From the Beacon, June 2022

Uvalde, Texas, is more than 2,000 miles away. It’s a place that few of us knew existed — until May 24. And now Uvalde will be forever associated with violence, tragedy, death, pain and heartbreaking loss.

Buffalo, N.Y., is only 325 miles from the Massachusetts border. We’ve all heard of Buffalo, but few of us knew about the Tops supermarket there — until May 14. And now that neighborhood will be forever associated with violence, tragedy, death, pain and heartbreaking loss.

In the days since these hate-inspired attacks, we have witnessed the suffering and pain of the families and community members. From hundreds of miles away, we’ve felt deep sadness, anger and fear. Aching sadness for the innocent victims whose lives were cut short, and for the family members who will grieve for the rest of theirs. Anger that people with evil intent have the access and means to weaponize their hate and racism. And yes, we feel fear that people with evil intent have the access and means to weaponize their hate and racism in any community in America, not just in Uvalde and Buffalo.

There is so much pain and loss around us. The opioid overdose epidemic continues to claim more than 200 lives per day across our nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than a million Americans since February 2020. The murder of George Floyd triggered national awareness of how systemic racism places a knee on the neck of millions of our neighbors because of the color of their skin, an ugly American legacy that is four centuries old.

Even as I write this, a voice is telling me to stop — to not mention the climate crisis, the rising mental health crisis among our youth, the devastation in Ukraine, or the growing economic chasm that separates more and more people from the American Dream.

Yet we can’t ignore these issues, and we can’t shut ourselves off from reality. It is so easy to become overwhelmed, and to question if we are doing enough as individuals, or as communities. These thoughts reflect our own humanity, and our discontent with the scope of these deep-seated national and global problems.

How, then, can we move ahead in the face of so many crises, so much loss, so much heartache?

The simple answer is that communities have always moved forward in the face of tragedy and crisis, because people and neighborhoods are naturally connected by place, history and a shared interest in their future and each other’s future. Time after time, we see local leaders stand up and step forward, bringing people together to help them grieve, heal, recover and rebuild.

Where does this resilience come from?

My own thought is that local leaders — and, by extension, local governments — are inherently optimistic by nature and practice, and that our resilience flows from this belief that we can improve things and make a difference.

In her book, “You Can be an Optimist,” Canadian writer and counselor Lucy MacDonald shares her view that “it’s not that optimism solves all of life’s problems; it’s just that sometimes it can make the difference between coping and collapsing.”

Building on the groundbreaking work of Milton Seligman, the father of positive psychology, whose research has demonstrated that helplessness and its opposite — optimism — are traits that are influenced by our genes and our experiences, MacDonald says that optimism can be learned and strengthened through intentional practice.

“Optimism is such a powerful tool because it gives you the confidence to handle both positive and negative events. It enables you to approach situations with assurance, persistence and an expectation of success. Being optimistic means that you have a natural aptitude for happiness, that you can manage your perspectives and that you take an active role in creating the life you want,” she writes. “Optimists thrive on dealing with other people, and because they tend to be involved in so many different activities, they have ample opportunity to do so.”

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading linguists and social scientists, underscores the value of optimism, saying that it “is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

That certainly sounds like an apt description of a mayor, councillor, select board member, town manager, and so many municipal workers who dedicate their careers to working with and serving the public.

And there is so much hard evidence that local officials are making a difference on the most troubling issues of our time.

Massachusetts is a national leader in stemming gun violence, primarily because of the Legislature’s strong gun control laws, including the unique provision giving local police departments the decision-making power over gun license applications. Our state has the second-lowest rate of gun-related deaths in the country, at 3.7 per 100,000 residents, compared to 28.6 in Mississippi.

Cities and towns in every region of the state have been true leaders in fighting the largest pandemic of our lifetimes, saving countless lives through massive public health interventions to reduce community spread and illness, working with national, state and health care leaders to deliver vaccines and supplies to the most vulnerable among us, and transforming schools and municipal systems to continue operations as COVID continues its rampage.

Substance use disorder continues to plague too many households and neighborhoods, yet we know that community-based programs are saving lives. The recent $525 million opioid settlement forged by Attorney General Maura Healey will provide $210 million to our cities and towns, funding new and expanded programs for education, treatment and recovery programs in the years ahead. We know Healey was the all-star quarterback delivering this monumental win, yet there were more than 150 municipalities on the playing field as well, having joined in class action suits against the opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Addressing the systemic racism that pervades all parts of society is the most complex and deeply rooted problem of our time. Yet over the past two years, we have seen more and more communities engaging in open dialogue and taking concrete steps. Many have hired diversity, equity and inclusion officers. Internal systems are being examined, localities are introducing implicit bias training, and more than 150 local officials took part in the MMA’s introductory racial equity training last summer, offered in partnership with the National League of Cities. The hill we must climb is very steep, but the journey has begun, and there is no going back.

And there are hundreds of examples of how local leaders succeed in making progress on dozens of issues every week, large and small, just by being in service to their neighbors and the community in general.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by all the pain around us. Yet focusing solely on the bad can have us lose perspective and dilute our sense of optimism that local government can — and does — do great and impactful work. Remembering these successes, and the countless ways that municipalities have touched and improved people’s lives, is essential to fostering optimism and resilience. And optimism and resilience are what makes progress possible.

The Dalai Lama exhorts us to “choose to be optimistic — it feels better.” This is sound advice for our individual happiness. And it is sound advice for our communities. It is only when we are optimistic that we can make a better future.

Even as we experience heartache and sorrow when reflecting on Uvalde and Buffalo, we can choose to be optimistic and thus contribute to healing and recovery, and move forward with purpose.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO