November 4, 2020

Healing Our Divided Community

The sidewalks charter election was never really about sidewalks per se, but about the process by which sidewalk decisions are made.  More fundamentally, it was about the relationship between a self-governing people and its duly elected City Council (the 2018 City Council, to be precise), and, by implication, among the people themselves.  Whether you voted For or Against (or as some have reported you found it so confusing you’re not actually sure which way you voted), did anyone really win?  At what cost?

Municipal government is strictly nonpartisan by design—potholes (and sidewalks) are neither Republican nor Democrat.  And yet in recent years, time and again we’ve shown how determined we are to divide ourselves just the same.  Even if not along party lines, the prevailing attitude has been one of “us versus them.”

Were our competing factions temporary and comprised of different people according to different issues, that would be one thing.  But with the battle lines drawn and residents forced to choose sides as to all issues, the deep division within our community becomes self-fulfilling.  Each side, residing within its own echo chamber, is increasingly hardened against the other.  Rhetoric rules the day.  When the facts don’t fit the narrative they’re simply traded in for new ones, which is a disservice to everyone.

Put in perspective, perhaps this is all to be expected in these hyperpartisan times in which we live.  I’ll leave it to the national commentators to work out the causes of our increased polarization as a society, but there’s no reason to believe we’d be immune from it at the local level.  With no middle ground left anywhere, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can’t find any here.  Much as we’d like to think we’re better than that, the conduct of this charter election—indeed, the fact we had one at all—is strong evidence to the contrary.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Change starts at home.  We can begin healing our divided community when we collectively decide we’ve had enough and are ready to move forward together, as neighbors, united in the common purpose of making Bellaire the best it can be.

Of course we’re not going to agree on everything, and that shouldn’t be the goal.  What we ought to be able to agree on is honest debate and respect for opposing viewpoints.  Let’s challenge ourselves to see beyond the headlines and sound bites, and to question with a healthy dose of skepticism what we read and hear.  Truth and civility still matter, and we must hold each other accountable when we fall short of either.  Nothing’s going to change overnight, and it will take longer for some than for others, but it starts with our collective commitment to mending fences for the betterment of our community as a whole.

This is about so much more than just an election.  The need for healing is painfully evident across a wide range of issues, sidewalks being only the most prominent at the moment.  Mutual distrust and hidden agendas do not promote good decision making, nor do they make for effective self-governance of, by and for the people.

We all have a stake in this problem, and we all have a role in solving it.  Something positive coming out of this election is that many of you, particularly those who consider yourselves to be in the middle and not so intimately familiar with the workings of local government, have been newly engaged in the process.  It is my fervent hope you will remain engaged and become more involved, as it is those in the middle who can make the biggest difference in bringing us all back together.