Work and community

At a meeting last night, a community colleague commented – and I paraphrase – “there are so many talented people in our community and too many of them are unable to put their talents to work within our community.”

It was a meeting of Jobs for Somerville, a group of the Somerville Community Corporation that pushes for policies which support local workers – connecting them with good jobs and job training.

When I talk about why this work is important, I often focus on the benefit to the individual.

In a rapidly gentrifying community, affordable housing will only go so far. People need good jobs if they’re going to be able to remain in their community. In a capitalist economy, the personal benefits of a good job are self-evident: you need a job to pay your rent, buy your food, and to keep the heat on. Having a job which is local can also provide personal benefits: less time spent commuting means more time with your family. Or perhaps for many people, more hours at your second job.

Sometimes I also think about the benefits to others in the community.

I like living in a diverse community with people of different ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic status. For some families, a good job can mean the difference between being able to stay in a community and being forced to leave. If good jobs allow more working class and lower income folks to stay in the community, if access to good jobs allows my community to remain diverse, then there is indeed a personal benefit to me. There is a benefit to the community.

Additionally, less time spent commuting can also mean more time to engage with the community. More time to attend community meetings and public hearings, for example. Since I believe the best solutions come from the most voices – having more people at community meetings also provides a clear community benefit.

But none of those are the benefit my colleague commented on last night.

Her comment gets at the idea of public work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship defines public work as a “sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process.”

Construction workers provide a tangible example of public work as they literally build the world around us. Their work is inherently civic, yet rarely seen as such.

In a society increasingly focused on “professionalization,” the concept of public work recognizes that we are all citizens and we are all professionals.

Think of a public meeting around, say, the design of a new train station.

One model of how to run this meeting is to have professional city planners in charge of the project explain the design to the lay people.

Another model is to say that the “lay people” have expertise as well – they are the ones who will be using the station. Therefore, professional city planners may run the meeting, but their goal will be to draw out the expertise of the community members.

The framework of public work is slightly different.

It’s still true that the “community” has expertise on how they will use the station. But the individual people in the room also have professional expertise.

Community members are also professionals who could design a train station. They are professionals who could build a train station. The citizens themselves might know about zoning laws or electrical requirements. The citizens are professionals.

And conversely, the “professionals” leading the meeting may live in the area. They may have thoughts and feelings about how the station will impact them and may plan to use the station as well. The professionals are citizens.

In some ways, the idea of public work – of bringing together your professional and civic identity – is so far removed from how I’m used to looking at the world that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. But it’s a good thing to think about.

What would that meeting look like if you accept all attendees as both professionals and citizens? What would your day to day work look like if you approached it both as a citizen and a professional? What would our communities look like if all of us brought these identities closer together?

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