Freedom, independence, self-sufficiency: these are great and glorious concepts. We celebrate them this time of year, whether we process it that way or not, because they’re so deeply engrained in our image of America. We see ourselves as a nation of rugged individualists, seizing the bull by the horns and charting our own courses.
It’s not exactly an accurate notion because America is a nation of small, tight-knit communities and always has been. The more we cooperate, share, defer to others and work together, the more success we achieve.
I spend my days traveling from one American community to another. Some are bustling larger cities. Others are quiet small towns. What they all have in common is the burning desire to revitalize themselves: to become more vibrant, prosperous, livable and loveable than they are right now. As I work with these diverse groups of Americans, I see a theme emerge: Communities that work together, win together.
When citizens and leaders come together, put self-interests on the back burner and work as a team, things get done. Otherwise, nothing gets done.
The more you think about the myth of the self-reliant early American, the less likely it seems. Our ancestors must have huddled together in small groups and worked to protect each other from a harsh and unforgiving environment. They joined forces and shared what they had.
Our nation’s founders had to work together in a similar fashion to bring America into being. They worked toward independence as a new nation, but had to rely on interdependence to get there. As leaders of communities of all shapes and sizes and demographics and political persuasions, we can learn a lot from them.
Here are four big “history lessons” to heed as we try to move communities toward vibrancy:
Set aside self-interest and create something that works for everyone. Lots of different professions, industries and interests were present at the birth of America, but they brought it all into an overarching mission. Don’t be overly concerned with your own well-being. Setting aside your own short-term best interests may accomplish far more for everyone in the long run. It’s true that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Don’t let ideological differences stop you from achieving something tangible. Despite bitter disputes and differing views, a group of people with little in common other than their shared determination that change was needed were able to get mobilized and get something done. While there was much to be decided about the way things would function in the new nation, they recognized that there wouldn’t even BE a new nation if they didn’t set aside their disagreements and move the ball down the court.
It’s important to know what matters. Don’t let petty disputes about how things should get done sabotage the greater task at hand.
Don’t be constantly trying to steal the spotlight from each other. It’s okay to let someone else be “the one in charge.” The founders kept their focus on the ambitious mission/vision of standing up to one of the most powerful authorities in the world: the King of England.
When we try to make it about ourselves, we can get off track and let our self-absorption derail the project. Stay focused on the greater goal.
Don’t wait on the government to “fix it.” Instead, join together and take bold action at the local level. The changes desired by American colonists weren’t coming from Great Britain. In the summer of 1776, delegates from each of the 13 colonies took it upon themselves to challenge British authorities and make change happen—their way. Citizen-powered change is the most powerful change. If it’s to be, it’s up to you and me, not the government. (Local governments tend not to have the budget to drive fundamental change, and due to election cycles, officials come and go. Many won’t be around to see long term projects through.)
Early communities needed each other and that drove a lot of their interactions. We went through a period where we started to believe we didn’t need each other, which clearly isn’t true. Working together is the only way we can make our cities and towns thrive.
America’s founders were far from perfect, as are we, but they were able to work together for a common cause. We can’t build a better community without teamwork.
Quint Studer is the author of “Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America” and founded Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute. For more details, go to www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.