Communal seeds for long-term growth

This year has already brought about a number of positive changes to Pine Bluff. While it’s too early to tell whether we’re on the right track, we seem to be finding our way a little better than we have in the past. If nothing else, the last bastions of the old order are now being exposed for who they really are.

As it turns out, the old saw appears true: When the people lead, the leaders will follow. At least some are learning to get out of the way.

With this nascent clearing of the communal clouds, we have a better opportunity to become the town we all want to be. This then begs the question as to how we can best capitalize on the moment.

It doesn’t take much effort to look around and see all that we lack. That list has been well-enumerated here and elsewhere many times. While acknowledging those deficits is a necessary first step in our renaissance, we should also take stock of the resources we have at hand.

To that end, the Center for a New American Dream (, a non-profit community action group, offers some advice we’d be well-served to take. The organization’s mission statement reads in part, “We want to cultivate a new American dream—one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values, while upholding the spirit of the traditional American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The group explicitly rebukes the predominant culture of consumerism and waste in deference to shared goals and meaningful social connections. Communities such as ours could learn a lot from that point alone. So many of the problems we face have their origins in a culture that values style over substance —- that mistakes riches for wealth —- and has no capacity for delayed gratification.

Every person reading this editorial likely knows someone who’s regularly clad in ostentatious jewelry, drives a fancy car, always smells good and wears sharp clothes —- but who can barely keep the lights on. These sad people are so yoked to superficial posturing —- keeping up appearances —- that they have surrendered their life to them.

The noted criminologist Egon Bittner once wrote about the homeless people on what was then termed skid row. He described how all their actions were focused on “what I want right now” —- to the peril of all else.

As Bittner states, “Considerations of the moment have unqualified priority as maxims of conduct; consequently the controlling influences of the pursuit of sustained interests are assumed to be absent.”

In short, these people act as though there is no tomorrow. They do not “live” somewhere; they only exist. Everything is disconnected transience. There is no plan beyond whatever is desired at that moment.

We can’t build a community this way. Neighborhoods are the primary weapon in the war against crime. Neighbors watch out for one another. They take care of one another. They protect one another. Ships passing in the night have no capacity for any of that.

To this point, the Center for a New American Dream asks us to focus on two concepts: Resilience and Relationships. Resilience —- because the complex … challenges we face require not solutions to make problems go away, but responses that recognize our vulnerabilities, build our capacities, and enable us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable future. Relationships —- because the future is grounded in local relationships —- relationships with the ecological resources that feed and sustain us, among families and neighbors, and through the institutions we use to govern ourselves.

Very few plants have the capacity to grow without some kind of roots. Communities are the same way. We can continue as tumbleweeds or we can sow the seeds we have at hand. The first might get you a shiny car, but the second will get you a better place to live.