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 entrenched in our image of America. We see ourselves as a nation of rugged individualists: seizing the bull by the horns, charting our own course, walking alone into the forest with an axe slung over our shoulder.
Yes, it’s a romantic notion. But it’s not an accurate one. 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 successful we are.
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 lovable than they are right now. And as I work with these diverse groups of Americans, I see a theme emerge: Those communities that work together, win together.
When citizens and leaders come together, put their self-interest on the back burner and work as a team, things get done. When they don’t, 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 must have joined forces, shared what they had, and leaned on each other when times were tough.
And on the larger stage, our nation’s founders had to work together in a similar fashion to bring America into being. They were working toward independence as a new nation, but they had to rely on interdependence to get there. And as leaders of communities of all shapes and sizes and demographics and political persuasions, we can all learn a lot from them.
Here are four big “history lessons” we should all heed as we seek to move our communities toward vibrancy:
Set aside your self-interest and create something that works for everyone. Lots of different professions, industries, and interests were present at the birth of America. Cabinet makers weren’t fixated only on the wood industry, nor silver smiths on the silver trade. Everyone was fired up to contribute to something bigger than themselves. They bought into the overarching mission, and weren’t bogged down by endless debate over the short-term costs of their plan.
In other words, 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. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, this includes you.
Don’t let ideological differences stop you from achieving something tangible. Despite bitter disputes and differences of opinion, 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 all 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.” No one complained that John Hancock’s signature was bigger than theirs, or that so-and-so got to sign the Declaration before they did. (Okay, it’s possible, but we can see by the document that resides in the National Archives that it got done anyway!) 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 or initiative. Keep the greater goal in mind and stay focused on that.
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. And so, in the summer of 1776 delegates from each of the Thirteen 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 government agencies. (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.)
Yes, early communities needed each other and that drove a lot of their interactions. We went through a period of time where we started to believe we didn’t need each other and that clearly isn’t true. We now realize that working together is the only way we can make our cities and towns thrive.
No one is saying America’s founders were perfect. They were far from it, as we are. But one thing they got right was the knowledge that they needed to work together for a common cause. Teamwork is a powerful force. We couldn’t have built a nation without it, and we can’t build a better community without it either.
Quint Studer is the author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute. For more information, visit www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.