OPINION | St. Paul’s Como Park neighbors combine leaf raking and community conversation in Como Curb Cleanup

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You might not think that cleaning up leaves in the Como neighborhood has anything to do with citizenship and democracy. But in truth, the Como Curb Cleanup—to be held Oct. 13-21 this year—is about a lot more than raking up a few leaves. And it’s about a lot more than restoring Como Lake to a healthy condition.

Como Curb Cleanup – the week-long leaf-raking event throughout the neighborhood – is October 13-21. The post-event celebration/conversation takes place on October 27.

At its core, the Como Curb Cleanup is really about us, the residents who live in the Como neighborhood and our ability to solve a longstanding community problem together. That problem is the significant amount of phosphorus pollution that flows from the Como neighborhood into Como Lake every year, further weakening an already degraded lake.

For those unfamiliar with the Como Curb Cleanup, it is a collaborative effort among Como neighbors and several cross-sector partners. The goal is to cleanup as much organic debris as possible, namely dead leaves, from our neighborhood curbs and street gutters, thereby preventing this material from washing or blowing down our street storm drains or from decaying in the gutter. In either case, the leaves mix with stormwater runoff and release phosphorus, which is then carried via our storm sewers into Como Lake and the Mississippi River. (For more on the impact of phosphorus on Como Lake go to CLNN.org)

The project is organized by the Como Lake Neighbor Network and District 10 Community Council, but it is led by the hundreds of Como residents who clean the curbs and street gutters along their home blocks.

By taking the lead on this key solution strategy—reducing phosphorus at the source—we are not only demonstrating how much we value Como Lake, we also are demonstrating the importance of the public’s role in tackling urban stormwater pollution.

Complex public problems are rarely solved by government interventions alone. Thus far, our local government agencies—Capitol Region Watershed District and the cities of St. Paul, Roseville and Falcon Heights—have born the lion’s share of responsibility for working to restore Como Lake. The work they do is incredibly important, but it cannot be replicated on every street in Como. The public has a critical role to play in leading the effort to slow the influx of phosphorus coming from the streets.

Demonstrating leadership is important for us as citizens. Much has been written in recent years about the weakening of democracy in America. Today’s partisan political climate is so toxic and polarized many people have simply checked out of public life entirely. The consequence is we lose our sense of ownership for the common good and focus our attention more narrowly on our own self-interests. Self-interest is not bad, but if we want to live in a healthy community with healthy public assets, such as Como Lake, we need to connect to each other, to the public sphere, where the many varieties of our self-interests are considered up against community interest.

This is the essence of democracy: working through our differences to find common ground for the common good. As Francis Moore Lappé once said, “Democracy is not something we have; it’s something we do.”

My interest in democracy and how it relates to the Como Curb Cleanup project is inspired by my membership in the nonprofit Citizens League. The league brings Minnesotans from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum into constructive conversations to identify, frame and propose solutions to a host of public issues impacting Minnesota, such as clean water. The league’s approach, called Civic Organizing, is grounded in a set of democratic principles and a belief in the capacity of citizens to govern justly together for the common good. In these modern times we cannot expect our elected officials to solve all of our problems. We have to play a role, as citizens, in building the kind of community we want through the local practice of democracy.

The Citizens League is teaching me how to apply the Civic Organizing approach at the neighborhood level, so for 2012 I am applying it to the Como Curb Cleanup. My intentions are to reframe the act of cleaning up leaves from our public streets as a civic act and an opportunity to begin building a network of neighbors who not only want to help solve the problem of phosphorus pollution flowing to our lake, but more broadly want to begin building their own civic capacity and a communitywide civic infrastructure so we can practice democracy in Como together.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, please come to the community conversation that will follow the Como Curb Cleanup on Saturday, Oct. 27. We will begin a dialogue as neighbors about Como Lake, what it means to us, its value to our community and what kind of vision we have for its future. At press time, the location for that conversation had not been determined. It will be posted on line at CLNN.org when it is.

Janna Caywood is the lead organizer of the Como Lake Neighbor Network. Contact her at janna@watercircles.org.

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