Sunday, July 31, 2016

The future we want to live into

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.'  - W.B. Yeats

East of Eden

Earlier this week I was invited to share with a local group what I saw as issues and trends current in our city. The group would also be briefed on DMC, demographic projections, and some other targeted economic data. I was to address - broadly - anything of everything else that might be pertinent this group's purposes.

With two exceptions the group was comprised of Rochester residents and, as I looked over the list of whom to expect, residents likely to be well-informed on the issues facing the city. That being the case, it did not seem a good use of the time to catalog the all too familiar and growing list of challenges that demography, growth, and urban living pose for us. You know: affordable housing, transit, transportation, income disparities, immigration, workforce skills, arts, sustainability, sharing economy, infrastructures for communication of all kinds, inclusion, healthy living, recreation, jobs that pay well, jobs that refuse to pay well, persistent gaps in achievement, opportunity, wages, access; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The list is long, gets longer, and nothing will ever get crossed off of it. These issues are the permanent concerns of living and living in a city. They are not necessarily in every case bad problems to have but they will remain problems - or if you prefer, challenges; or, if you prefer, opportunities. Whatever term you use, these are the distractions that keep us mortal. A partial catalog of how in the 21st Century we till the ground from whence we were taken. No matter how many lists of the best this, that, or the other thing Rochester tops, we still dwell east of Eden after all.

Though sometimes the long view can be helpful, I did not contextualize my remarks by referencing either Yeats or Moses on Adam's Fall. Going back to those days just prior to the passage of the DMC legislation seemed far, fall, and frame enough.

There is good news to be found there in those days and in the days that have followed. In those days began an important trend that is not reducible to demographics or economics or the long term growth of the local "medical business entity" as Mayo Clinic was referred to in the DMC legislation. It is a trend that is expressed in a question and exemplified in four groups that have erupted into our city's life since 2013. Groups that did not exist three years ago. All four born in a bit of angst but quickly embracing participation, accountability, and possibility.

Who wants to know?

The question each of these groups asks in their own way for their own reasons is this: "What is the future we want to create together?" If there is a trend across all the issues any can list, it is how quickly this question came to be asked; how it burst into a broad community conversation about a shared future; and, how new groups demanded of themselves that the question be asked by and of and for so many.

Community Networking Group

The first of these groups formed early in 2013 even as bill that would establish DMC was moving through the state legislature. Now called the Community Networking Group, this informal assembly of mainly private and public social and human service providers came together initially try to sort out what was happening and what it might mean for their organizations and the people they served and supported. They saw early on that the growth toward which DMC focused our attention would bring with it increasing pressures upon our community fabric, increasing demands upon community services, and increasing stress upon community infrastructures. Like the rest of the city, the Community Networking Group spent months trying to sort through the hoops and hoopla that preceded and followed the passage of the legislation. What they sorted out they shared with each other. Over the months they have grown more clear on how better to provide service and support. When they could they have tried to speak in common and in concert about the concerns they share and the opportunities they see.

The Community Networking Group is now driving an effort to create a set of shared community-wide indicators that identifies measures of community well-being.

Journey to Growth

The origins of the second group to form are also found in 2013 in the Market Street study initiated by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and Rochester Area Economic Development Incorporated. The resulting report issued in January 2014 lead over the following months to the formation of Journey to Growth, a five-year economic development plan created to ensure the future economic viability of our region. Their goal is to diversify and grow the regional economy comprised of  Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Steele, Wabasha and Winona counties. They have identified five target sectors for development and expansion: computer system design and production, food processing, manufacturing, convention and tourism, and medical technology. Ten "journey committees" have formed around the issues they believe are vital to expanding and diversifying the regional economy, optimizing the regional talent base, and becoming a cohesive, connected region.

Journey to Growth is now moving into its second year of its five year journey tracking and sharing their progress in quarterly meetings throughout the region.

Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative

A third group formed in September 2014 at an evening meeting in the library auditorium called to create an action plan for arts and culture in Rochester. They were pretty adamant about not being interested in more "input." Even then engagement fatigue was setting in among Rochester residents and many were growing weary of convening without consequence. The Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative was an invitation to "output." As have other groups, they identified areas where they might get some needed traction and maybe even make something happen. For two years they have been doing just that. When news that the Chateau Theatre would become vacant surfaced, this group began the earliest planning for its possible use as a multi-function performance venue. They are now part of the task force that is working to realize that very same vision. The Collaborative has before the city council an Armory Re-use proposal to create at that site an arts and multicultural center. The "major public art project that would represent Rochester in an iconic way," that was on a potential To Do List at their very first meeting, is now realized in the Arts4Trails project that has placed five sculptures on the trail between Silver Lake and Slattery Park.

The Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative has in less that two years contributed in substantial ways to develop a vital arts infrastructure in the downtown, address some long-standing needs of our multicultural community, and lay the groundwork for a continuing major public art project.

In the City for Good

All these groups formed before the DMC Master Plan was presented and approved in 2015. The final example is a group that formed just as that planning phase was being concluded. Its voice was first heard at the DMCC board hearing on the approval of the plan. A voice that raised the same concerns about living in the "in shadow of growth" that others had. With its origins in the social justice missions of local communities of faith, In the City for Good arose quickly over a series of three community forums in June, October and November 2015. They organized themselves around the priorities those forums identified. Now "action groups" meet regularly to bring those issues to the fore and press for results that promote growth that brings its benefits to all without those least able bearing its costs (e.g. here, here, and here).

In the City for Good now holds regular forums to bring the work of these groups and the concerns they address to the broader community. Their next forum in October will invite candidates for city offices to respond to this work and those issues.

The dancers are not the dance

Though organizations and people that comprise these groups have been around for a while, the groups themselves did not exist three and half years ago. They have come upon the scene quickly. They are making a difference quickly. Formed in response to the big changes they each in their own way saw coming, they are perhaps the most important change we have seen so far. These groups may well represent the most significant change we will see. Along with other groups like The Commission, and We Bike Rochester, these groups represent a major local trend: asking the question, "What is the future we want to create together?" 

These groups were not elected or appointed or created by an act of any governing authority. They are all bottom-up groups, grassroots and grass tops. They are more and less organized; more and less formal; driven by volunteers and dependent upon voluntary associations. None of them have any money of their own to speak of and most would speak of having none at all. Increasingly they supersede groups that preceded them. As observed above, even though these groups may form initially in an anxiety arising from uncertainty and complexity, all four quickly embraced participation, accountability, and possibility.

Participation: These groups all expanded quickly by actively inviting others in and keeping that invitation always an open one. By doing so they benefit from the gifts and capacities that only others bring, and by seeking out those on the margins they can harvest new gifts and capacities.

Accountability: These groups formed around a founding sense of accountability understood here as Peter Block defines it: a willingness to care for the well-being of the whole. Participants find themselves among those with whom they are connected in shared interests and broad purpose. The groups they form actualize the potential collective these connections always held. Bringing a kind of soft power to local and regional affairs.

Possibility: These groups all placed before themselves what only questions about the future can make possible: possibility. Embracing as essential that the well-being of the whole depends not upon what comes next but what they do next. They must ask what is it possible to do and then what else is possible and then what else. Not surprisingly, as participation grows and accountability deepens, more possibilities emerge as possible.

These four groups will succeed some and fail some. Three years from now they might not exist. Maybe they accomplish what they set out to accomplish and disband. Maybe they morph into something else that carries their question forward. Maybe they collapse. Frankly, for different reasons in different ways, they are all pretty fragile. But they need not last. Their impact on the future they create together will not happen in the future, it will happen - if it happens - now. Besides these four examples are not the only examples of this trend. They represent the trend. They are not the trend itself. They are the dancers not the dance.

A better answer than the best one

Walking out of the meeting afterwards, a member of the group before whom I had presented ask me where I thought the city would be in five years. The best answer to questions like that is always "it depends," but this was someone literally helping to build a future Rochester, her question was serious and deserved a better answer than the best one. And this is no answer really anyway, just a reply to a query.

I said in essence but not in these words that I thought in time a shared horizon may emerge. All the asking of the same question may give rise to many hands gesturing in the same general direction toward that shared horizon.

Issues are shared, but interests vary. The answer is certainly not some group of groups, some parliament of all interests that will sort them all out. The answer is definitely not some ill-conceived attempt to "adjudicate" among these groups and their interests. Better we seek alignment toward that shared horizon if we can discern it. Better that we seek a resonance among these groups.  We can expect some dissonance along the way, but sympathetic vibrations born of earned empathy will serve us all well and better than any zero sum balancing. Resonance and alignment will not happen of its own accord. It will be another labor these groups take on.

Asking what is the future we want to create together depends most of all upon the coming together to do so. So far, we seem to be doing that and upon that it depends.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

What's not to like about the "Armory Arts Academy"?

Except for the due date.

What's not to like?

What's not to like about the "Armory Arts Academy" proposal submitted in response to the RFP issued by the city of Rochester for Re-use of the Armory? It has kids. It has arts. It has all that money.

With the Senior Center relocating and re-branding (125 Live) sometime later this year or early next year or whenever, the Armory becomes vacant and available. Some months ago in late 2015, the city issued an Request for Proposals (RFP) for the re-use of this building.

The Children's Museum showed early and strong interest, but that waned. They submitted no proposal. There was a car museum group that expressed interest, but nothing seems to have come of that. The folks that have been working for sometime to establish a veterans' and first responders' museum were interested, then weren't, then were. The Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative also was interested in establishing an arts and culture center. There may have been other parties as well.

At the time the proposals were submitted there was some confusion as to whether there were three or two. Most reports settled on two - one may have been withdrawn. Last Monday (07.11.16) there were indeed only two proposals presented at the city council's Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting: the proposals for the veterans' and first responders' museum; and, for the arts and culture center.

At that meeting, there was mentioned something about a third proposal that might be coming. Some folks in attendance caught that. Others didn't. It was duly reported by at least one local media outlet. No one asked about it, even though there is good reason why they might have.

Thursday evening, some city staff members were told that an arts academy Armory proposal would be presented at this Monday's (07.18.16) COW meeting. Sometime on Friday the "Armory Arts Academy" proposal was delivered to the city administrator. Early in the afternoon, he distributed that proposal for review to city council members - many of whom were surprised to see it.

According to the proposal, the "Armory Arts Academy" will be "a comprehensive tuition-free public elementary - middle [K-8] school offering a rigorous academic program while integrating the visual and performing arts into each and every school day." In other words, a charter school.

Charter schools in Minnesota are eligible for state Lease aid. The proposal reports that the current Lease aid amounts to $1,314 "per pupil unit."  The proposal projects that in the first year this charter school will be able to pay the city $257,544 in lease payments. The second year, $310,104. And at full "pupil unit" capacity, $473,040.

So; kids, the arts, and a whole lot of money. What's not to like?

Well, let's see

Set aside for the moment how one might regard the city facilitating the establishment of a charter school in the district and what that might mean. State education funding is arcane and fickle so who knows what impact it will have on the ISD 535 budget.

But, consider how it is that this "Armory Arts Academy" proposal has come forward.

The proposal with its kids and the arts and all that money was submitted 16 weeks after the required due date of 12pm, March 31, 2016. In fact, this proposal was submitted to the city administrator sometime on Friday before 1pm. That's 1pm July 15, 2016. Upon receipt the proposal was not returned by the city administrator with a polite email of regret that due to its late submission it could not be considered. On the contrary, it was promptly forwarded to members of the city council for review.

No doubt sometime very soon the city attorney will patiently explain that there's nothing wrong here. That having set the due date the city can ignore it because it can. Or at least one would assume a legal opinion along those lines will be forthcoming. That's how it usually works.

Folks not familiar with the limitless whimsy of local government might be surprised to learn that the city apparently does not need to first reject the proposals that met the due date requirements and were presented in good faith last Monday. Nor does it seem to need to close out the current RFP then open and publicize a new RFP to allow for additional submissions.

Instead, it appears that the council can arrange for this charter school proposal to be presented 16 weeks after the due date requirement. If that's not the case, then someone's in trouble and since no one in this city government ever seems to get into trouble, all this finagle must therefore ipso facto, abracadabra, voilĂ , actually be OK.

Never mind

Never mind those questions you might have about how it is Dr. Galeazzi came know and be assured that preparing and submitting his proposal long after the deadline had passed would not in any way interfere with it being presented to the city council. Never mind who might have provided him with those assurances. Never mind that unless other proposals are going to be pulled out of someone's, ah, hat, no one else has received the benefit of similar assurances.

Never mind that it was 16 weeks from the due date for submission to the date the council scheduled the COW presentations of the two proposals last Monday. Even though it has yet to appear on the COW agenda, if the council's plan is indeed to hear this charter school proposal on Monday, that would mean it would take place only three calendar days after it was submitted. So, never mind that this "Armory Arts Academy" proposal would effectively be heard by the council the next business day after it was received by the city administrator. At least some processes at city hall are being streamlined. By some. For some.

Finally, never mind how the city has already treated those folks who in good faith presented to COW last Monday. The local citizen groups who played by the rules they were given. Prepared their RFP's. Submitted them by the required due date. Waited months upon the council for an opportunity to present their proposals. Local citizens who came before the council thinking they were getting a fair hearing.

Perhaps there are some who will say these citizens got that fair hearing, but to the extent that any on the council knew of this "Armory Arts Academy" proposal (and one can only conclude that some did) and withheld that specific information (and it is clear that some have) the local citizen groups who presented last Monday were not treated fairly. Not at all. Not even close.

It depends

A process these local citizens thought to be open, was not. A process they thought to be transparent, was not. A process they thought governed by "terms, conditions and requirements" that they each had to affirm they understood, was not.

This treatment of these local citizens by our elected officials will probably be found all nice and legal. Still, by standards of simple decency that others think might also apply, their treatment does not seem at all nice or fair. Familiar though. Sadly so.

So, what's not to like about the "Armory Arts Academy" proposal with the kids, and the arts, and all that money? As always, it depends. Do you mind?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Being tree. Becoming #masskindness

Best time to plant a tree: 20 years ago. The 2nd best time: now. 3rd best time: about a year ago.

The tree on the mountain grows larger slowly and imperceptibly. It spreads and gives shade, and thus through its nature influences its surroundings.... The tree on the mountain, like the trees on the earth... represents influence by example. - The I Ching

Across a multitude of beliefs in many times and nations there exists within a rule that is golden. From ancient Egypt to ancient China, religions of the East and West, all the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha'i), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca and Scientology - this rule. Philosophers from Isocrates to Kant (though he would say not exactly, even so, close enough) to Sartre have thought themselves to this same rule.

Though often encased in doctrinal fog, ritual eccentricities, and murderous unction, this rule is plucked and shined by those believers who insist upon more from their beliefs than bludgeons or watchtowers or iron maidens. Believers not satisfied with critiques of hypocrisy, irony, and folly. Believers determined to believe anyway. Writing as Karen Armstrong does:
All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of  what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, "Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you," or in its positive form, " Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself." Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody - even your enemies. [Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life]
In 2009, invoking this rule and the compassion it calls us to embrace, Armstrong lead others to the drafting of a Charter for Compassion that called out the urgent need to make compassion "a clear, luminous and dynamic force" in our world.

Armstrong reminds us that this rule is not some notion, idea, or doctrine. It is method of living. The rule's force derives not from coming to believe it, but rather from learning to live it. She offers a daily discipline of compassion that begins with simple acts of kindness. "This need not be a grand, dramatic gesture;" she writes, "it can be a 'little, nameless, unremembered' act that may seem insignificant to you." Each day look for an opportunity to treat someone as you would like yourself to be treated. The point is not to wait for the opportunity for an act of kindness to present itself, but to seek it out, to be mindful of others.

Of course, we're probably not in the habit of looking for opportunities each day to be kind which makes it challenging to do so. After all, it's not like acts of kindness grow on trees.

Except when they do.

A bit over a year ago, I wrote in the post "Being tree" of an elm planted in Forager's backyard and of the Chinese proverb about the best time to plant a tree (i.e., 20 years ago). "With all the becoming-a-great-tree that only twenty years can bring," I said, "there are twenty years of being-a-tree along the way. All that a tree is it is already, including all that a tree can be."

Last evening this elm became one of The Giving Trees and a site of #masskindness.

The Giving Tree is a public art installation that kicks off The Random Act of Kindness Group of Rochester’s #masskindness campaign. Rochester artists and families are installing colorful “Giving Trees” throughout the city this week [through Sunday, July 17] and on their branches you will find envelopes with a suggestion for a #RandomActofKindness, as well as small gifts that you can take. Find a Tree, take envelope, and share some love.

Want to know more about The Giving Tree? See ABC 6 News here.
The Med City Beat here.

You might also be interested in Journey to Peace VII: Compassionate Caring for All Beings, Sunday, October 23, 2016 2:00-4:00 pm at Assisi Heights. See here.

In Lak'ech Ala K'in

Friday, July 1, 2016

A new city motto, modestly proposed

Emblem from a bill of Continental currency.
Design by Benjamin Franklin.

On another is drawn an eagle on the wing, pouncing upon a crane, who turns upon his back, and receives the eagle on the point of his long bill, which pierces the eagle’s breast; with this motto, EXITUS IN DUBIO EST; — The event is uncertain. The eagle, I suppose, represents Great-Britain, the crane America. This device offers an admonition to each of the contending parties. To the crane, not to depend too much on the success of its endeavours to avoid the contest (by petition, negotiation, &c.) but prepare for using the means of defence God and nature hath given it; and to the eagle, not to presume on its superior strength, since a weaker bird may wound it mortally. - Letter from Benjamin Franklin to the Pennsylvania Gazette, September 20 1775 published under the pseudonym, Clericus.

"Exitus in dubio est" can also translate as "the outcome is uncertain" which may to the modern ear better capture the spirit of the motto in its day. In any case, it would make a decent submission in any contest to re-motto the city of Rochester.

It is certainly better than the current city motto which is...anyone?...anyone?.... Nobody? OK. The current city motto is: "First Class City. First Class Service." Why, when, and how that came to be the motto, I'll leave to others to uncover. It's more than enough for me to know what the motto is because the answers to those other questions could not possibly make me feel any better about it. Perhaps it would look more impressive in Latin - "Primus genus civitatem. Primum genus servitium." - but even so, as they say, patitur in translationem.*

The authors of this motto, and one can imagined the earnest wordsmithing that it required, strike me as having confused an ennobling epigram of unassailable Latinized conviction with one of those motivational posters that frequently haunt staff lounges. That or a sputtering neon sign outside a diner. Admittedly, other than a certain formal resonance, there's little else to suggest the latter, but there is some reason to give credence to the former.

On the basis of a simple headcount, Rochester is by state statute a "city of the first class". In Minnesota, when your population exceeds 100K that's what you get to be. So, "First Class City" is what Rochester is. Given the polysemous nature of language, saying so allows one to suggest other characteristics as well. Fair enough. We have 100+K people and are a nice place to live to boot - please like us. Sounds a little needy, but there it is.

For me it's the next bit that really puts it up on the wall next to the coffee condiments in the break room and at the top of the Monday morning agenda to inspire the week's work and "remind us of why we are all here." You know the drill.

It's the "First Class Service" part that makes me think the motto was written not for the city but for city employees. It's that part that makes me think that whoever wrote this motto not only forgot "why we are all here" but got it terribly wrong. That they are not alone among governments in getting terribly wrong makes its no less terribly wrong.

Now here is where it gets insidious.

If you go to the city's website you'll find the "City of Rochester Core Values." There you are offered a list of bullet points called "City of Rochester Core Value Statements and Standards."  First among these bullet points:

  • Customer Focus 
    • Identify, plan for, and support customer needs.
    • Seek and consider input from our customers to continually improve services. 
    • Treat every customer well.

Followed by four more headings labeled Respect, Integrity, Safety, and Excellence all referencing in their sub-points at some point the "customer." These core value statements and standards conclude with:
The City of Rochester will RISE to the top in Customer Focus through Respect, Integrity, Safety, and Excellence.
Now, you can imagine here as well the long hours of wordsmithing, the department head meetings, the e-mails and PowerPoint slides that went into crafting these "core values". And yes we see what they did there with that "RISE" thing. So, yeah, a lot of time was expended. Probably a consultant or two enlisted. At the very least a trained facilitator with experience in doing "this sort of thing". Oh, and Post-It Self-Stick Table Top Easel Pads adorned with ideas captured from the break-out groups and covered with colored dots all to be tabulated and reported out in the afternoon session - so everyone grab a sandwich.

Getting to consensus on "core values" is not easy. But, do you see the insidiousness yet? Sure the insipidity is apparent, but that's to be expected. Even with the best of intentions, misplaced as they might be, core value statements generally end up being pretty insipid. But these are insidious as well.

The core values of the city of Rochester are not about living in Rochester.
The core values are not about the quality of life to which the city might aspire.
The core values of the city of Rochester are about working the front counter at city hall.

So, what's wrong with some primum genus servitium at city hall? Well, if we are just "customers", then I suppose there's nothing wrong with expecting "first class service." And if at its core, city hall values us only as customers - consumers of services - then what better than "first class service" could they possibly be expected to offer us? Setting aside for the moment whether we get that level of service at city hall, note that also absent from these standards is not just any notion of the kind of life we value in this city, but any mention of "citizens".

(Pause for a moment and consider that oversight. Not an uncommon one these days as it turns out. Consider as well the Fourth of July holiday that is nearly upon us. And when you are ready, things pick up again below.)

Peter Block writes in Community: The Structure of Belonging, that the "antithesis of being a citizen is the choice to be a consumer or a client....."
Consumers give power away. They believe that their own needs can be best satisfied by the actions of others - whether those others are elected officials, top management, social service providers, or shopping malls. Consumers also allow others to define their needs. If leaders and service providers are guilty of labeling or projecting onto others the 'needs' to justify their own style of leadership or service that they provide, consumers collude with them in accepting others' definitions of their needs.
Bringing us at last to this new motto for the city which I modestly propose: Exitus in dubio est. "The outcome is uncertain."

The current motto is at least open to dissent - if you haven't noticed that's what this is. But the one I modestly propose is so grounded in the nature of human existence and action that it would require the most virulent nihilist to challenge it's veracity especially in this city.

Stercus Accidit would work as well, but it lacks the imprimatur of a Founder and his admonition that faced with uncertain outcomes we should make best use of the means "God and nature hath given [us]". Our divine endowment as it were, or so we have claimed them to be: "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Perhaps with the uncertainty we face ensconced in the motto of our city, we will not only be reminded of why we came to be here the first place - literally; but we might also appreciate that in doing so:
We, together, become producers of a satisfying future. We see that if we are to be citizens, together we must be the creators and producers of our future. And if we want to be the creators and producers of our future, we must become citizens, not consumers. (McKnight and Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods)
So, in the spirit of the Fourth of July, this: No matter how first class the service, we will not find our future at any front counter in city hall. If we are looking for the future there, we have arrived much too late and will have played no part in its creation.

Oh yes, for you augury fans: Sandhill cranes have been spotted in Rochester.


 * "It suffers in translation."