Neil Heinen: No time to wait

It's a new year and a new chance for a better city
Neil Heinen: No time to wait
Neil Heinen

I typically experience a wide range of emotions at the start of a new year. If the annual reflection on a year passed and attempt at preparing for a new year is stereotypical, it strikes me as a valuable stereotype. There can be a certain comfort at coming to peace with what’s transpired and hope for what’s ahead. I suppose it’s a bit of a hedge against cynicism, but I find that I need that hedge.

There’s a lot going on in this city, or that affects this city. The latter is where I find myself wrestling with cynicism. At the 2014 Badger Bioneers conference put on by Sustain Dane and the UW Office of Sustainability, author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams gave a marvelous and moving speech very much in tune with the conference’s theme of disruption. Two things she said remain in my head as I think about the new year: “our institutions are no longer serving us,” and “our wild hearts will lead us.”

The second feels very personal to me. Something about it feels right, and I plan to explore its meaning to me during the holiday break. But the first concerns me a lot. I don’t like losing faith in our institutions, if for no other reason than I fear it weakens our resolve to make them better. But I believe Williams is saying something I’ve said before, which is we can’t simply sit back and wait for our dysfunctional government, broken political processes and unjust criminal justice system to be fixed before we deal with the many real issues facing our families and our communities.

As I write this, some state legislators are planning to push for right-to-work legislation. It’s all politics. But we citizens can certainly have an intelligent and informed conversation about wages, working conditions and job creation. We have a strong enough mix of progressive business leaders, economic strategists and sustainability experts to create our own local employment environment that functions independently from our increasingly irrelevant government. In other words, we can do the right thing on our own. It’s how we’re going to close achievement gaps this year, despite distracting political noise over Common Core standards, and how we will continue to build healthy and sustainable food systems despite the absurd lack of a responsible federal food policy. Here’s an example of that.

Recently my co-author (and wife), Nancy Christy, and I got an email from Mary Zinn of Madison. Mary said she’d read our piece on food insecurity in Dane County (“The Invisible Faces of Hunger,” October 2013) and that “it has haunted me ever since.” So, she says, “I have decided to do a fundraiser with my family to create more awareness of the issue.” Mary and her family are holding a Fun on Ice fundraiser on January 31st, hoping to raise four to five thousand dollars for the River Food Pantry. Isn’t that cool? That, to me, is the right response to “our institutions are no longer serving us.”

I want to be clear: I’m not talking about all of our institutions. It’s always trouble to make such sweeping generalities. But I think we know what we’re talking about here, what we know isn’t working as it should. And I just don’t want to waste time in 2015 with stuff that really doesn’t matter. Mayoral elections matter. We’ve got one of those this year and it should be a good one. Poetry and music matter, and while sometimes it takes a little effort, every one of us would benefit from more of both in our lives. And “doing something” matters, as the Zinn family proves so well. Let’s regain our hope and our confidence. Most of all, let’s focus on what we share. And let’s make it a good year.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.