I’m confused. It seems that policy, the work of governing to create plans for action, is getting lost in national politics. Daily headlines read more like a sports page, who’s ahead or behind, which game plans gain strategic advantage. Politics have morphed into performance — governing more about image. What’s going on in D.C. feels so very far removed from my life on a farm and in a valley often called the Other California.
A self-paralysis grips the national debate. So where might policy making actually be taking place? I’m rethinking the old axiom that politics are local, and rebrand it as policy must be driven locally. New trends are percolating in regional arenas. We’re witnessing a decentralized and more cooperative model in local initiatives. Sustained ideas of innovative policy are birthed at a level where everyday people are becoming more engaged and generating action plans.
I’m an organic farmer with neighbors who fiercely guard their private property rights. Yet with SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, we’re forced to think regionally about how our water is shared and accept that our aquifers are bigger than our own individual farms. Solutions will be formulated by local agencies. Farmers are reluctant, some will be dragged to the table to face the reality of limited water. Yet in my own irrigation district, we recently voted overwhelmingly to tax ourselves to make improvements and face a new world of shared resources.
As climate change impacts our farms, we know all too well when global influences will influence us locally. A drought, new extremes in temperatures, greater variation in weather becomes the new normal. We are part of something larger but our individual farms can be both the problem and a solution as we look to carbon sequestration farming practices. We all need to think about agriculture not only through the lens of business and money, but as a profession that must include our neighbors. In the end, it’s not about just agriculture but about growing food and life.
Only with such a connected perspective can we envision new relationships, such as re-imaging food as medicine. Better diets will benefit the health of all our communities. Our local school districts with their healthy meal programs understand this. Insurance companies promote wellness and individual nutrition programs to save costs. A new national initiative has been launched to emphasize “produce prescriptions” — imagine eating our way to better health. Solutions are not from top down but from the very bottom. At the local level we can strive to model and pilot policy.
In our Valley, we’re witnessing a new wave of economic and community development. Citizens are tackling their own issues with the essential help of local organizations and state agencies. In the Fresno area, a program funded by the state’s cap and trade helped launch the Transformative Climate Communities projects. Groups endured months of meetings to hammer out plans including community gardens, solar panel installations and a local community college campus. Recently, the DRIVE initiative — Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy — fostered community conversations to tackle issues marrying economics with a social and cultural vision for the future.
In one of the grandest experiments, Stockton is exploring universal basic income, a program funded by individuals and foundations. Low-income residents receive $500 a month for 18 months, no strings attached. The goal is to explore how people will utilize a consistent flow of funds to better their lives, or would they succumb to the stereotypes of frivolous spending from those caught in a scarcity mentality. The sample is small, but early data demonstrates that many individuals are spending wisely, 40% on food, for example. While it’s too early to proclaim success, this experiment opens the door for new research on the creative approaches and tactics to address poverty.
Personal relationships matter more than ever as we renew a regional capacity for change. We are re-examining our own futures not through the lens of national policies but local. Regions are acting like miniature countries. Networked communities now seek their own solutions
Certainly there are things we can’t tackle, such as immigration reform and international trade. Failure of national politics to face broad issues sends the message: these big tasks are too hard to handle. So we turn inward to seek resolve.
I’m tired of waiting. I sense a new social capital is brewing locally. Less about politicians, more about citizens and neighbors, a DIY approach open for change from below.
I hope for a new public narrative as part of a leadership model with resolve. We can construct new identities ourselves, new stories from both the heart — our motivation to do some good — and the head — strategies of how to achieve. We seek values that inspire action through emotions of caring.
We can bring light, not heat , to policy debates with a new optimism as we solve problems week by week. We will then keep our culture alive and increase our chances to endure a good, healthy life and reward communities.