Think about the place where you live, wonder why you haven’t before.R.E.M., “Stand,” 1989
Athens is a town of transients. And I’m not just talking about the 33,000+ students who live here ten months out of 12 for a few years and then move on. Because of the peripatetic nature of our chief industry – higher education – young professionals move into Athens every year to begin their academic careers, often with sights already set on that dream job in some other city. Even mid-career professionals keep their eyes constantly on the job market.
This feature of Athens became crystal clear to me in 2004 when I first ran for the Athens-Clarke County Commission. It was a presidential election year, with highly contested races for U.S. Congress as well as the Georgia General Assembly. Most people I talked with were following the national scene closely, and a good number of them were also tuned into the state-level races. At the local level, however, voters seemed less aware of the issues. (One person, for example, wanted to know my stance on abortion.) Sure, I was interviewed by an array of advocacy groups, from Athens Grown Green to the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, and those groups represented constituencies that had strong stands on local issues. But as I went door to door that summer and fall I had a growing sense that many thoughtful and engaged people simply weren’t engaging at the local level.
Yet it is a truth so often uttered that it has become a truism that local politics is where the average citizen can have the most impact, with both voice and vote. Local races are won and lost by a few hundred votes. We run into our local representatives all over town – at the grocery store, at church, out walking the dog. And local representatives don’t have to leave town to vote. Instead, we head right over to City Hall and cast our votes in the midst of our neighbors.
There’s another reason why local political action is perhaps more important than ever, and that’s the urgent need for action on climate change. With the federal government’s continuing failure to develop a national strategy or to reach international agreements, cities, including Athens, must step into the void. Because cities house more than two-thirds of the U.S. population, they have a unique opportunity to reduce carbon emissions to levels that really count. Furthermore, a recent study sponsored by the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University found that Americans overwhelmingly support local measure to reduce carbon emissions. Through local action alone, a city like Athens can build greener buildings, promote alternative transportation networks, encourage local food systems, implement smart-growth zoning, and more.
Athens will always be a town of transients, and that’s not all bad. It keeps our city young and vibrant, with fresh ideas moving in every day. But my hope is that even those Athenians who don’t expect to remain Athenians for life will take the time to engage in local political action while they are here. Local is where you are right now. As the song says, stand in the place where you live.