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  • Writer's pictureReal Deal Dawson

Conquering the Community Con Job

Standing in my first class as a substitute teacher.
Substituting for the community.

Today, with election talk in our faces seemingly nonstop year round, and with the country a hefty eighteen months away from the 2024 Presidential election, the time has come to blow the doors off of the rotted-out-barn of a sales pitch made by political candidates. The sales pitch where they beg us to vote for them because they “Just want to give back to the community,” as if God bestowed this duty upon them, and we should be thankful for their martyrdom, and now vote for them to save our souls. Because you know, we must thank the heavens for sending us this much needed political angel down to us.

Well, I think the idea of being a politician and “Giving back to the community” is somewhat absurd. A politician’s actions and votes only give to some, and definitely take from others. There are not many issues that an entire electorate will agree upon, so when some politician knocks on your door asking for your vote, claiming they “Just want to give back to the community,” what they are really hoping you miss in that same disingenuous breath is that they are also taking from the community, at the same time. Them saying “I just want to give back to the community” insinuates that the whole town exalted them on high at some point, and now they just need to thank everyone for their vote by enacting bad policy decisions. Because in legislation, what actually ends up happening is the giving back to a community of a few, and the taking from a town of many.

I was in politics for six years on my town’s council. I know this about myself: I am good at politics, but I am a horrible politician. That is because I am unable to talk out of both sides of my mouth while switching between my two faces. When I campaigned, going home to home knocking on doors and introducing myself and listening to the residents of my town, I was never so pathetic, nor disingenuous, as to whimper “I just want to give back to the community,” sheepishly whining and begging for votes because I had no other platform to stand on. I never thought that my policy positions and visions for my community were so bad that I actually had to resort to some invisible, and mainly absent, action that the heavens bestowed upon me that ultimately qualified me to serve as the community's sacrificial citizen - allowing me, to “Just give back to the community.”

The phrase itself invites scrutiny: “I just want to give back to the community.” Really? What did they take from our community that they feel the compunction to give it back? If a handful of people did something for them at some point, then perhaps those are the best people for the politicians to thank, and give back to personally and directly. That specific action is better than trying to convince voters you were summoned by the Gods to serve and just “Give back to the community”, as if everyone was morally starving without that pseudo-celestial anointing that is supposed to grace our lives after casting our vote.

“I just want to give back to the community” is no reason to vote for any politician. Most politicians are in it for themselves, their friends, and cohorts.

Which begs a new question?

If a politician is not really giving back to the community as they say they are, where did that saying even come from? Why do politicians say it? What do they think “Giving back to the community” is exactly?

Over several weeks during the midterm election campaigns, I was passively grumbling, whilst thinking of that phrase, and looking for an answer to it.

Because this question was weighing heavily on my mind, it actually helped me to recognize the exact moment the answer showed itself to me - with the exact words I needed to hear - from the exact person I needed to hear it from!

Then the pieces all began to come together exactly how they should, and it all made sense.

Shortly before the midterm elections of 2022, I chaperoned my son’s fall class trip to the mountains and hills of northern New Jersey for the annual two-night campout. Originally I was not going to volunteer, but when they said the trip may be canceled because of the lack of chaperones, I stepped up to help make it possible for my son, his friends and classmates. This trip is taken every year by students, including my eldest son when he was at this point in school, and I was not going to let his brother miss it.

The first night, all the students and staff gathered at the large campfire. It had been burning for hours at this point, like a little sun burning in a pit, tended to by a staff member. The bottom was aglow with the yellows and oranges of scorching heat warming the fronts of our bodies as if it were only allowed to warm that one part of us, while fire spirits darted across the sky with electricity and anticipation. After a couple hundred students took seats around the fire, their faces reflecting flickering fire light, and they lowered their voices to listen. Our director spoke and made a few points that were more student-related, and then began talking about the greater community sitting there at the firepit; what this community right in front of the fire is, and how all of us at that moment, staff included, were continuing to build the community that had begun years earlier (even before my eldest son sat here); how the students who came before us had gone on to continue building strong senses of community in their lives - and how this class of students would take our sense of community with them going forward, and continue to build on it for years to come in their lives, long after this trip. As I laid my head on my pillow that night, listening to my cabin of students tell hushed stories with muffled laughs, I realized who my community was; I realized that my community is the same one that likely binds most communities together - the school community. Just start with the basic principle of raising children and educating them, and there you have likely the most important community one could give something back to, that would actually benefit from that action. My eldest son was a senior at that point, and after going over his previous eleven school years in my head, I was astonished to realize we had been part of this school community and literally giving back to it all along. But like olfactory numbness, it never registered that way. In the moment it is get them to here by this time, there is a school event this day, and homework homework homework because you need good grades! In retrospect, operating within this community kept me from seeing it for what it is: My community.

There, in the mountains and hills of northern New Jersey with a couple hundred middle-schoolers in front of a large, hot, raging bonfire I was able to find my definition of “Giving back to the community”, and instantly knew how I would contribute to this community even more.

After returning from the campout, I submitted my job application to be a certified substitute teacher in our school district. What created a sense of urgency was my new-found understanding of community - of my community - and I was excited and motivated by the director’s speech. Akin to “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” I was bought in. Not by propaganda or relentless messaging, but by the revelation that the very community my children had thrived in over the years, is my true community.

I was desperate to do more for this community, to say thank you to it for helping shape my children into the smart, respectful, empathetic, and likable individuals they are; to say thank you to the district for helping me become a better parent too. Genuinely, I just want to give back to this community.

The school community is what we base our lives around - getting kids to school and back home at certain times, taking them to sports, extra curricular activities, birthday parties, sleep overs and other events. Other parents are doing the same, and our schedules are very similar, and we end up seeing everyone all of the time in the same places - supporting one another in the face of all the challenges that come with raising children. We laugh at the good, roll our eyes and drop our jaw at the crazy, and empathize with the heavy and difficult. This is the community that has moved together like an amoeba over the last thirteen years, at least, giving not only to my family, but many others as well in a reciprocal fashion. I loved knowing exactly how I could immediately give back to this community, in a beneficial way, as a substitute teacher for the district.

One of the definitions of community is “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” When I witness the hundreds of students passing through the halls of our school district, with their shared attitudes of respect and kindness they have heard since kindergarten, and their shared interests of doing well and performing their best (yes that really does exist in school), I realize there is no politician who speaks of giving back to this community.

The only people that I could see giving back to this community every day - building up its most valuable assets - after not taking anything from anyone, are the teachers and school administrators who devote themselves to our community’s future every single day. While I do not have the exact numbers for my community, on a high level, if one considers the average tenure of our teachers and administrators (which I guess is close to ten years), along with the number of former students who have returned to the district to teach after getting their degrees, the bond and strength of this community is a force to bear. The heart and soul of this community, in my opinion, is deeper than a conventional idea of a community or neighborhood, one likely defined more by a geographical measurement.

The other definition of community is, “A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” That sounds sterile and chock full of sameness. That is not where we live. People are as different as earthly terrains, with different characteristics and seasons, and many times hold values and beliefs, biological and natural processes, that may not be “in common” with each other.

So ask yourself, which community is it that the disingenuous politician wants to give back to? Is it the community of the few, with the feeling of fellowship, shared values and goals? It does not seem so, because those numbers alone do not equal enough votes for a candidate to lean on. Politicians have shown they are better at exploiting our differences, driving bigger wedges between us, keeping us further apart than our divisions already have us. Likely, they are not giving back to this community.

Or is it the community where people are living in the same place with the same characteristics? That sounds too dystopian to base today’s reality off of it - but that is the other definition of community. It seems like this defined community, with its sameness and likely predictableness, does not have a need for any politician to give anything back to them.

As a substitute teacher in three districts (not a warm-body in a chair, but actually teaching), embedded daily in the community of elementary, middle, and high school students, teaching subjects from orchestra to math, and gym to literature, I can write this without a shade of doubt:

If a person truly cares about “Giving back to the community,” they should become a teacher, or substitute teacher, in their local school district. Giving the children of their town that they care so much about, the consistency and continuity needed in education to learn, grow, and become our productive citizens of tomorrow, should be a community leader's single priority. There is no community of consequence that is of greater importance to the future, than the community that touches our lives far beyond the school halls and graduations in some way, nearly every day, than the school community.

The need for “all good men to come to the aid of their country” is just as great now as it was at the turn of the century. If your passion is to get attention and recognition for giving something back to a community (and are mistaken that politics is the vessel for that generosity), you should consider that your local school community needs generous people like you. The students desperately need you - and I have seen it - the students want to learn something. They want to be guided. Step up. Show us what you got. Your school community, the future of mankind, needs you to give something back to it.

But if being a politician and begging for votes is your thing, please stop claiming you “Just want to give back to the community.”

It makes it sound like you took something from us.


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