Civility, Collaboration, Dialogue

On “meanness” in American politics

President Obama visited the Illinois General Assembly this afternoon to spend about an hour exploring what he called a “a better kind of politics.” In his speech, marking the ninth anniversary of the day he announced his presidential candidacy, Obama talked about the necessary but often ignored role of collaboration across party lines and the dire need for general civility in American politics. As quoted in a New York Times article about the speech (subscription may be required),

“One of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics. I was able to be part of that here, and yet I couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to, to our politics in Washington.”

Although he was addressing an audience in Illinois and referenced DC in the quote above, he also talked about ways to address problems in our political system at the individual level. In the video above, his speech starts a little after the 15 minute mark. It is well worth a watch, regardless of your political affiliation.


Community engagement, Local government, Nonprofits, Volunteers

Help wanted: volunteers in small communities

On Sunday evening, I went to a fundraising event for a nonprofit that puts on a three-day country fair every summer. The event’s main coordinator, a volunteer who has been the master planner for this fair on a year-round basis for a long time, has decided to step down. The nonprofit does not have a succession plan to help it move through this time of transition, and no one has come forward to take the event coordinator’s place. Unless at least one dedicated soul comes forward to serve in this demanding volunteer role before the nonprofit’s next meeting in February, the fair will be cancelled.

The ever-present need for volunteers, and lamentations about the lack of them, is a well-known theme to anyone involved with the nonprofit sector. I heard a lot about it at the event on Sunday night, and I have seen this problem in many other nonprofits in the past.

A similar concern over the lack of volunteers can be found in the small towns of western Massachusetts, towns that have been set up to operate almost entirely on the voluntary efforts of local residents. We depend on volunteers to do everything from fighting fires and going on ambulance runs to serving on planning boards and staffing after school programs. Our towns are in trouble when residents stop showing up contribute their unpaid services for the common good. The need for volunteers is an issue my Select Board has been treating as a top priority this year.

With so much awareness of the need for volunteers — combined with a lack of them, in many cases — around me right now, I want to spend some time in this blog talking about volunteers. These posts will be an opportunity for me to share some resources I have found useful and to explore this challenging topic in more depth.

Local government

“Practicing Democracy”

When I talk about town government in this blog, I often will be speaking about the particular kind of institution that is found in rural New England. Our small towns hold annual town meetings, usually in the spring, at which voters set the framework for town business over the coming year. At town meeting, voters debate the annual budget, appropriate funds for special projects, establish bylaws, weigh the claims put forward in petitions, and debate priorities with neighbors. In a nutshell, annual town meeting gives town residents the opportunity to directly participate in setting the town’s direction for the upcoming year.

A great introduction to this form of government is Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). The author, Donald Robinson, is both an academic (a professor emeritus at Smith College) and a former Select Board member in the town he profiles in this book. He explores the history of annual town meetings and the ways in which rural towns like his govern themselves, for better or for worse. The publisher’s blurb about the book summarizes the process this way:

“Citizens control the actions of their government. Not everyone participates, but all may, and everyone who lives in the town must accept and obey what town meeting decides.”


Lists, News

Weekend reading

A few of the things I am reading this weekend.


Baker slashes $50M in spending: Cuts part of $320 million budget fix” | CommonWealth

  • News about the Massachusetts Governor’s cuts, which were announced Friday afternoon.
  • According to Boston Globe coverage of the cuts, “The governor, among other things, cut $10 million in grants to small and mid-size hospitals and community health centers and $750,000 from the state’s cash assistance program for the poor, citing lower-than-expected caseloads.”

The FCC is worried about the millions of Americans who still don’t have broadband access  | Quartz

  • The materials linked in this article are well worth a read, too.
  • On a related note, I was quoted extensively in yesterday’s Greenfield Recorder (“West County towns want more details about MBI ‘regional’ broadband plan,” subscription may be required for access) about some of the problems we’re having bringing broadband to communities here in rural western Massachusetts.

Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016 | Lucy Bernholz, Grantcraft

  • The “annual industry forecast about the ways we use private resources for public benefit,” by Lucy Bernholz.

One Year Later: Reflecting on Detroit’s Philanthropy-Driven ‘Grand Bargain’” | Alliance

  • From the article: “The so-called ‘grand bargain’ will ultimately raise more than $800 million from foundations, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), private donors and the state of Michigan, as reported by The New York Times. According to The New American, it will reduce the city’s debt by $7 billion, save the DIA, earmark $1.7 billion to maintain the city’s essential services like police and fire protection and minimize pension cuts to public sector retir­ees by 4.5 percent.”

The Hidden Lives of America’s Poor and Middle Class” | Stanford Social Innovation Review

  • Tag line: “The financial lives of Americans have dramatically changed. The programs, policies, and products designed to help them need to change too.”
  • The article covers the findings and recommendations from a year-long study of the economic lives of real people around the country. See also: US Financial Diaries

“‘Dark’ Funds May Bode Ill for 2016 Election” | New York Times


Local government, Nonprofits

“Take thinking apart”

Around this time a three years ago, I went to a workshop at the home of a friend who had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Most of the people he invited to this workshop were in community leadership roles of one type or another. They were school administrators, senior staff from a nonprofit where he had served on the board, former and current elected officials, and a minister, among others. Hosting this particular workshop for this group of community leaders was one of the things he felt he needed to do before dying.

The workshop topic? Critical thinking.

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking,

“Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. If we want to think well, we must understand at least the rudiments of thought, the most basic structures out of which all thinking is made. We must learn how to take thinking apart.”

My friend wanted to make sure these leaders he invited into his home would take care of his community in a thoughtful and rational way long into the future. He knew critical thinking was essential for the work ahead. He wouldn’t be there with us, but he could give us some tools for the work before he was gone.




Raison d'etre

Asking questions

Over the last 20 years, I have spent a lot of my time working for not-for-profit organizations in the US and abroad, serving as a nonprofit board member, and holding elected offices in a small Western Massachusetts town. This blog is a place for me to address questions that circle around a handful of themes from my nonprofit and local government experiences:

  • How can charitable organizations and local governments function well?
  • How can those entities effectively engage and serve their communities?
  • Why do a few people chose to pursue public service, while many others do not?
  • How can small, rural communities can collaborate for mutual benefit?