Opinion: Communities change when we all pitch in

We have become a nation obsessed with grand gestures, sweeping pronouncements and, alas, unimaginative solutions to intricate problems. In so many areas of public life, we prefer showmanship and bluster to reasoned, sober discourse. We have thus created a tremendous challenge, as we fail to model effective leadership to the next generation, convincing them, perhaps, that leadership should rely more upon histrionics and public flourishes than on their commitment, ingenuity, or intellect.

In this age of soundbites, clickbait, and diminished trust in public institutions, young people often struggle to distinguish genuine progress from the illusion of progress.

Against that backdrop, the 2018 GeorgiaForward Forum on October 10th in Macon, provided a welcome outlet for civic leaders from across our state to develop actionable strategies for engaging Georgia’s next generation of leaders. A nonpartisan, cross-sector organization, GeorgiaForward is committed to strengthening communities, uniting our state, and creating a talent pipeline in Georgia. Mayor Robert Reichart of Macon welcomed the guests. “It is a mistake to do nothing because you can only do little,” he encouraged.

Indeed, GeorgiaForward proceeds in such an understanding. The answers to many of the challenges we face are best found at the community level and among our neighbors. Indicators of civic health in Georgia point to a state in need of its younger citizens’ action and energy.

Georgians are among Americans least likely to talk to neighbors, spend time with friends and family, participate in community groups, volunteer, attend public meetings, turn out at the polls, or reach out to their elected officials. Those are more than just the niceties of community life. Social scientists have shown positive correlation between civic health and social cohesion, from better public health outcomes and improved child development to improved mental health and lower crime rates.

Those of us privileged to spend our days teaching see a bright future ahead; we see the inherent goodness of our state’s young people — the characteristic sense of civitas and the preternatural belief that we can make positive change in our communities. At Georgia College, students in our Leadership Program enroll in a course on “How to Change the World.” Under the mentorship of their professors and community members, they work to solve important questions that are on their minds: keeping college affordable, bringing broadband to rural America, increasing school completion rates. Each of those is bigger than any one person’s abilities to solve it, but each has an actionable next step that can be taken at the community level.

As our students learn, engaging in community leadership and public life does not require us to enter into the political fracas. We can investigate community-based problems, serve on school boards, join local chambers of commerce, volunteer in hospitals, and enjoy community life — none of which requires a certain ideological predilection. Our next generation is committed and hopes to make positive change in the world.

Among the greatest acts of public-service we can take is to model for Georgia’s younger citizens how to live in community. Because it is a mistake to do nothing because we can do only little.

Harold Mock, Ph.D, directs Georgia College’s leadership programs and is assistant professor of history. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Georgia College, or the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Mock lives in Gray, Georgia.