percent of our children at (or below) the poverty level. Our access to health care is poor. According to the same study, Knox County ranks 53rd among 101 counties in Illinois (one county wasn’t included) in overall health outcomes. According to the Knox County Health Department, our teen pregnancy rate is 4 percent higher than the state average and 112 of our young people (<20 years of age) were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in 2008. Our unemployment rate is reported at between 10-11 percent recently, which is, by almost any sane account, artificially low (merely a result of an accounting system that arbitrarily discounts so many un-/under- employed people). Also, median income levels in Knox County are 32 percent lower than the state average.
All these numbers tell us that things aren’t so good. We know this at some level. Others do too. Galesburg is a “distressed urban area,” according to Joel Cowen, an analyst for the organization responsible for the UICMR study. Tom Loewy, from the Register-Mail, put it this way, “The darkness is here. It will spread. We must not simply hope to be spared from the effects of less-than-adequate health care. We must see the effort to beat back the darkness as a shared burden.” The data is stark. It is easy to see the “darkness.” It is descending upon us, especially locally. The time to respond is now. But how? Let’s start where we know we can make a difference.
For Galesburg, a major concern that quickly surfaces is our leadership, at both the city and county levels. While some well-meaning people have attempted to lead us at both these levels, we have had a serious lack of creative, innovative, and locally-focused thinking. As is evident in most of the Midwest, we stumble along years behind in our thinking. Our vision is easily two decades behind. We still think manufacturing will save us, that industrial parks will cure our ills, and that China will bail us out of our misery. Our economic ideas still come from the chosen few, by and large the “good-old-boys,” who look out for their own interests and economic well-being while ignoring those that are really struggling right now. We keep returning to the same used up tricks to revitalize downtown. Our primary response to attracting outside businesses comes in the form of Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIF’S) and Enterprise Zones, both, in any reasonable independent study, have not been found to be helpful to the local taxpayers, but are, as it were, useful to the business-persons using them.
In April, 2011, we will be electing four council persons (a.k.a., alderman; in Wards 1, 3, 5 and 7) to represent us on the Galesburg City Council. With our present form of city government, these four alderpersons could take Galesburg down a new road as they will form a majority of the board. What an opportunity! And so timely too. They can, with our support, get us out of this funk. Thus, it is incumbent upon us, the citizens of this city, to make sure that we encourage and support possible candidates now. We need people capable of creative thinking, unencumbered by our past failures, willing to try something new. So, though we need to vote in the upcoming November elections, we really need to pay attention to our upcoming local elections. We have six months to make this happen. If you know of someone who would make a great councilman or if you yourself want to run, let us know. Let’s get moving.
Beyond our alderman, it is time to revisit our local method of governance. In 1956, the voters of Galesburg passed a referendum choosing to have a form of government where a city manager is the most powerful figure, a change from having the city lead by a full-time, elected mayor. At that time, it probably sounded reasonable… Let’s get politics out of running a city. Let’s hire a professional planner. Mayors can get corrupt and play favorites. It all made sense. We would have probably supported such an idea. But what about now? More than fifty years later, what has our success been? Are we better off than we were? Our answer is no. It is time to elect a full-time mayor, and use a city planner as an assistant to the mayor. This would put the person that should be leading Galesburg back into our hands, that is, allowing us to vote for our most important city representative. We do not have much of a say in the hiring and firing of a city planner, but we do vote for mayor. It is time that we recaptured this position and made it directly responsive to the people. In the short term we can do this unofficially by putting pressure on the city council to hire an interim city planner, while we gather signatures for a referendum to change our city’s form of government.
When do we get started? Why not now? We cannot wait till prince charming comes into town riding a stallion. We need to make the changes now that we know will give our city, and its people, a chance to prosper. It truly is time for a change and the power is in all of our hands. We can do this. Only by working together will we break this spell. (More solutions to come. Please share your ideas.)