Category Archives: Community

The ‘There’ There

In 1933, after visiting her hometown of Oakland, CA, Gertrude Stein remarked that “there is no there there.”

Among many in the much maligned city, accustomed to defending themselves against such abrasive attacks, the remark has often been taken as a slight: as if Oakland were such a wasteland as to be little more than a desolate limbo.

Our more privileged neighbors across the bay have certainly said worse.

But this reading misrepresents the sentiment.

Stein had moved to Paris in 1903. She returned to her hometown thirty years later to find the city developed and her childhood home destroyed.

She wrote:

…anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there. …but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

Stein lived in Oakland from six to seventeen. When she returned she found it was not the city she had left behind – and she was not the person who had left it.

There was no there there. 

Stein writes of the loss of place as the loss of of something more – the loss of memory, the loss of identity, a meaningful loss of self.

“When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing,” Stein writes.

And then, one day, you return to find that this thing which you knew so well has become another thing.

You don’t recognize it; and, surprisingly, it doesn’t recognize you.

Or, perhaps worse yet, you do recognize it. You know every corner, every nuanced shade. You are intimately acquainted with the place, yet find yourself a stranger. You find that you know these details not at they are, but only as they were. Every sight becomes a haunting memory of the past. A faded ghost just beyond reach.

This is how I read Stein when she writes that there’s no there there.

Oakland as a place is really just an aside. Surely lacking in the luster of Paris, perhaps shabby and overgrown (I say with great love), but really just a place that was not the place she expected.

It was not natural – how could she have come from this place which was not her place? Where was that big house? Those Eucalyptus trees? The rose hedge and the big garden? Where was that life she had left behind?

And who was she, this strange person visiting this strange place?

The dissonance in place led to a dissonance in self.

Oh, how time goes by.

But there is a there there. Stein had become a new person, just as Oakland had become a new city. The confluence of the new can be unsettling; can be distressing; but ultimately – it is just the growth of life.

The there you remember is replaced by a new there – cherished by new generations and new  children who will grow up, travel, and return home to find their there no longer there.

No there there, and yet – still there.


Civic Engagement and Custodianship

I attended an interesting discussion today with Dan O’Brien, Northeastern Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, who also directs the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI).

BARI has collected numerous datasets related to Boston: 311 calls and 911 calls; event listings and ticket sales from ArtsBoston, property tax assessment records, data on bicycle accidents, and more. You can even access the data online here:

O’Brien discussed a number of projects he was interested in exploring with his work, but I was most struck by his work using data from 311 – Boston’s hotline for requesting city services – as an indicator of civic engagement.

Through the 311 system a person might notify the city of a burnt-out street lamp, a pothole, or any number of other issues.

This creates a dataset which can measure what O’Brien calls custodianship – essentially citizen actions to improve or repair a community good.

This civic indicator has typically been challenging to measure. As O’Brien notes in a 2013 paper,” custodianship entails the co-incidence of an ‘issue’ and someone who moves to address it. Although some such events might be regular, like an individual who sweeps the front walk daily, they will typically be rare.”

However, 311 data are starting to change that, with the added benefit that – at least in Boston – users register to use the system, making it possible to “aggregate cases for each registered user, permitting analyses that examine and compare patterns of custodianship across individuals.”

In his work so far, O’Brien has found that custodianship through the 311 system is “a rare act” – most users only reported 1-2 cases within the 15-month window. Of course, the 311 system only captures some portion of “custodial acts,” so it’s entirely possible that a low frequency of reports does not indicate low custodianship.

(Also possible: Boston is perfect and few requests for improvement are needed.)

Perhaps most interestingly, O’Brien has found that “Most individuals take responsibility for a narrow geographical range surrounding their homes.” This could be a simple indicator that people are more likely to see a problem in an area the frequent, but it could also indicate that people feel more custodianship over their immediate neighborhood.

This work is just the beginning of a really interesting exploration of the relationship between civic engagement, custodianship, and 311 calls, but with cities’ growing interest in collecting resident data, there will certainly be more great work to come.


The More Things Change…

When I was in 8th grade, a newly hired teacher came into our classroom after lunch one day and announced that a parent had seen a student throwing rocks at passing cars. The parent wasn’t sure who the student was, so had simply given a description when reporting the matter to the principal.

Someone was in trouble. It just wasn’t clear who.

To deal with the matter, the teacher pulled all the kids fitting the description out of class and sent them to the principal’s office. The students were to remain there until further notice.

To all of us kids, it was clear that this plan was foolish. How would detaining an essentially random group of students really help anything? How did it make any sense to hold a whole group responsible for the actions of one unknown assailant? And furthermore, it was grossly unfair – why punish innocent students for simply looking like someone who misbehaved?

As it turns out, the whole thing was an elaborate set up introducing Japanese internment in the United States.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fear of people of Japanese ancestry mounted. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, testified as much to Congress in 1943, saying:

I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now – if they are permitted to come back – espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. … But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.’

Ultimately, between 1942 and 1946, 120,000 people were forced to relocate to U.S. internment camps “as a result of the military evacuation of the West Coast.” Some 62 percent of those detained were American citizens.

It was a dark chapter in our nation’s history. A moment whose only saving grace was the indelible stain left by these camps, pockmarked across the west. Haunting testaments to the nation we should never let ourselves become again.

I’d like to think that we have all learned something from those darker days. Learned to love our neighbors and to not let fear drive us towards hate. I’d like to think that’d we’ve learned that all people truly are created equal, and are all equally endowed with our most sacred inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.



The Welcome Project

I am deeply honored to have been elected last week as Vice Chair of The Welcome Project, a Somerville non-profit I have worked with for many years.

I join board chair César Urrunaga, treasurer Tim Groves, clerk Judith Perlstein as well as interim executive director Ben Echevarria and a great group of board members in serving as a steward for this this important organization.

The Welcome Project builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.

That is, The Welcome Project is an inherently civic organization: it does not seek to assimilate immigrants into a pre-existing culture, but rather seeks to equip area immigrants with the tools to effectively add their voices and perspectives to the ongoing task of improving our community.

This is an important distinction.

Somerville is a city of immigrants, as, indeed, the United States is a nation of immigrants. Our community’s personality, our strength, comes not from excluding those who are different from us nor from forcing others to conform to some socially-constructed norm.

The Welcome Project celebrates immigrants for who they are and for what they bring to the community.

This can often take practical forms – The Welcome Project is known partly for its ESOL adult language classes. But importantly, it takes an active form: in the classroom, English language skills are taught through a focus on student-selected topic areas.

Right now, most students are learning about jobs and housing. Other students are learning about mental health issues – particularly issues like culture shock, which hold particular interest in immigrant communities. These are the issues which effect our students most deeply. These are the issues for which our students voices need to be heard.

Our work is not just a service to the students who learn with us; its a service to the community. We need all these voices. We need all these perspectives.

I am thrilled to have been named Vice Chair of this great organization, and I look forward to continuing to support its growth in the coming years.


Let’s Stop Parent-Shaming

Nearly every mother I know has described herself as a terrible mother.

I find that disconcerting.

Not that these mothers actually are terrible mothers – oh dear, you finally caved to your crazy toddler’s demands and let them watch tv so you could get a moment of rest? – rather, I find it concerning that so many mothers have the self-perception of failing.

To be clear, I imagine there’s a similar phenomenon for fathers, though I don’t have the personal experience to validate that. I also get the sense that this is a gendered issue which disproportionally effects women.

Interestingly, when I tried to find data on this, I mostly found self-help articles geared towards helping women be better mothers. So, that’s telling. Also, there’s an interesting study from the UK that found “70% of mothers are left feeling like the ‘bad cop’ while fathers become the centre of attention and known as the ‘fun one’ in family.”

But while some of the sense of “terribleness” may arise from such inner family dynamics. I don’t think that’s the only source of this phenomenon.

I cringe a little when I read one of those stories about a family handing out goodie bags before a flight with their infant.

Let’s be clear: you are rearing a small person; you don’t have to apologize to me.

I imagine much of this “bad parent” anxiety comes from idealized images of the 50s. After all, we all know that everything was just hunky-dory then.

But I’m not convinced that challenge gets the rest of us off the hook.

That is to say – imagine a parent: she thinks she’s a terrible mother because she thought it would be possible to “have it all” if she was good enough. She thought she would never get mad at her child whom she loves so much. She thought with a little patience and care, she could easily raise a child who was always polite and reasonable.

Even a woman has this misguided and idealized vision of what parenthood should be – why are the rest of us playing into that?

Shouldn’t we all be working to dispel those myths?

I’m impressed by any person who takes on the challenge of raising a child. It is hard, exhausting, and trying work. There will be food in your hair and too many sleepless nights. I am amazed by anyone who can handle all that and still get out of bed in the morning. …Even if you only got up because your child, who insisted on sleeping with you, somehow kicked you in the face.

So parents, don’t feel guilty when your kids cries on the train or throws groceries around in the store. You are doing something harder than anything I will ever do, and you are amazing at it.

I just wish there was some universal hand sign that could convey all that to the next frazzled mother I see nearing the point of break down because her toddler refuses to listen to reason.

Don’t worry: you’re doing great.


The Odd Policy of Even

After much debate, the City of Somerville announced a change in policy earlier this week: snow emergency parking will now alternate sides of the street.

For those of you who don’t live in snow-laden cities, there is a general principal of winter snow removal that it is particularly hard to do when there are parked cars in the way. For that reason, municipalities typically restrict parking during winter storms.

Different communities have different strategies, but in Somerville, it has always been the rule that during a snow emergency you can only park on the odd side of the street.

The result of this, from an even-side resident’s perspective, is that snow plows favor the even side of the street and push more snow onto even-side sidewalks.

In a normal year, this is annoying. When you get a record breaking 110.6 inches of snow, it is a problem.

The real problem, you see, with snow plows, is that they have a remarkable ability to destroy hours worth of labor in mere minutes. I myself live on a corner – so I’m on the even side of one street and the odd side of another.

On the even side it is a constant battle – you go out and shovel, the plow snows you back in. You go out and shovel, the plow snows you back in. While the struggle itself might be enough to fill a man’s heart, it’s also incredibly frustrating.

And, it makes me feel like I should leave a note for passing pedestrians: sorry, I’m trying to do my civic duty, but the snow plow keeps ruining it. Apologies in advance if you come through at an un-shoveled time.

Last year, there was great tumult around the odd-only snow policy. Every time the City of Somerville posted an announcement about a new winter storm, there was a flurry of Facebook comments: Why can’t we alternate the ban?

This is, I believe, a fairly common practice among municipalities. If the winter starts in an odd year, snow parking is odd only. If the winter starts in an even year, snow parking is even only.

This is, arguably, more fair. A point that was raised many times by many citizens over many years, but perhaps most vociferously last year.

So it was exciting too see Mayor Joe Curtatone announce:

After careful review, and with significant community feedback, we have determined that the best and most logical next step in our ongoing efforts to provide excellent snow removal operations in Somerville is to alleviate some of the traditional hardships for residents living on the even side of the street where snow and ice buildup from plowing operations.

Nice work, City of Somerville.


Deliberation in Practice

While there are many rich debates around the theory of deliberation, I turn today to it’s practice. How are real-world deliberation structured and how do those implementations relate to the competing theories of deliberation?

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) offers a great starting point for examining these questions. A network of more than 2,200 deliberative practioners, NCDD “serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.”

NCDD actively embraces a pluralistic approach to deliberation, arguing, “no method works in all situations.” The context-dependent nature of deliberation is implicit throughout the practical literature – as each approach typically introduces itself with a short explanation of where it can be of use.

To help communities “decide which types of approaches are the best fit for your circumstances,” NCDD publishes a useful Engagement Streams Framework, which breaks deliberative techniques into four categories:

Exploration: Encourage people and groups to learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue, and possibly discover innovative solutions

Conflict Transformation: Resolve conflicts, to foster personal healing and growth, and to improve relations among groups

Decision Making: Influence public decisions and public policy and improve public knowledge

Collaborative Action: Empower people and groups to solve complicated problems and take responsibility for the solution

NCDD then takes 22 of the most popular deliberative processes and assigns each to one or more of these categories. I have visualized their chart as a network, showing how different deliberative approaches connect to the four categories NCDD identified.


While perhaps not too much can be inferred from this sample of deliberative practices, it is interesting to note that half of the “Decision Making” practices are focused solely on that stream, while “Collaborative Action” processes are always connected to another stream as well. In this model, “Decision Making” and “Exploration” are the most common approaches, with 12 and 11 practices respectively. Additionally, NCDD’s list captures at least one way to combine any two of their identified streams.

It is worth spending some time briefly describing a model distinctive to the three streams that have dedicated approaches – Decision Making, Exploration, and Conflict Transformation.

National Issues Forum – Decision Making
While a National Issues Forum (NIF) is not a formal decision making body, their facilitated deliberations aim to help groups weigh different options. “We are here to move toward a public decision or CHOICE on a difficult issue through CHOICE WORK,” they explain.

They take this approach of choice work quite literally – each of their dozens of issue guides present a topic along with three possible approaches. Participants are asked to reflect on their own experience of the issue and deliberate about the pros and cons of each outlined approach.

This focus on “choice work” may be somewhat misleading, though. NIF is careful to indicate that successful deliberation does not have to end in agreement or action. “Sometimes, forum participants find the use of the word ‘choice’ confusing” they write. “Some assume that they are being asked to choose one of the approaches. And, of course, they are not.”

The NIF definition of deliberation similarly rejects consensus as a mandatory outcome. “It’s not about reaching agreement or seeing eye-to-eye. It’s about looking at the costs and consequences of possible solutions to daunting problems, and finding out what we, as a people, will or will not accept as a solution.”

Finally, while NIF facilitators are encouraged to begin their session with ground rules, their issue guides don’t provide any suggested ground rules to start from. This seems to be an intentional choice embedded in their philosophy: “The responsibility for doing the work of deliberation belongs to the group,” they write.

NIF expects most forums will last around 2 hours, though they leave room for communities to organize multi-session discussions. Typically, a session will have a hundred or more participants, and NIF encourages communities to determine for themselves the mix of small group versus plenary discussion.

World Café – Exploration
World Café gatherings may be large, but their conversations are intimate. While the total number of attendees can venture into the hundreds, hosts are instructed to seat no more than five people together. Conversations take place in at least three rounds of twenty minutes each.

After each round, one person is encouraged to stay as “table host” to the next round “while the others serve as travelers or ‘ambassadors of meaning.’ The travelers carry key ideas, themes and questions into their new conversations, while the table host welcomes the new set of travelers.

World Café hosts are encouraged to develop their own questions, which can be the same or different for each round of inquiry. “Good questions need not imply immediate action steps or problem solving. They should invite inquiry and discovery vs. advocacy and advantage,” they write.

A light and flexible model, World Cafés can be easily implemented in a range of situations to create “a living network of collaborative dialogue around questions that matter in service to real work.”

The model is subtly action-oriented. Hardly so in comparison to other deliberation models, World Cafés are built around the core idea that there are problems in our communities and only we have the power to address them.

As they describe in their host guide: “The World Café is built on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges; that the answers we need are available to us; and that we are Wiser Together than we are alone.”

While some might charge the World Café with being “just talk,” the World Café would retort: “The power of conversation is so invisible and natural that we usually overlook it.”

Public Conversations Project – Conflict Transformation
The Public Conversations Project is a leader in Reflective Structured Dialogue, a technique “designed to help people have the conversation they want to have about some of the most difficult topics.”

Their work is focused on dialogue, “a conversation that is animated by a search for mutual understanding…distinct from conversations focused directly on problem solving.” The Public Conversations Project has led these dialogues in some of the most deeply divided communities, providing spaces for participants to get to authentically know each other without trying to sway each other’s view on an issue.

Dialogues are heavily structured, outlining time for silent reflection, equal time for each person to speak, and a noticeable pause between each person’s response. After every participant responds to the question posed by the facilitator there is an equal time for “questions of genuine interest” which can be posed by any participant to any other participant. These questions seek to “encourage constructive inquiry and exploration that enhances clarity and mutual understanding.”

This highly structured model “empowers participants to share experiences and explore questions that both clarify their own perspectives and help them become more comfortable around, and curious about, those with whom they are in conflict,” and “helps participants engage in constructive, often groundbreaking conversations that can restore trust and lay the foundation for collaborative action.”

Dialogues are typically small group discussions that happen over multiple two-hour session. A community may have multiple dialogues happening at once, but there is typically not a plenary portion of the exchange.


Community and Family

My mother, an avid genealogist, was recently telling me just how homogeneous people used to be in many US cities.

I’d had a general sense that European-settled communities used to be more the same, with occasional waves of immigrants slowly being integrated into the society, but my mother pointed out a detail I’d previously overlooked.

Many small towns were also small families.

Especially as the United States was being settled, many communities were large enough to have a diverse gene pool, but small enough that marrying a cousin was common. In some communities, people weren’t even always aware of how closely they and their spouse were actually related.

Before you think about this too much – just reflect on the consequences: a dispute in the community became a dispute in the family; a fracture in the family became a fracture in the community.

These identities of family and community were far more intimately linked then I’d previously thought of — and probably more intimately linked than I’d like to think!


Reflections on Public Life and a Long Vacation

It’s been 25 days since my last blog post.

The break was intentional as I transitioned from my full time job of nearly eight years to becoming a full time student. In that three and half weeks I have lived un-publicly: I have said many goodbyes, relaxed on the Cape, read several books, done some significant cleaning, and explored the history of Boston’s North End.

It was remarkable to have so much time with so little responsibility. I got to truly relax and reset before beginning this next chapter of my life.

But I noticed something interesting as the end of my limbo neared: I was anxious about the prospect of regularly writing publicly again.

I kept finding myself wondering what topics I should write about, especially as I only half-followed the news. I kept finding myself wondering why I should even write publicly at all – an arguably presumptuous, egotistical move.

I started thinking that I wouldn’t blog on my promised restart date after all. Maybe I’d give myself another week to get settled into school. Then I could take the time to think of a worthwhile topic, I could find some commentary worthy of the public sphere.

But, of course, that’s the myth of public life: that it should be a place only for perfection, a space only for experts. That the rest of us, with our half-thoughts and individual perspectives should stick to the shadows, leaving our representatives to the public work.

When I started my vacation, my mind was exploding with possible blog post topics. Everything I read, every interaction I had – I looked for the public value in those private moments.

I left myself cryptic notes, “Voice – to broad public v. within institutions? Role of social media?” That idea seemed really important two weeks ago.

But as I got further and further away from public writing, I stopped thinking about public life all together. My private reflections remained private, and I thought less and less about their value to the public sphere.

I’ve no interest in leading a celebrity life – my private moments splashed all over the public domain. But at the same time I am a citizen, with an obligation to public participation , public deliberation, and, indeed, some measure of public life.

So I am back to blogging today, September 8, the day I said I would get back to it. I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to write, and I’m far from certain that my perspective holds much value.

But I will continue to write publicly, I’ll continue to think publicly, and, of course, I’ll continue to work publicly, side by side with all of you.

Because if there’s one thing I know, it is this: there is much work to be done.


Farewell, Tisch College

This will be my last post as an employee of Tisch College. I still have another week of work, but as I wind down, I am starting my blogging vacation early. I won’t post again until September 8 – at which point I will be a full time PhD student at Northeastern.

It’s hard saying goodbye to a place where you’ve worked for almost eight years. I’ve seen so many others come and go, yet it seems odd to now be the one leaving. And, all loving hyperbole aside, I know they will get on with out me.

The work continues.

I am thrilled to be starting this new journey, and thrilled to be learning new ways to contribute to the work. The work of civic renewal, of improving our communities, of working together and collaboratively building the infrastructure to have everyone’s voice equally at the table.

It is important work, and the work continues.

I was more cynical eight years ago. I was skeptical of the value most people – including myself – could bring to the hard work of confronting society’s most pressing challenges. I couldn’t equally value every person’s voice and agency when I couldn’t even value my own.

Since I started at Tisch College, I have bought a house, finished a master’s degree, gotten married, seen a niece be born and watched my father die.

I have learned so much.

I have had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people I have ever met, learning not only from their work, but from their thoughtfulness in approaching the work.

I have had lunch with Elinor Ostrom, and attended lectures by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, John Gaventa, Robert Sampson, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Christiane Amanpour, and even – if you’re into that kind of thing – Antonin Scalia.

I’ve helped make some those events happen.

I have met and learned from the amazing scholars and practioners in the civic studies community – some of the most dedicated, passionate, and intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I bring that community with me, even now as I enter my next adventure. My role may change, but the work –

The work continues.

Here’s to the next chapter.