To be neighborly is to resist: Reclaiming community after Trump

If bad communities gave rise to the far right, Phoenix will show how to rebuild

Strong communities are the basis of having good institutions. Phoenix, like many cities, has experienced the tumult of Sunbelt growth, and now it’s time we work to become better neighbors, building our city into a place that isn’t so afraid.

Last fall, the Phoenix New Times' Tom Zoellner alleged that Arizona had laid the foundation for President Trump over decades. Student and youth leaders from and around ASU are working to transform the city, making Phoenix not only the birthplace of Trumpism, but also the springboard to rebuild a divided America.

Zoellner argued that Arizona has three key traits: a frail sense of community, a lack of institutions and a reliance upon messianic business leaders to guide them through. These three traits gave birth to the political culture that built up the likes of amoral actors like the former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and President Trump. 

These three factors, however, are linear. Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City distinctly captures how metropolitan Phoenix was constructed as an escape from coastal regions, defining our city as a personal fortress in which we did not seek to build a community with our neighbors. Instead, we sought separation and protection.

The alienation that this built has plagued a city that experienced rapid population growth through a suburbanspaced-out model.

Many of our neighborhoods were built for a transient life that would be thrown away to move on to another town. We don't know our neighbors — I don't know my neighbors. I've met people at events and only discovered they lived in my complex months later.

Phoenix's fortress-like growth does not have to continue to define us, however, and Phoenix and Tempe leaders are pushing back.

If the Trump phenomenon is because our cities have weak institutions, the only way they will get stronger is through building community. Organizations like the Civil Rights Alliance (CRA), led by community organizer and Tempe Elementary School District Vice President and Governing Board Member Patrick Morales, demonstrate that community building doesn’t happen naturally — it happens via dedicated work.

That requires a lot of personal growth for all community members. One of the fundamental jobs CRA does is making allies more effective, because all of us need better training in fighting for our neighbors.

“We’re making sure we’re ingraining these (community) values in the audience that wants to hear them. We’re reaching out to allies that maybe don’t understand race at a deep level, or what a veteran goes through when they come back,” Morales said of CRA’s training programs.

Through this, CRA gives allies shared knowledge where shared experience is impossible, across ethnic, linguistic, sexuality, class and military status divides. If experience can’t be shared, then this knowledge is the next best step to building the community base.

Since the 2016 presidential elections, interest in organizations and ways to get involved in the community has increased. This is the ideal time for us all to invest in our communities.

As communities come together, they create our community voice. And that voice is already heading toward running for office.

Morales’s work for public groups like the school district while organizing demonstrates what he says is a notion of “affecting change from the outside and the inside.” This builds up institutions the way they should work: as outgrowths of the communities they govern.

While observing a pro-Trump march at the state capitol this past weekend, what stood out to me in repeated conversations was a culture of fear — the kind that leads us to hide behind gated communities and shun anyone that doesn’t fit into our model of living.

If we fight together to build our communities, we can overcome a culture of paranoia that has led to our rejecting of the other. Organizations like CRA are a beginning, but each of us needs to reach out to meet our neighbors.

Phoenix can rise beyond the ashes of proto-Trumpism. The only question is whether we will come together to do so.

Reach the columnist at or follow @blsteele17 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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