April 21, 2016: Town government: on the outside looking in

Belmont Citizen-Herald: April 21, 2016

I hope telephones were ringing all over Belmont after the town’s recent municipal elections, and not simply to dissect the final vote tallies.  Persons whose phones I hope were particularly active are Mike Widmer, Mark Paolillo and Bob Reardon.

My impression of this year’s Board of Selectmen campaign was that a new, but growing, group of voters believes that Belmont’s town government does not adequately address issues important to younger community residents.  For example, the extent to which town processes are “transparent” sounds to me like an issue being raised by residents who, for whatever reason, feel like they’re too frequently on the outside looking in. It questions whether someone can meaningfully participate even if they’re not part of the old guard.

(I set aside, for now, whether the substance of specific campaign issues had merit. The point of a campaign is not simply to win an election, but to engage community members and hear their concerns.  In doing this, one can focus on the details of specific issues and miss hearing the deeper message.)

In Belmont, there should be no reason for anyone to be on the outside looking in.  There is simply too much opportunity to participate in the nitty-gritty of local governance. Concededly, I have not spoken with Town Moderator Mike Widmer, who appoints members to the Warrant Committee (that committee which advises Town Meeting on financial matters). Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that Widmer would consider it to be a “problem” to have more people asking to be appointed than he had Warrant Committee seats to fill.  That would present a particularly pleasant “problem” if applicants included a new generation of residents who had not previously been involved.

If people are concerned about the bikability of Belmont, any number of committees can influence such policies (e.g., the Traffic Advisory Committee).  As the chair of one of those committees, the town’s Energy Committee, I can unequivocally say that we would not only welcome new members, but we would relish the notion of new members who bring ideas, passion, and a willingness to work.  Bob Reardon in the Selectmen’s office is the keeper-of-lists, both of committee openings and potential volunteers.

One thing I heard from Candidate Paolillo was his intent to move forward quickly with implementing the recommendations of the long-range Financial Task Force. It would be a failing of epic magnitude, however, if that implementation committee (or committees) was populated exclusively with the usual suspects. The Selectmen should clearly beat the bushes to find residents to be involved. However, I would hope the bigger problem would involve having too many people expressing an interest.  Residents of all persuasions should be contacting Paolillo with a “please count me in” message.

In pursuing implementation of the Financial Task Force recommendations, in other words, or anything else in town government for that matter, not only is there a duty for the Selectmen to affirmatively seek new people to be involved, there is a corresponding duty on the part of community members to step forward to say, “here I am; what can I do to help?”

There is sometimes a tendency to over-analyze the significance of any given election. Nonetheless, the 2016 municipal election in Belmont may well be seen in years hence as the tipping-point, where a new generation of Belmontians began to step forward, not simply to vote, but to say, loudly and clearly, “Count me in.” “What role can I play?” The town clearly has an obligation to provide equal opportunities for all to participate. Individual Belmont residents also have an obligation to make themselves known in seeking those opportunities out.

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April 7, 2016: Muslims in America: The story I heard

Belmont Citizen-Herald: April 7, 2016

Much of what was said at the recent forum on “Muslims in America—Hearing Their Story” here in Belmont was not really about Muslims at all.

The Belmont Religious Council and Belmont Against Racism, amongst others, hosted the forum.  Concerned citizens packed the room at the Beth El Temple, accompanied by elected officials, representatives of the Belmont police, and members of Belmont’s faith-based community.

The evening was powerful.  In explaining why understanding Muslims is a “human rights” issue rather than a religious issue, Harvard professor of religions Ali Asani said that “every human being has multiple identities. Religion is one. Race is another. Gender is another.  But when you categorize a human being with multiple identities, and you see this human being through just one dimension, it’s dangerous.”  Asani strove to “alert us to the dangers of denying Muslims the multiplicities of their identities and viewing them uni-dimensionally, just through the lens of religion.”

When Asani made that comment, it wasn’t just one lightbulb that popped on in my head, lightbulbs were popping as though that statement was walking down the Red Carpet at the Oscars.   I could see that I’m not merely a lawyer and an economist in my professional life. I’m also a parent, a spouse, a neighbor and a host of other things. Each of these personae helps shape who I am. With more than a billion Muslims in the world today, therefore, to categorically assert that it is religion alone that defines them seems atrociously hollow.

Asani’s observation is one of the foundations of human rights movements throughout the United States and elsewhere.  One could easily substitute any number of words for “Muslim” in his comments, and they would carry equal power.  Given Belmont’s rapidly increasing diversity, we need to be wary of viewing (and treating) our community’s residents “one dimensionally,” whether that dimension is religion, race, gender, nationality, or something else.

One of those single-dimensions in Belmont involves the “new-comer” identity.  I’ve heard far too many people say, with a laugh but nonetheless also with an edge, that “I’m still new; I’ve only lived in Belmont 30 years.”  In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us, the median year that a tenant moved into their Belmont home was 2008; the median year a homeowner moved in was 1998.  Belmont is constantly changing.

After listening to professor Asani, I see two particularly pernicious dangers in this year’s political environment.  The first danger is that people focus only on the “big” issues of hateful intolerance (e.g., immigration) that seem to drive much of today’s political activism.  The bigger danger, however, is that we focus attention exclusively on opposing the statements and actions that appall us.  One thing professor Asani was seeking to teach us, I believe, is that we must not only consciously act to oppose the hate, but we must also consciously act to embrace tolerance and understanding in its stead.  Being passively neutral is not an option.

One message I heard professor Asani say was that embracing diversity doesn’t “just happen.” It requires work. I heard him caution us that the work of recognizing and appreciating each person’s “multiplicities” is a way to live, not a task to complete. As it was the Irish yesterday, and the Muslims today, it will be someone else tomorrow. Asani talked about achieving a “diversity of spirit” through education and communication, tasks that never end.  And I heard him say, finally, that this work doesn’t happen through government policy; rather it happens at an individual level, by conscious personal choices.

We all have work to do.  Today is a good day to start.