When the national political scene becomes so rancid that not even news junkies can stand to pay too much attention to it, the disgust factor can infect one’s attention to local issues, too. In fact, local issues suffer from almost any conflict with national news, especially when national news is vile, loathsome AND packaged as entertainment. And yet, as we know in our bones, all politics is local, and all issues either help the grassroots flourish or wither them away. However it works out, the local, the intimate, the immediate suffers from the grandiose, top floor, penthouse focus of corporate news.
That’s why when I read Dede Feldman’s new book, “Another Way Forward: Grassroots Solutions from New Mexico,” I was so heartened. The “solutions” are grounded in our locality. They display the ingenuity and grit of our people in our time and place. The issues are ours, and the world’s, and are every bit as important as anything else anywhere else. It’s true, if you focus on your place and the life of your community, you will learn about the world, just as applying Socrates’s “examined life” tells us not only about ourselves but something about all human life.
Feldman, a former longtime state senator from Albuquerque’s North Valley, articulates the basic insight of what I’d call the fundamental alternative perspective — that the “solution” to bad governance is not to dismantle government but to activate it with the insight, enthusiasm, and effort of bottom-up decision-making and direct action. The grassroots knows what it needs and wants. It doesn’t need ideological PR to deflect it from the fulfillment of its broad-based communitarian self-interest.
This is a faith in American local action and culture that’s animated the lives of so many political thinkers and activists we respect, historian Howard Zinn chief among them. Feldman’s book arises from the context of a Zinnian populism that has animated alternative politics since 1981 when his immensely influential book “A People’s History of the United States” won the National Book Award. Zinn examined
all the major national issues — slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the violence inflicted on the labor movement to the Vietnam War and the oppression of women and girls — from a grassroots perspective. He affirmed over and over the power of local insight and persistent, courageous local action committed “to the duration” of the struggle, as they used to say. And he set a tone that helped local people see their issues and problems not as parochial and “small” but as the “stuff of life” itself.
Feldman, in “Another Way Forward,” grounds her grassroots reporting in New Mexican health care, land management and wildland conservation, education, culture work, community activism, and our struggles against chronic poverty. As she writes in her introduction, “For most of us, what lures us — or keeps us — in New Mexico is the idea that New Mexico is different from every other state in the nation. It is not ‘Californicated’ or metroplexed, and in my Senate district in the North Valley of Albuquerque citizens have fought hard to keep it that way. The mass culture has not saturated parts of New Mexico. The Land of Enchantment is still small scale, based on personal and family ties, artsy, surprising, and decidedly not homogeneous.”
Her premise, she writes, is that the kind of development we want in New Mexico has more to do with community well-being, self-sufficiency and human capital than simply the creation of wealth. Among the many characteristics of this new kind of development are that it “levels the playing field and provides opportunities for low-income communities, locally owned businesses, and historically oppressed people who have not had a chance to contribute to the economy;” that it “honors the place of New Mexico and stimulates a sense of stewardship for natural landscapes and historic communities;” that it “puts public health and healthy communities first, stimulates prevention, and addresses disparities in health care between different regions and groups;” and that it “respects and draws upon New Mexico’s unique cultures and tradition,” creating “new jobs and career paths by rearranging existing systems and markets,” drawing “on existing assets put together in a new way” that “creates a sense of engagement and optimism while empowering youth and ordinary citizens.” And she discusses in some detail how to bring such changes about — “from the bottom up — from neighborhoods, rural communities, and individuals finding their own solutions. …”
At the heart of the book are nearly two dozen detailed and beautifully told stories of grassroots initiatives and successes. We learn about family farms and other small farming enterprises in Albuquerque’s South Valley, in Chimayo, Santa Cruz and something called the Center of Southwest Culture’s Cooperative Development Center of New Mexico (CODECE), a network of 19 cooperatives “linking organic farms to markets and development of cultural tourism projects that can increase family income in rural areas.”
Feldman tells us about Project ECHO (Extension for Community Health Care Outcomes), the enormous success of the Sawmill Community Land Trust in Albuquerque, which is designed to keep low-cost housing both low in cost and high in quality, “wellness ecosystems” and the much loved and lauded First Choice Community Health Center in Albuquerque’s South Valley, as well as health care, running and farming at Jemez Pueblo. My favorite is the story of BEMP, the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, started in the early 1980s by UNM biologist Cliff Crawford who had the powerful idea of teaching many school children how to gather and record data on the Rio Grande to give scientists and conservationists more in-depth information on how to work to keep the cottonwood bosque alive and flourishing.
If you get to one of those places where you’re feeling hopeless about the world and the national scene, pick up Dede Feldman’s wonderful book and remind yourself that real people with real problems and real solutions are making a vast difference in the lives of New Mexicans and find out what you can do to contribute.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from photo by Deb Nystrom.)