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What is the Future of This Place | David Franz: The benefits of responsible independence


Last updated 4/30/2020 at 6:42pm | View PDF

The City of Shafter has a wide independent streak. For decades, our local leadership has been wary of getting too cozy with our state government. It has long been a mantra around City Hall that we want to hitch our wagon to capitalism rather than Sacramento.

Because of this, Shafter has done things that most municipalities have not. In 1995, the community voted to adopt a charter to govern itself by. Since then, Shafter has built a railroad, a container yard and a fiber optic network. We are the only city I know with a website ending in .com rather than .gov or .org. The city annexed and planned a logistics park. The city invests in education.

All of these are symbols of our independence. However, they also show the difference between independence and rebellion. No door-slamming teenager is independent without an apartment or a job. Similarly, our independence as a community depends on our ability to take care of ourselves and our neighbors.

Vaclav Havel was an anticommunist dissident in the former Czechoslovakia. He was imprisoned and exiled for criticizing the communist regime. After the Soviet bloc collapsed, he was elected president of the new Czech Republic. Havel understood the stakes of political freedom as well as anyone. In writings and speeches for the rest of his life, he repeatedly returned to a theme. The main task of this era, he said, was "a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility."

I have been thinking about these words a lot lately. In addition to worrying about the health and the economic effects of this crisis, I know many are concerned about what it reveals about our ability to govern ourselves. Some are frustrated that we are not enforcing the strict measures China used, others that we are not closer to our normal lives. However, I have been struck by things around Shafter that should also be encouraging to lovers of self-government.

Our country's decentralized systems have worked better than many feared. Studies show that most of the reductions in infection appear to have started before formal statewide orders were even given as people and organizations voluntarily changed behaviors in response to guidance. Local elected leaders, business owners and residents have been making decisions to protect people and make the best of the situation. Some restaurants put up plastic shields between their employees and customers. People are wearing masks. The schools have done a heroic job of shifting instruction online and distributing food safely. The city's Learning Center is now a virtual tutoring provider, with hundreds of online tutoring hours already in the first few weeks.

None of this was dictated by Sacramento or Washington. There will be mistakes made along the way, but for the most part, they will be our mistakes. I am glad for that. This is a terrible and frustrating time. Still, I am encouraged to see that we are facing this crisis as an independent, responsible people. That is who we are.

David Franz is director of the Shafter Learning Center. Opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect those of The Press or Tribune or their management.


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