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Problems Persist & Solutions Exist

Renee Ordway’s most recent column in the BDN draws attention to the perpetuation of major social problems in greater Bangor. She touches on serious issues of mental health, substance abuse & addiction, suicide, child abuse, overburdened corrections, underfunded law enforcement, diminished support to food banks, and deteriorating neighborhoods. Her frustration seems to be that drawing attention to these issues for eight years now has resulted in little improvement. Indeed, most of these problems have gotten dramatically worse.

Ms. Ordway seems discouraged that drawing attention to these issues hasn’t had an effect.

Frustration and disappointment result when things don’t go as we hope or as we expect they should. Which raises an interesting question:

What do we expect?

Do we expect drug abuse/addiction, mental health problems, child abuse, deteriorating neighborhoods and other social problems in Maine to improve significantly in the near future? No. No, most of us don’t. We all want things to get better and yet we’re increasingly overwhelmed. This leaves us without a starting point.

Everyone knows that what we’re doing systemically is insufficient. There is no reason to believe that these problems will do anything but continue to grow. Sooner or later we will see a huge shift (change always occurs in pendulum swings). I’m advocating for sooner.

Ms. Ordway expresses hope that perhaps town officials, government leaders, and private citizens will get together and find solutions. Here’s why that usually fails:

  1. They (elected officials) keep inviting all the wrong people to the table.

  2. Consequently, common sense, stakeholders waiting to be empowered and grass roots organizations are excluded from the conversations at the table.

  3. Our political systems are more adept at creating the appearance of change than the reality of it.

Here’s the bigger problem:

Government cannot provide solutions to social problems. Never could. Never will.

The solutions will be (and always have been) provided by people who care enough to get directly involved: families, neighborhoods, religious, civic/service, and charitable organizations, and grassroots activists. These groups have the ability to develop solutions and pressure government into making the necessary policy changes.

There are small groups in the area who understand and are responding. Bangor PD gets it and are responding to community requests. Groups of neighbors from Main Street through Third Street get it and are meeting. Folks in the downtown area have had multiple meetings – residents and business owners together. Karen Foley gets it and she’s been writing about it for months.

Greater Bangor’s problems are not unique. They are all consistent with national trends. We will not make the gains we need to make until we all recognize ourselves as stakeholders. My neighbor’s problems are my problems. My city’s problems are my problems. It’s that simple.

So…before we head to the board rooms, let’s gather in living rooms. Instead of looking to city hall or the legislature for the answers, we must develop our own and bring them to those in power with an expectation that change occur. Pick the issue that’s nearest and dearest to your heart and then bring it to your people.

Who are your people? They are your neighbors, church, civic group, workplace, family and friends. Don’t wait until you have a clear sense of what needs to be done. Trust your people to explore the issue with you.

If you want to understand an issue, talk to those impacted by it. Talk to people on the front lines of it. The CNA who cares for your mother can tell you a hundred things her doctor will never know. Nobody works harder than a good CNA and they know the patients best. No one asks them a question about changing policy. If you want to improve existing systems, talk to those served and those directly serving them. They’re the REAL experts.

Want some more experts? No one knows more than:

–          People with long term Recovery know about addiction and how to not only attain sobriety but also truly rehabilitate and transform.

–          Good, struggling single moms understand about the entirety of social service systems, health care, entitlement programs and how to stretch a dollar to its absolute max.

–          People with mental illness know about the mental health system

–          People who live in deteriorating neighborhoods about what their neighborhood needs.

This is how we develop vision. Now we can move on to mobilizing.

I hate reinventing the wheel. If you want to do something outside of your expertise, go to folks who have had success and ask them to show you how they did it. No single group in Maine has accomplished more in advocacy, education, and systemic change than Spruce Run. This amazing group of women know how to get things done. We need more efforts like theirs. Community organizing is hard. What’s harder is watching neighborhood deteriorate and bearing witness to the suffering of others.

There is a form of energy that is created when like minded and passionate people collaborate and work for change. In Recovery, folks refer to the “gift of desperation.” As strange as that term may seem, what it describes is beautiful. It’s about reaching a point where we’re willing to go to any lengths to get what we need. That day will come for every issue greater Bangor faces. We can watch and wait as things continue to deteriorate or we can, as my AA friends put it, “Get into the solution.”

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