I spent part of my evening last night sitting in the overflow room used for Asheville City Council meetings when the chambers fill up. The meeting is projected onto a screen, just like watching live TV. Truth be told, I mostly wanted to be elsewhere. I was tired. Kind of hungry. Bored with the minutiae of how leaf collection happens in the city. I also know how important it is to show up when something’s at stake, and enjoy the ‘showing up’ part of my job. So I sat there, learning about the budget, equipment and personnel it takes to collect leaves every fall. I was glad I had a smart phone (though wishing for the 100th time I had downloaded a game onto it – Facebook doesn’t generally entertain me for every long) and waited for a seat to open up in the Council chambers so I could be on hand to speak to the agenda item I showed up for. Item: “What to do with Occupy Asheville.” (okay, that’s my language, not the official agenda line item)
Like many communities, we have folks connected to the Occupy movement. I’ve been interested in reading and watching how this has played out all over the country, heartened by diverse groups of people talking to each other and speaking out against systems that divide and oppress and take away from those who have little or nothing already. I have to also admit that I’ve been cynical. Thought and intention behind action is vital for me. Memorable moments in my life are those that include conversation with loved ones and strangers about justice, philosophy, politics, theology – I was a preacher, after all, so I can talk all day and into the wee morning hours without hesitation. At the same time, when it comes to needed social change, I want to get to the solution, and get it done. The Occupy movement is a struggle for me, as I have not found enough direction to satisfy my need for focus and a plan of action.
Once we finally made it to the long-awaited agenda item, there were lots of comments from those who identified with the Occupy Asheville movement. It seemed to me that every one of those speeches and statements was based in a “my way or the highway” mentality. Either you allow us to camp somewhere 24/7 or you don’t support us. There were a few comments from individual members of the community and a group representing some independent businesses calling the whole movement irresponsible and ridiculous. Again, “my way or the highway.” A chasm that neither side was willing to bridge.
Our radical individualism is killing us. Our radical liberalism, conservatism – it’s all killing us. Separating us, dividing us into right camps and left camps, leaving no room for the mess and beauty of what humanity actually is. Diversity is not at all about everyone agreeing with one another. Living in true community means diversity is accepted and respected, that disagreement is okay. Even when it pisses you off. Maybe especially then.
I will work for the social change I believe in for the rest of my days. I need lots of nickels and dimes for it to happen - from government and from those of us responsible for electing that government. What I need just as much is to find the common ground with those who live here with me, however far their belief and action may be from mine. Does everyone sitting on City Council agree with me that housing is a right and not a reward? Probably not. Do we all want people off the street? Absolutely. And that’s where we started. Asheville-Buncombe’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness got off the ground in 2005. From that beginning – with the leadership, help and partnership of countless individuals, groups and agencies -- chronic homelessness has decreased by 75% in our community. It’s messy, hard work. I want everyone around the table to believe housing is a right. They don’t. But we’re working together in all the mess.
That number – a 75% reduction in chronic homelessness – represents a move away from radical individualism and a move toward community. Hundreds of faces crowd into that number. It’s a number that means lasting social change is possible. And happening, right here in Asheville and Buncombe County.