I START with a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw who says, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Weeks ago, I saw a post on Facebook by the Cagayan de Oro City Infonet. The post mentioned something about cleaning up the esteros (canals) in Barangay 22.

It was a project of the Cagayan de Oro City government in cooperation with the barangay officials. The pictures included in that Facebook post kept me thinking for a while, led me to both positive and negative thoughts in my mind.

The positive thoughts of course centered on the benefits of having a clean environment by declogging canals that have accumulated garbage over the years. There's no liquid refuse or water passing through because of the ocean of plastic and other wastes in the canals.

The negative thoughts centered on the lack of volunteerism. I was disturbed by looking at the dirty esteros, and how the city government crew is at their lonesome cleaning the canals while city residents are looking at them, most viewing with their hands akimbo.

What happened to the spirit of bayanihan or community spirit that we always mentioned and boast as a tradition among Filipinos? There's nothing of the sort in the photos I see in that City Infonet Facebook post.

I see a connection between old politics and empowerment. Community empowerment is about working in ways which empower people – ways which mean that people feel “confident,” that they – and the groups they are involved in – are inclusive and organized.

Community empowerment results in the formation of networks and cooperatives that support each other and – ultimately – become influential. At least, that’s what I've read in some books and I am inclined to agree with it.

In the past (those who stayed in Cagayan de Oro in the last few years know what I am talking about) other people were alienated and out of the loop for projects undertaken in their barangays.

It was more of a “sakop-sakop” (clique) system. So those outside the political party or were neutral were not part. They were not asked and they don’t care at all. That is a given fact.

Thus, I couldn't blame these people for just looking around. As we know that area they cleaned is one of the choke points that caused flooding during the rainy season. It has been a problem for as long as I remember and I guess it would still be a problem in the coming months.

The word empowerment has been popularized by the time the Local Government Code was implemented. Not only empowerment, we have others words like initiative and devolution.

And also I think individual and collective empowerment is the same. If an individual is empowered then that person can be a part of the community's empowerment. You know what I mean.

If the national government is doing a good job, much is expected by its constituents but government cannot do it alone. It needs citizens to help it serve them better.

Everyone is expected to be a good citizen and do his or her part. What needs to be done should be reinforced by local officials to remind the constituents of their obligation and the importance in helping the government.

Like the problem of cleaning up the environment and properly disposing of one's garbage. Canals should be cleaned so there won't be flooding and people can breathe easier and not have to see eyesores like garbage.

These people who dump trash indiscriminately should be taught and if need be penalized. The job of reminding people to clean their environment should be done house to house.

I agree that it's a daunting task but there is no alternative except to start from the basics. I saw in that post that the cleanup was done in cooperation with the barangay officials but it would have been better if the whole barangay (village) was involved.

But the divide between the ideal and the reality looks too wide to bridge or cross over. Yet I still believe that people can be mobilized to help if they are properly inspired.

As you can see in the past only the members of a political group work and ask only the people associated with their group to help and others are alienated.

Research indicates that a lack of empowering approaches in the past may have left a legacy of people, and communities, feeling disillusioned, cynical, “apathetic,” disinterested, angry, confrontational and over-consulted.

Staffs working in both public and voluntary sectors often face this reality – and, while focusing on priorities around community empowerment, it can be helpful to remember how easy it is for people to feel disempowered and how engagement can take place in ways which are “more empowering.”

I could only hope those days were over under the administration of Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Oscar Moreno. His pointman Teddy Sabuga-a would certainly involve everyone in the project.

Let cleanups be a community project with the city government actively supporting it. Barangay leaders should take the lead in motivating and involving their constituents.

Barangay officials should make their constituents feel that they belong to the community they live in and not be outsiders. After all, the floodwaters don't discriminate whenever they hit people in their homes.

All of us share the same living space and we should all be concerned and involved in making it a better place to live in.

(Susan Palmes-Dennis is a veteran journalist from Cagayan de Oro City, Misamis Oriental, Northern Mindanao in the Philippines and is now employed as teacher assistant in one of the school systems in the Carolinas.)