The Participation Blog

When Anger Has No Outlet

environmental issuesFor the past thirty years, I have specialized in angry people. As a public participation specialist, I am often called in to communities that are hurting. People are facing real problems—living next to hazardous and radioactive waste sites and other environmental issues, seeing property diminishment from development, loss of jobs and income, threats to health, security, and tradition. They are fearful. When their fear is allowed to grow and they feel that no one is listening, that they don’t have a voice, and that there is no hope, then they become angry. The longer this goes on, the angrier they get. As their anger builds, their demands get harsher, their positions harden, their trust erodes, their hatred builds, and their behavior darkens. This is not a one-off. This happens every time. I have seen this cycle more times than I can count.

Community organizers and politicians understand that public anger—about anything really—is an incredibly powerful tool. It can be used to force change, draw attention to issues, and win elections. Over time, however, if that anger is not channeled into constructive activity, it becomes hatred and will consume everything positive in the system.

In public participation, we understand that anger is really passion pointed in the wrong direction. Demanding change, just saying no, and blaming others are all symptoms of anger without an outlet. Working together creates that outlet. We are a great nation not because of our political systems, but because of our demonstrated ability to come together to solve our greatest problems together. In every one of those angry communities, I have seen people ultimately come together and find solutions to environmental issues or public conflicts that work for everyone. I have seen those collaborative processes heal old wounds, repair broken relationships, build real trust, and create sustainable solutions. This is also not a one-off. It happens every time.

What is required in these communities is the sincere engagement of government in a collaborative approach to problem-solving. When communities experience true collaborative leadership, they build trust and find ways to work together. When people are tasked with the responsibility to truly explore a problem and develop solutions that work for everyone, they stop throwing stones. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and get to work cleaning up things like political and environmental issues. Maybe not every individual, but the community as a whole. Again, it happens every time.

After an anger-filled, truth-challenged two years of election, America elected a new President. Some view this as rock bottom. Others as a chance to rediscover America. I see it primarily as a cry for help. America is hurting. People are fearful. People are angry. This anger continues to drive us apart. However, the only real solutions lie in our ability to work together.

Today more than ever, we need collaborative leadership. You may or may not believe in this President or this Congress. Either way, put your faith in your neighbors. Believe in the promise of America and the power that each of us has in shaping the future of our own communities. Get engaged. Reach out to people who think differently than you do and find ways to relate. If we don’t stop hating each other, democracy truly fails us.

Author: Doug Sarno