Not long ago in the early evening while I was in my basement office I heard the all too familiar sound of rubber screeching on pavement followed by the smack of two cars colliding. We live near a small intersection that is close to a major street and very difficult to see around so, unfortunately, car crashes are almost an annual event near our home. As usual I jumped up from my chair and ran outside. I witnessed a scene that reminded me of my commitment and obligations to my community.
This crash was a doozy, but it seems like there are no minor collisions at that intersection. One car was still functional, and pulled forward and over to park along the curb. The other car was stopped in the middle of the intersection. The airbag had been deployed, the front bumper was hanging by one corner, the front crumple-zones had been activated, engine and body parts were strewn everywhere, and the engine fluids were draining rapidly onto the street. A number of bystanders had already gathered on the the sidewalks. Several people were on the phone, presumably calling 911 to dispatch police to supervise the scene and its cleanup.
I approached the young driver to ask if she was hurt. Her bare forearms were blackened and burnt from the airbag, though she hadn’t noticed yet. As she shook her head I heard one of the bystanders say into the telephone, “Oh man. This is really bad. You ought to see this.” I suddenly realized that it was more likely the folks on the phone were talking to their friends. Phone in hand, as is necessary during these events, I dialed 911. If anyone else had called for police the dispatch operator did not mention it and had no information on record.
As I was speaking with the dispatcher, describing the nature and severity of the accident, and answering questions that allowed her to determine the emergency response needed several cars approached the intersection, which was impassible. All the bystanders stood gawking. Not a single person walked out into the middle of the street to direct traffic. I considered shouting to get someone’s attention, but I did not want to holler into the phone while I was trying to answer questions for the dispatcher. So instead, while half distracted by the phone call I walked around to the other side of the crashed vehicle so I could signal an oncoming car to turn around, and try to stop others from approaching. Fortunately, within a few moments a police officer pulled his cruiser sideways across the intersection and turned on the emergency lights to deter traffic. Undetered, a woman in a minivan literally drove up onto the sidewalk to go around the unnavigable intersection.
A few minutes later the fire truck that was dispatched while I was on the phone arrived to clean up the toxic spill that had drained from the engine. From my front window I watched the fire crew pry into the innards of the vehicle. I was fascinated by their work, and annoyed with the passersby. Others were on the scene first, and yet no one had called for emergency assistance. At a glance it was pretty obvious the scene required a police officer, a tow truck, possibly a paramedic, and a hazardous materials crew. And why did no one think to direct traffic while we awaited professional help? I’ve always learned it is never okay to stand around and watch when work needs to get done. If something needs to get done you are suppose to get in and help. You only get to stand on the sidelines when there is no more work to be done and everyone gets to rest on the sidelines together.
I thought about other times when something needed to be taken care of, but no one did it. Walking through the park recently, one of the sprinkler heads, had been damaged. It held its head high with the end knocked off, spewing water like a fire hose, while its companions rested with their heads tucked safely underground. It was a warm, sunny morning and dozens of people were out, a number of whom had walked right in front of the gusher before I reached it. Yet when I arrived at the parks department sign and found the phone number to call maintenance, to my surprise, no one had reported the problem.
There have been other times that something needed to be taken care of as well. Why does it seem like no one else jumps in? This community belong to all of us. We are all responsible for taking care of it.
When others don’t jump in and do their part I actually feel a little hurt. When a dozen people walk passed something that needs attention and it doesn’t occur to one of them to take care of it I wonder, “don’t you care about this community, too?” There is a little bit of, “why is this my job,” that wants to creep in, but I don’t let it. It makes me sad that it feels like others don’t care enough to follow-up. Cognitively, though, I know it is probably not that people don’t care. More likely, it does not occur to many people that they should do something.
It seems so simple, but it is the essence of leadership. When I think of a leader I think of someone who does the right thing, who takes a stand, who serves the greater good, who follows through on words with actions, and who puts oneself at risk for the good of the whole. I don’t think of leadership in terms of reporting a maintenance issue to the parks department or calling for fire and police response to an auto accident. These actions, while not heroic by any stretch of the imagination, take the same instinct as leadership. If I cannot call the police or direct traffic in response to a car crash how can I take action and lobby for a much needed stop sign to protect all the neighbors and visitors in my neighborhood?
As the old adage states: Someone ought to do something about that; I am someone. I wish everyone was someone, too. There is just one of me, so I cannot follow-through on everything to make higher level change. I am not ready to join the corps of dedicated volunteers who support the parks department, though I can support their work by taking a moment to report maintenance issues.
Everyone sees the world through different eyes. Something I see as a problem that needs corrected – such as intimate partner and family violence, or inequitable access to education, or even a dangerous intersection – may not be viewed as problematic by everyone. If one does not see a problem there is nothing to respond to. This was more likely the real reason that no bystanders called for police or directed traffic to turn around. Once I see something as a problem I have an obligation to intervene and take care of it in the moment. It makes no difference who is at fault or whose responsibility it is, or even whether it is my business. If I recognize something as a problem it is my business and I am responsible for it. And when I realize that a problem is not an isolated event, but part of a larger condition it is time to follow-up and make some real change.
I take heart that the work I do with nonprofit and education programs is needed because something needed to be done and Someone did it. Though once in a while a little event leaves me wondering how many someones are left in this world I know every day there are countless Someones who put themselves on the line to solve important problems and make our community a little better. Thank you Someone, for seeing the mission.