Wading through a swamp, even for a great cause, is still tiring

Here’s the first problem: Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant parcels of land! It’s an unbelievable number. Many of them are publicly owned and many others are privately owned with tax delinquent owners (which is how the City ends up seizing much of the property).

Here’s the second problem: Developers, like the dozens that are around my North Philadelphia neighborhood, end up grabbing up all of this land (like the Wild West) and develop it into sub-standard housing that drives up property in the neighborhood without actually offering the amenities that are often a benefit of gentrification.

And here’s the third problem: Blighted neighborhoods (like the ones in Darrel Clarke’s fifth district or Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s seventh district) have plenty of vacant land, and neighborhood community organizations—who want to provide things like affordable housing, green space, urban farms, and good businesses—have a tremendous amount of trouble acquiring said properties, and can’t afford them when they do manage to work through all of the bureaucracy.

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced a bill surrounding the possibility of a land bank in City Council a few years ago. All of the City’s vacant land could be put into a land bank and then sold at fair prices through a transparent, community-controlled process specifically with equity in mind. An organization that Circle of Hope is part of called the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land has lobbied for such a bill for about three years. It’s such a great idea, it’s worth wading through the swamp of the City government’s indifference and self-interest.

I don’t know if you are familiar with the slowness of city politics, but it takes a long time for a good idea to come to fruition. But that time has come!

On Monday, hundreds of people filled up the chambers of City Council to be a presence at the committee hearing for our land bank bill. We got there at 9:30. And waited about an hour for the show to get started. The Nutter administration sent its ill-prepared people to discuss the bill and amendments to it—that took about an hour.

We listened to inspired and generally positive testimonies for the next several hours (Rachel Sensenig’s was my favorite). I loved how passionate people were about the subject. But the City Council people exercised, to be frank, some of the worst listening skills I have ever witnessed. They just got up and left the room, or looked at their iPads (some people thought it had to be Candy Crush), or whispered to each other.

When the testimonies were over—during which amendments were being discussed and other secrets were hushed along—the boys club (Jannie Blackwell was the only woman on the committee) took a recess.

That involved a series of huddles behind a gated-in area while the public watched. Amendments to the bill were discussed and agreed upon (the gossip of the morning was that the committee wasn’t ready to vote on the bill—and when a bill can’t get voted out of committee, they say it’s dead). And then all of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, an amended bill was voted on by the six of the seven people attending the hearing and the afternoon was over.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the public action and time meant anything. Concerned Philadelphians doing everything we can do to get a crucial and important bill passed, and at the end of it all, we just observed—armed with little else than the a vote against a candidate that we really don’t approve of in favor of one we kind of don’t. That’s democracy? I don’t know, seems like a raw deal.

The story of our bill is a positive one. The good guys are winning. That’s awesome. So why does it feel so anti-climactic? I can’t help but think it’s because the system itself is so possessed with evil interests already (both in this world and out of it). Paul tells us the government is necessary, but certainly not good.

Because of that, I am thankful that we have a different way of making decisions in Circle of Hope. Our alternative communitymapping does things a little differently. For one, we have goals that we are driven by the Spirit as represented by a common voice among the hundreds of people in our community. For two, there are no “Council members,” our leadership structure is intentionally flat. We just have four full-time staff members who are our pastors, four others that are part-time (two of whom are also pastors in their own right) We think of them, and our leadership team, as servant leaders—certainly not masked, political individuals who aren’t listening and whispering secrets to each other.

Our community, which pretty much means everyone that thinks of themselves as such, does the work that moves us forward. They prayerfully discern our direction in brainstorming sessions that take place in our cells and then we use their input to draft up goals and a budget. We call it our Map. The whole thing is discussed openly and approved of by our people, not even lay leaders, and certainly not the paid staff. We think that spirit of consensus and mutuality is right where Jesus and the Holy Spirit live.

We’ll wade through the bureaucracy of city government in Jesus’ name for a good cause—like a land bank we can trust. But I’ll tell you what, it’s nice to return back to a community that loves God and loves people from a day of sitting in an old, phallic building waiting for the emperors to decide on something and debate their own interests.

One Reply to “Wading through a swamp, even for a great cause, is still tiring”

  1. Thanks Jonny. I struggle with this frustration quite a bit, largely because I actively engage with and study these systems that are so inherently absurd and unfair. There are some very positive qualities as well, but more than anything they are a reality and a powerful force. I commend the efforts of the many who pushed for years on this and hope to see that push continue. Too often we become disillusioned by the power and girth of the political machine and disengage. Disengaging feels like the cleaner and easier solution at times but we only serve up the power to dominate on a silver platter to those who rarely have the public interest at heart. Thanks for sharing your experiences and struggles with it.

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