Thursday, July 7, 2016

Fear of Ambiguity

I've spent a lot of time looking at my little girl and wondering what the world is going to be like when she grows up.  Maybe it's the election season or maybe it's just where our mind goes as parents, but it is persistent and often troubling.  I read about climate change, sexual assault on college campuses, violence, and people just hating one another for no good reason.  And I see her play with her blocks, kiss the pages of a Paw Patrol book, or run with complete joy in her heart, and think "she's OK for now."

I have one thing in my pocket.  I can always tell my little girl that if she is in trouble, she should trust the police.  I can always tell her that she is safe in proximity to law enforcement.  And I will tell her that with complete faith that I am correct.  She will be safe even when I'm not around.

One of the reasons I've stepped away from blogging is because I became a bit turned off by the certainty it requires.  The compulsion to take a position, hold that position, and, potentially, convince others of sharing it with you.  When you step away from all that, and listen, I've found myself understanding things much better and being more compassionate to those who don't agree with me.  I say this to explain that I have no intention of lecturing or getting self-righteous about what I'm about to say.  I just feel morally compelled to say it.

Yesterday, I saw a video of a man being shot by a police officer while he was held to the ground.  That happened within these United States of America.  It happened a day after our most patriotic holiday.  It was not in a foreign place that allows distance in relation to a foreign culture or different language.  It was here.

Alton Sterling was 37 years old, just a little bit older than me.  He was a father.

When I look at my little girl, I can hardly imagine being a parent of an African American child and thinking of the dangers they will face.  The ambiguity of safe places and safe people.  The ambiguity of what you can or can't do to be safe.  The idea, haunting in its persistence, that any time they are out of my sight they are not safe no matter where they are or what they are doing.  And the worst part - that many of the dangers they will face will be endorsed, funded, and propagated by the country I live in.  These United States of America.

Not so long ago I had a good friend ask me "What's it like to be a white male in the 21st Century?"  I had never been asked that question and let an awkward laugh fill the response space.  I'm still doing that in many ways.  When it comes to issues like this, the question becomes one of balance. Collaborating without patronizing.  Passion without righteousness.  Determination without goal.

I believe the United States of America is the best country in the world because we have a method of government that allows empathy for a stranger to create policy and law.  I believe the greatest mistakes we've made as a nation have been in direct proportion to those times we were less empathetic, more selfish, and more short-sighted.

I don't have any answers or suggestions.  I just wanted to take the time to tell those parents who are looking at their little boy or little girl with the fear of ambiguity that I care about your child.  I want them to be safe.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Death, Disgrace, or Defeat

I can't remember where I heard it, but maybe four years ago someone told me that the vast majority of political careers end in one of three ways: death, disgrace, or defeat.  For every voluntary retirement, there are 3-4 politicians seeing their way out through one of those three doors.  And ever since I heard that quote, I see the victorious elected politician a little differently.  They have won the day, for now.  They have the respect of a majority of their constituents, for now.  They are given discretionary power over a vast array of public needs, for now.

And for those who lose, particularly those who have served, that victorious day was once theirs.  They earned the respect and support of the community.  They utilized it to the best of their ability.  And then, they lost.  The office is transient but the human being underneath remains.

In light of that, I have come into the belief that after elections are over it is appropriate to 1) thank exiting officials for their service, and 2) thank candidates for running.  Kindness and empathy are free.  In fact, one of the most treasured moments of my campaign for delegate in 2014 was an e-mail Jon Weinstein sent me after the loss.  I think back on it often.  And since then, I've told myself that I will do that for others.  Maybe those people will continue the chain.  We can disagree, we can do so vociferously, but when it's done we can say "good game".

Many people confuse "disgrace" with "defeat".  I know I did.  But there is no harm in losing.  More often than not, it can lead to better things.  And often enough the disgrace is not on those who lose.  Rather, it is on those who can't accept the win with grace; those who insist on turning the win into wrath.  And yet those same people lament that "more good people don't run for office".  Huh.  Wonder why.

My opinions on the Board of Education race are well stated.  I think the Board took their power for granted and railroaded decisions without stopping to listen to their constituents.  I think there is a very serious problem with the manner in which HCPSS staff are being compelled into the political arena on matters important to the Superintendent.  I think the Board chair is in an echo chamber that is forcing one bad public statement after another.  Overall, I am frustrated that it has come to this when any reasonable adult would have stopped to say "What can I do to make this better?"

Nevertheless, I do not believe that anything will be made better by way of punitive electoral justice.  That's how this fine country earned itself the Tea Party caucus and I'm not sure that's worked out so well.  My concerns, and the concerns of many of the people I've spoken with about the Board of Education, will only be resolved if rational, fair-minded, collaborative people are elected.  Those who want to involve the community in the conversation, but are not looking to burn the whole thing down in the process.

Transparency is a false god that can never be satisfied.  What we really want and need is community participation, ownership, and buy-in on educational policy.  Transparency is a warehouse full of documents that you may review at your leisure.  Community participation means showing your work.  What problem were you trying to solve and how did you get here?  There are so many stakeholders in an education system that it is imperative that motivations be plain and predictable.  This Board has presumed that we're not smart enough to understand what they're doing, which is why a very different Board will be seated this December.  But I caution those who have six months left to run: choose your dance partner wisely.  Be clear in your objectives.  There will always be more people to punish and more seats to fill.  If you are fortunate enough to win, you're no longer an outsider fighting an unjust system.  You're in charge of making it just.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My Questions for the Howard County Board of Education

There have been few things over the past five months that have bothered me as much as what is going on with the Howard County Board of Education.  It is not only the fact that I disagree with some of the decisions and actions that the Board has taken, but also the paralyzing helplessness that comes with those decisions.

We can talk all day long about whether the Board should be elected at-large, by district, or a combination of both, but there is something fundamentally undemocratic about how it currently operates.  Board member Ann Delacy brazenly acknowledged this disconnect by suggesting that she was more concerned about what children thought of Board decisions than "the adults...who are complaining."  Rarely will you find such disdain for the electorate in the same year that individual's name will be on the ballot.  Rarely will you see it matter less than the Howard County Board of Education race.

I would presume that the majority of those reading this post have already made a general decision on whether they will be voting for the three incumbents on this year's ballot.  I would also presume that a small minority have decided to re-elect all three.  This election has already shown its warts and has been quite nasty in some corners.  In light of this, I thought I would offer my concerns as questions; questions that, if answered, would significantly change my current disposition on the Board.

Utilization of HCPSS Personnel for Political Purposes

  1. On February 4, 2016, were HCPSS administrators instructed via text message to remain in their chairs after the budget discussion?  If so, why?  Also, were school principals directed to attend the contract renewal meeting?  If so, why?
  2. Were HCPSS personnel directed to testify regarding state legislation that would have elected future Board members by district?  Did the Administration use HCPSS email to coordinate this effort?  If so, please explain the educational interest in defeating this legislation.  If not, please explain this video.
  3. Does HCPSS have a policy regarding the utilization of HCPSS personnel for political purposes?  Is there a policy regarding the use of HCPSS e-mail for political lobbying, political speech, or coordination of political action?
  4. Can a principal or administrator be fired or demoted for failure to comply with a political directive?
Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)
  1. In 2012, shortly after Dr. Foose was hired, HCPSS began the process of implementing the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) program, which had been utilized by the Superintendent during past employment.  The MAP program requires computer labs in all elementary and middle schools sufficient to accommodate such testing. What has been the total cost of implementing this program?
  2. How many testing days does MAP add to the school calendar?
  3. Understanding that Dr. Foose had implemented MAP in Montgomery County and Baltimore County prior to coming to Howard County, which of these jurisdictions has retained the program?  My understanding is that it has been discontinued or is in the process of being discontinued in both.
  4. To what extent did Dr. Foose and her leadership team incorporate feedback from HCPSS administrators regarding the implementation of this program?
HCPSS Management
  1.  By what percentage has the public relations/marketing office increased in size since 2012?
  2. How many administrators have been fired or demoted since 2012?  How does this compare to the four year period between 2008 and 2012?
  3. How many days per week is the Superintendent at the Administrative Building?
  4. When was the last survey of job satisfaction by HCPSS administrators?  What were the results?
Political disagreement is often dismissed when it can be characterized as a personal attack.  None of this is personal.  I am deeply concerned that the public trust placed in the Board of Education is either being disregarded or broken.  Answers to these questions would go a long way to deciding which.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Understanding Trump

If you're like me, the subject of Donald Trump running for, and likely winning, the Republican nomination for President of the United States is baffling.  Outrageous?  Sure.  Terrifying? You betcha.  Half-decade abroad? Depends on whether your work skills are transferable.  But ultimately, behind all of that, baffling.

In pursuit of my 2016 goal of using more question marks than exclamation points, I've taken every available opportunity to talk to those who support Trump to find out why.  And despite the stereotype, I have the good fortune of having smart, contemplative, and well-educated friends who have found themselves in that camp.  They don't wear the red hats with the braid across the front.  They don't go to rallies.  But they do support Trump.

So "why"?  Admittedly, they do share some of his professed beliefs.  They are isolationist at home and interventionist abroad.  They think America is "losing" and want to see it "win so much we'll be bored of winning".  Nevertheless, those positions tend to fold under questioning.  Mostly the question "What do you mean by that?"  And after one conversation with a Trump supporting friend, he gave up the ghost.

"You know what, Tom - I just think we need to blow the whole thing up and start over.  If Trump wins the Presidency, he'll blow up the government.  If he can't win the Presidency, then I think we need to blow up the Republican party."

Violent imagery aside, I think that's the key to understanding the Trump phenomenon.

There is an apparent contradiction (some would even say "deceit") in the candidacy of a modern day Republican: they are running to lead an organization that they hate.  They proffer the unquestionable merits of free enterprise, but reject that career pursuit in favor of writing laws.  Drowning the government in a bathtub is something that an outsider can say, but it's not something you expect to hear from the soap.  And as the anti-government rhetoric has heightened, deal-making, however one-sided, has only enraged those who expect to see the whole thing burned down.

The Republican party has not always been this way.  There was, and in many corners still is, a GOP that stood for government as a way to organize and manage societal change.  Low taxes, but not no taxes.  Compassion for the blameless poor with an emphasis on getting people back to work.  And nothing I write here should be read to suggest that this reasonable element of the Republican party is extinct.  I'm just not sure it is in charge.

There are no longer moderates among the top three Republican contenders.  In fact, they pride themselves in their extremism.  The difference is that one candidate embodies the destruction of the federal government as we know it, while the other two promise to effectuate this destruction through the regular means of governance.

I have a great deal of respect for the Republican world-view.  I don't share it, but there is intellectual heft and good reasoning behind most of the ideas my Republican friends hold dear.  I feel genuine compassion and empathy for them right now.  I would say the Republican party is at a precipice (as Senator Rubio is fond of saying), but I think the party is already over the hill.  Trump is not an aberration.  He is the party.  And if given the opportunity, you can be sure that something, either the Republican Party or the US Government, is going to drown in that bathtub.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Public Criticism and Decision-Making

Most people can go through their entire lives without a single decision being criticized in the public eye.  Sure, they may have a skeptical spouse or an incensed teenager, but their decisions remain outside of the realm of open assault by strangers.  Those who enter elected office, serve on government committees, or even serve on nonprofit boards, all should expect, and in many respects welcome, public critique.

I will probably always remember my first vote of public consequence.  It was to elect the chair of the CA Board.  I had been privately lobbied from the moment I had joined the Board by two different coalitions supporting two different candidates.  I knew the vote would be tight and that I would be the deciding factor.  This vote was picayune to the point of irrelevance, but it made me nervous.  Sure enough, after it was over, the losing candidate came up to me with anger in their eyes to say "I know how you voted and I do NOT appreciate it."  Needless to say, I cared less and less about such scrutiny as time went on.

The effect of outside critique on an individual is not particularly interesting.  Some shut down and close their office door.  Some tune it all out and press ahead.  Some break down and go in whatever direction the wind is blowing regardless of whether it is consistent with the long term plan.  In any of those circumstances, the integrity of the office stands firm despite the weakness, or strength, of the individual.

What is interesting, and concerning, is what public critique can do to an organization or government body.  It can result in the construction and reinforcement of walls.  The members trust no one but themselves.  They "read their own press releases" and discount outside commentary as either uninformed or motivated by some out-of-proportion conspiracy to take them out.  The members justify withholding information and orchestrate farcical expressions of public support.  They engage in more closed meetings, faster decision-making, and less explanation for the same.

Why?  Because they know best.  The hardest thing to accept is that they actually have good intentions.  They believe the are on the right side of the issue, but they don't consider how they could ever find out if they weren't.  "If everyone who disagrees with us is a bad guy, then anything we say must be good."

This approach to public criticism is most offensive when you consider the alternative: recognize the institutional flaws, correct course, and open up the debate.  In one word - deescalation.  Stop, breathe, respond.

I'm obviously talking about the Howard County Board of Education and their decision to renew the contract of Howard County's highest paid public employee - the Superintendent.  I have been avoiding this issue for two reasons: 1) Although I don't know her, I have had nothing but pleasant interactions with Dr. Foose, and 2) I have a great deal of respect for just about all of the current members of our Board of Education.

I am writing now because I am deeply disappointed and disgusted by what has become a public embarrassment.  I don't need to talk about mold, transparency, or racist videos to identify troubling aspects of how our school system is being run.  In just the past three months we have seen a HCPSS budget that has no chance of being passed , two out of the three members of the Board of Public Works (one of whom was the Governor) criticized our school system openly in a public forum, and public information act requests are being stonewalled on a near monthly basis.  In this context, it is downright baffling that not only was the Superintendent's contract renewed, but the public was essentially shut out of the process (in some cases literally).

I posted something last night and I believe it is true - It seems like the Howard County Board of Education has mistaken winning a vote for winning the issue.  That's what happens when public critique makes you insular.  You pack a room with supporters so you can hear their applause.  But you do something else too - you let all the outsiders sit together as they recognize they've been wronged.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye 2015

I started 2015 looking for change and I am happy to say I found it.  I have a restless soul by nature and am inclined to take chances on new opportunities.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't, but I can easily say I am in a better place now than I was in December of 2014.

I enjoyed 2015, but I'm happy to see it go.  It was a year filled with emotion - happiness, anger, hope, frustration, love, disgust.  That's not the way I normally like to live my life.  I prefer an even keel, marked goals, and predictability.  Emotions upset all of that.  They cause erratic behavior, destroy relationships, and are ultimately self-serving.  I think that's out of my system, but I can't say there haven't been long-lasting consequences that I ultimately regret.

But I also learned a lot this year.  After spending 18 months focused on the outside (voters, endorsements, fundraising), I spent the last 14 months looking in.  I didn't go to as many events.  I didn't write as much (at least not publicly).  Heck, I even gave up Facebook for 40 days (and probably will do so again).  I can tell you that the inside work is much more exhausting than any amount of time knocking on doors.

I appreciated what my friend Candace posted on Facebook this past week:
1. Decide on what matters the most.
2. Say no to everything else.
3. When something falls in the gray area, re-read #2.
My 2015 was spent thinking about #1.  I haven't been great at #2, but I think that's because I haven't been able to answer #1.  My family, of course, my friends, of course, but then what?

The past few months have helped me rediscover abandoned passions and hobbies.  I've read more books this year than the past two put together (and that is with a toddler on the loose [who is adverse to unripped paper]).  I've restarted a program I created for ex-offenders in Baltimore City that will be going on its fourth session next month.  I've taken leadership positions on nonprofit boards that previously seemed outside of my depth.  I have a lot of pans on the stove.

I've committed myself to make my 2016 a year of building and growth.  No more change.  I want to be a better husband, a better father, a better son, and a better friend.  I want dedicate time and effort to my professional career in a way that I haven't since passing the bar exam nearly 10 years ago.  I'm going to ensure that every hour I spend working with nonprofit boards or in our community has a commensurate positive outcome. And I'm going to "say no to everything else".

Have a great 2016 doing what you love!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Respecting Idealism

Over the weekend I listened to a Politics & Prose podcast that featured Jon Meachum discussing his new biography of George H.W. Bush (high on my Christmas book wish-list).  There were many insights worth sharing, but one of my favorites was a quote from President Bush addressing then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and one of his lieutenants, Representative Vin Weber.  Rep. Weber had asked the President to tell them his greatest fear about them (i.e., the conservative wing of the party).  Bush responded "I’m worried that sometimes your idealism will get in the way of what I think is sound governance." (emphasis added).

In using the word "idealism", President Bush was allowing these partisans their ideological passion without accusation of fault.  Sure, the quote is certainly patronizing, but we can presume the alternative would have been to say nothing or to tell them to "carry on" fighting the "good" fight.

Ever since I heard that, I have been trying to think of political convictions in the context of idealism.  As I've suggested previously, one of the perils of engaging in political debate is that there is rarely a final disposition from which to judge whether you were right or wrong.  Every outcome has a spin and because we have generally maintained partisan balance between the branches of government, each side can normally find room to blame the other.  You may think your party's actions were correct, but what good is that if you will never be able to convince the other side?

Wouldn't things be a little lighter, a little more enjoyable, if instead of seeing each other as right or wrong, informed or uninformed, smart or stupid, we just viewed one another as idealists?  An idealist may say that if only government would get out of the way, we would all be treated fairly and become prosperous.  An idealist may say that if only the government could take control of XX, we would all be better off.  Very rarely, and only along certain main drags of state capitals and Washington, D.C., will you see those engaging in political debate with malicious (or fully funded) purposes.  Most of us engage because there is some ideal world in our heads and we want to advocate on its behalf.

It's been about six months since I said that I didn't have any Republican friends with whom I would be interested in discussing politics.  It was a quick reminder of just how many Republican friends I have, how many of them read this blog, and how sensitive they are to reproach.  I really didn't mean it as an offense to others - it was a self-critique.  And quite frankly, it wasn't even true.  What I am really tired of are political "fights".  I've depoliticized my Facebook and cut back on this blog because I've found that there is far too much flesh and bone in political speech.  Feelings are hurt, regardless of intention.  Beware of attacking someone's idea for you never know how much of themselves they've put into it.  You may end up with blood on your hands.

I love to write and will continue to do it as much as I can.  And when I can figure out a way to respect someone's idealism, while advocating for my own ideal world, I will.  But at the very least, especially for this holiday season with all the family gatherings that may ensue, I thought this may be a good way for all of us to look at each other.  Idealists.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!