Why Would Anyone Volunteer To Do This?

Whenever I feel the urge to grumble about a long meeting or the need to attend an event on a weekend, I remind myself that most of the people I’m meeting or associating with are volunteers.  Even after doing this work for many years, I am still amazed at the commitment of so many people wanting to do good things for their community.  Local government in the United States would not work without volunteers, but often what they do is done with little notice or appreciation from the community as a whole.

I’ve received a number of phone calls over the years from citizens wanting to run for city council until they learn there is no real pay associated with the job.  It’s easy to understand why so many of our residents think city councilors are highly paid politicians.  The work requires hours of study every week, frequent meetings, intense confrontations with dissatisfied constituents, plus the effort and expense to be elected or re-elected.  Most of the councilors I’ve known over the years do it because they care about the place they live and want to make a contribution to it.

City councilors are, of course, only a small number of the volunteers we rely on at the City of Albany every day.  Many drivers in our transit service, commission members, library workers, Senior Center helpers, and Neighborhood Watch members are volunteers who help deliver important services.  We would do far less or we would spend far more if we did not have the number and quality of volunteers we do.

Most of the people who serve would probably say they get more out of their service than they give.  I know this was true for me when I volunteered to do work at my children’s schools when they were small.  I was eventually elected to the school board where I learned many of the skills that have helped me throughout my career as a city manager.  I had no idea when I went to the school as a parent volunteer how much I would take away from the experience.

I fear we do not fully appreciate, or perhaps we are losing appreciation for, how important volunteers are in our system of government.  Volunteers are not simply a nice feature of city government; they are critical to the success of local democracy.  If city government were simply a matter of delivering services, private businesses could do the job as well or better than public agencies.  The important distinction is that we are compelled to do things that cannot or should not be done for profit.  We could not fulfill this responsibility without volunteers willing to direct and support our efforts.

Tomorrow is Another Day

Tuesday’s election in Massachusetts, in addition to a new senator, ushered in a wave of opinions among political analysts that the death of the Republican Party may not have occurred in November 2008 and that the Democratic Party is now in big trouble.  These are the same analysts in many cases who drew the opposite conclusion a little more than a year ago.  I’m sure the next election, regardless of the results, will generate a new round of contradictory thoughts.

Several months ago, I was talking with a colleague who told me his city was in good financial condition and did not anticipate any serious financial challenges in the near future.  A recent conversation sounded much different as my friend’s jurisdiction makes significant budget cuts.

The common thread between these two incidents is the simple and obvious truth that what is true today may not be tomorrow.  The tragedy in Haiti is another reminder of how quickly things can change.  Knowing the volatility of our world should give us some guidance about how to best adapt to changing circumstances, although the lesson seems to be lost on the popular media.  In fairness, I have to confess that I’m usually guilty of living my life as if few things will ever change much.

I think I’m much better at looking toward the future at work than I am at home.  I suppose anyone who works for or lives in the city should hope so.  I try to strike a balance between planning for things that are likely to happen and responding to things that are happening.  Ignoring either in city management can be a fatal flaw.  I’m also careful about reacting to events and assuming they are portents of doom or omens of good fortune.

It’s always dangerous to extrapolate from one’s own experiences, but I feel confident in saying that good things and bad things happen both because of things we do and regardless of what we do.  The lesson is not that we should simply resign ourselves to fate.  Rather, I think we make plans and preparations knowing some of our work will be valuable for reasons beyond our intentions.  My wife and I have a number of five-gallon cans of prehistoric wheat that were given to us years ago to become part of our emergency food supply.  I’ve lugged these cans all over the state and once tried to dispose of them under the not implausible theory they would never be used and might kill us if they were.  My wife continues to assure me that wheat found in the pyramids can still be ground into flour and used for food.  The value we receive from the wheat may never take the form of bread.  We will, or at least my wife will, however, have the satisfaction of believing we are prepared for an extended food shortage.

Tomorrow is another day, in the words of Scarlett O’Hara (young people will need to look this one up on-line), and our best preparation for the changes that might occur is the alignment of our attitudes with the idea we may need to adapt.  Today’s events are not irrelevant, but they are a limited guide to tomorrow.

Rocks are Heavier Now

My sons brought home an expression when they were high school wrestlers that nicely summarized how each generation feels about those that precede it.  Anytime someone would talk about how hard things were in the “old days,” the caustic reply from my sons would be, “Yeah, rocks were heavier then.”

As I took my garbage cart out to the curb this morning, I remembered again the debt I owe to all those who created the infrastructure that allows me to dispose of waste materials so easily and efficiently.  I know what a difficult problem solid waste disposal is in many parts of the world, and it’s something I rarely have to worry about here.  The same debt applies to so many of the things we take for granted every day.  Reliable electricity, emergency services, water, sewage disposal, roads, health care, and entertainment, to name a few, are accessible to most of us, even though we often complain about the costs.  Our enjoyment of this legacy is not the fruit of accident or coincidence.  The infrastructure of modern life is a remarkable tribute to everyone who contributed to it.

While we should admire and be grateful for the pioneers who created what we now enjoy, we should also recognize the debt we inherited.  I don’t mean a financial debt that can be measured in economic terms, although we certainly have a large one and are busily increasing it every day.  Rather, the debt that concerns me is the innovation treadmill that, if stopped, forces us to confront the painful reality of loss.  We can’t simply maintain what we have to sustain what we consider to be the good life.  Continuing prosperity will require, in my opinion, higher levels of education, creativity, and hard work than the effort that went into our inherited infrastructure.

We can choose to view this obligation as a burden, or we can view it as a powerful and positive incentive that enriches our lives.  The great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., captured this point of view when he observed:

“Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science.  But I think that is not the greatest thing.  Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all.  When it said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place.  Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life, they mean more life.  Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.  I will add but a word.  We are all very near despair.  The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers.”

My sons picked up things good and bad in their wrestling days, and I think they were misled by the idea that rocks were heavier in the old days.  Future generations will face different challenges than those we face; but if they are to experience an appropriate measure of satisfaction and happiness, they will be carrying some very heavy rocks.