Local v. National

“Local” and “national” are generally considered to be vastly different scales which can also be differentiated from their intermediaries of “regional” and “state-level” – not to mention the overarching “international.”

But are these scales inherently different? Or is there something in the framing that can bring these views together?

Conventionally, one imagines the “local” activist entirely absorbed in the intrigue of a few square miles. Interacting with a relatively small network of individuals whom they are just as likely to encounter in the grocery store as at a community meeting. The local actor is king of a tiny hill.

The “national” activist, on the other hand, seeks the holy grail – broad policy solutions to complex, context-dependent problems. Interacting with others from across the country caught up in this impossible quest, the national activist tries desperately to knit a patchwork of local perspectives into a cohesive whole.

These are caricatures, to be sure.

Regardless of one’s local/national orientation, it’s generally agreed that both (or all) levels of effort are needed to bring about change. Yet even with this conscious respect, subtle hints and innuendo hint at secret disdain for divergent approaches.

Local activists think too small. National activists are out of touch.

I’ve enjoyed the pros and cons of working at national, regional, and local levels – though, for full disclosure, local is where the bulk of my experience lies.

And perhaps it’s this local orientation, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a different way to think about national work.

It doesn’t have to be a pyramid with local feeding up to regional, feeding up to national. Logistically, you’d probably need some such structure, but I imagine something much more dynamic and lateral.

What if people working locally in Somerville, MA connected with people working locally in Oakland, CA? What lessons could we learn from each other? What strategies could we share? What could we learn about the role of context – why what works in Oakland doesn’t necessarily work in Somerville?

And what if instead of crying, not in my back yard, we jointly found solutions – if we jointly explored cycles of gentrification and poverty.

I imagine a national network of local activists. Focused on the problems of their neighbors, but mindful of realities a thousand miles away. Activists who can track how a change in this community effects a change in that community. Who can think thoughtfully and collectively about how the complex pieces connect to a complex whole.

Somehow, when stated that way, local and national don’t seem so different any more.

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