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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Op-Ed: Amid Unprecedented Crisis, Santa Barbara's Recovery Requires "An Infrastructure of Hope"

(Editor's note: Amid the coronavirus catastrophe, Newsmakers has struggled to marshal our thoughts to imagine and frame a pathway to recovery for Santa Barbara. So we reached out to former Mayor Hal Conklin, one of the best big thinkers we know, and asked him to outline a plan of action against the background of economic, social and political damage inflicted by the pandemic; Hal responded with this essay, proposing a way forward that combines the practical and the inspirational, to open a community conversation about the huge challenges we all face).

Every crisis brings us to a place in time where we are tested.

If Santa Barbara had just experienced another natural disaster similar to the mud slides of 2018, or a massive San Andreas Fault-level earthquake, everyone would be wanting to know what it will take to rebuild our physical infrastructure: What will it take to rebuild the buildings that have been lost? How long will it take to get communications up and running again? Can we get the power back on?

In the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, there is a crying need for something quite different – not just a need to rebuild the infrastructure of the empty Macys building, but a need to rebuild what might be described as the “infrastructure of hope.” It doesn’t take much to experience the fear that pervades the community about how we are going to survive this. We are very dependent on one another to bring a sense of community to life.

Government can help with some of this, ranging from surveying the public health crisis, to economic recovery. But in the end, it takes the entire community to truly see that we are “all in this together.” Will our economy survive? What about the multitudes of hourly workers in restaurants who can’t pay their rent? What about our children who are missing out on valuable educational experiences?

Stressed to the max. Judging from the news, the Federal response is struggling too, the health care system in New York and elsewhere is stressed to the max, and locally the City and County are financially shell-shocked

Information is helpful, and I applaud everyone from County Health officers on the local level, to national briefings, whether from Governor Cuomo in New York to Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House, giving us basic data of how the pandemic is progressing in its impact.

What else is needed on the local level though, is a significant partnership between City Hall and social service providers, business, community, media, and faith leaders – speaking in an orchestrated voice of hope for the future. How are people creating ways that they can connect with other people for a sense of emotional support?  

Local leaders are like the conductors of an orchestra - they don't play the instruments, but they bring everyone into alignment - into a harmonic blend that builds a comforting sound and a sense of peace. The media has been notably helpful in highlighting stories about people helping people, but City Hall has been somewhat mute.

Since it is true that our population of seniors in Santa Barbara exceeds 14 percent, how are we creating partnerships to support or house them? If people are in need of supplies, how are we strengthening the distribution system?

A three-point proposal. I would suggest that we need three points of connectionto support the Infrastructure of Hope:

1. Regular and Strategic Communication from our Elected Leaders: Sharing information that gives our citizens a sense of the process leading to the restoration of trust and hope. This should be done as regularly as California Governor Gavin Newsom does each day. This should be aimed at confidence building, that we are all in this together when it comes to basic needs. We don’t need platitudes or pats on the shoulder, we need real-life examples that inspire us.

2. Highlighting City partnerships with community hope-givers– create social networking support with churches and social service groups that have a built-in network of outreach that others can connect into to build their own sense of purpose.  How are we getting supplies to the most vulnerable? Where are good examples of neighbors helping neighbors? Stories of high school students helping seniors. How are we turning strangers into neighbors?

We need visions of hope for the future in terms of our livelihoods - not just job numbers, but stories of hope in recovery in terms of families being able to put food on their table - restaurants that are making it, the arts coming back, high tech jobs that are thriving in the midst of pandemonium. 

The city partners with the hospitality industry to bring tourists to town, but many other sectors are left to their own devices, or worse yet, are looked as if they were people with suspicious motives trying to sneak something by us.  Trust isn't built on suspicion.  Here is where our local government needs to follow the old sage advice: "Be the change you want to see happen."

I still believe the City should actively be building partnerships with the development community and property owners to assure that the right kind of development is getting through the system. Build a reputation of providing good customer service.  Tell us success stories about how this is happening.

3. Forecast what Santa Barbara will look like when this is all over.  If the medical field is one of our top five employers in Santa Barbara, how are we strategically planning for their success?  If nurses are important, how high a priority is the City College nursing program on the City Council's Agenda?   Or, is it even on the Agenda?  If housing is important to basic workers in the medical field (nurses, emergency room personnel, dental assistants), how does the city or county factor the priority of those frontline workers into planning for added density housing for the community?  Are they on the priority list at all?  

St. Paul told the Corinthians that: "faith, hope, and love abide."  We can survive in the absence of "love" or "faith" for a long time, but without "hope", we are on a ventilator on our way out.   It is time that we take seriously the need to prioritize and strengthen our "infrastructure of hope."

This may be the point when it is needed the most.

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