Friday, March 11, 2005
On moving to Massachusetts I was amazed at the open town government, and fascinated by Town Meeting. This town runs on the pure energy of our volunteers who are involved with their community. However, that pool of volunteers appears to be shrinking as the complexity of modern life takes a stranglehold on our free time.
Last year, concerned that we needed new ideas and faces in the Town Hall, the Carlisle Civic Support Network researched the reasons behind why townsfolk volunteer (or not). Committee members "give up" their free time because they believe that they can contribute, or they think they can do a better job than others, but primarily they volunteer because they love Carlisle.
The rewards were tremendously satisfying regardless of the time commitment. Volunteers were proud of their achievements, whether it was safeguarding the town and the environment for the future or making the town more fiscally secure. They had been part of a creative collaborative process that made the town a better place to live. In addition, they made new friends, felt part of a larger community and often learned new information outside the bounds of their normal interests that broadened their understanding of life. There was no doubt the rewards outweigh the commitments.
So why do people not stand for office? Many feel they don't have the time, they are concerned that they don't have the required skill set, they are wary of town government or are scared of public speaking. Or like me, you're interested but excluded because you're a foreigner.
The Selectmen have already begun to put changes suggested by the Civic Support Network into effect. Now meetings do not over run, and committee chairs will be trained in meeting management. Occasionally committees do require volunteers with specific expertise, but more often than not they want residents who are interested in being part of the future of the town. Other changes we recommended, such as increasing the recruitment pool by allowing non-citizens to stand for office, will take time, but the Selectmen are committed to making town government as inclusive as possible.
I became involved on a committee simply because someone asked me. Sharyl Stropkay had an idea for a toddler playground and asked me and others to form a committee. Today we have a revitalized Diment Park — a beautiful playground where neighbors can meet. Perhaps you too know of someone who would be perfect for a committee. All it takes is a suggestion.
Finally the additional unforeseen benefit that I discovered as a result of my
community efforts is my children's positive attitude towards the importance of civic involvement. They see Mum and Dad striving to improve their town, not just for themselves but for others, and through our example they already comprehend that being involved with your community is "a good thing."
Debbie Bentley is currently a member of the Carlisle Civic Support Network,
co-chair of the Boston Society of Architects Small Firms Committee, and co-chair of the RIBA-USA New England Chapter
Policies and priorities
Eighteen days in Peru have given me a whole new perspective on our own local, regional and national challenges. My primary goal was sightseeing in the rain forest and the Andes. Mission accomplished in that regard, but I also learned a lot of things about the country that I hadn't planned on. Peru is a relatively poor country about the size of France and Germany, lying just south of the equator, with a population of about 28 million. It has three very different regions; the long, dry Pacific coast, the Andes mountains to the east, and the Amazon River basin bordering Brazil. Lima, the capital city, is on the coast and one of three Peruvians lives there. The other coastal cities account for the majority of Peru's population. About one million live in or near the rain forest, which is accessible only by boat or plane, and the rest are scattered in the agricultural highlands, with a concentration in and around the city of Cusco, the center of the ancient Inca Empire and the closest town to Machu Picchu, the famous "Lost City of the Incas."
Tourism has become Peru's largest industry, and the government is concentrating its investments in the Machu Picchu area where major new ruins have been discovered. They are planning to build a major international airport in the so-called "Sacred Valley," in the highlands between Cusco and Machu Picchu, and major international hotel chains are acquiring land near the ruin sites in the jungle. Meanwhile, the government is wrestling with problems of poverty (average monthly wage under $300), under-employment (40%), spiraling population growth, health care, education, and homelessness, mostly centered in and around Lima. The hills surrounding Lima are covered with squatter cities that have no water, sewers or electricity. Oil and natural gas have been discovered in the rain forest, and this will put tremendous additional pressure on a natural resource that is being destroyed at the rate of two million acres a year. The government has set aside five million acres in the rain forest as a preserve, yet it has provided only enough funding for 50 forest rangers to protect it from poachers of both old growth trees and exotic plants and animals. Fifty for five million acres.
Everywhere one looks, trade-offs are being made in terms of policy and priorities: urban vs. rural; agriculture vs. tourism; development vs. preservation; human services vs. military. Woven into this cloth is also a long-standing culture of graft and under-the-counter deal making. Many times the "right" policy decisions are thwarted by poor implementation. Peru is, in many respects, a microcosm of what we face in the U.S. Peru's challenges seem more "solvable" because the scale is much smaller, but they are very daunting when compared to the resources available. So it is in Lima, Peru; so it is in Lima, Ohio.
This trip has re-sensitized me to the impact of the role of government on peoples' lives. We take so many things for granted in this country, and I for one, haven't spent much time thinking about the trade-offs we have to make. The U.S. is so wealthy that many believe we don't have to make difficult either-or choices. We can all have it all. Maybe that's what fiscal deficits are for: to insulate our elected officials from having to make difficult choices. I now have a fresh set of eyes with which to view our problems and our priorities. Like Peru, we can't have it all. Like Peru, we must make difficult choices.
© 2005 The