April 19, 2018: Bill Skelley–All about community

April 19, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In a way, this is a story about neighborhoods. It’s a story about how neighborhoods have a certain rhythm to them.  It’s a story of how residents of a neighborhood grow. How they change. How the residents can interact with each other and create something vibrant and fulfilling.  It’s a story about community. It’s a story about Bill Skelley.  Skelley, who passed away this month and who will be sorely missed by those who knew him, was all about community.

Bill Skelley lived on Warwick Road until his death.  Oh no, not that (!) Bill Skelley.  Did I forget to mention it?  The story begins before Bill Skelley the Selectman.  This was Big Bill, the one who was a firefighter in Cambridge.  Bill, along with his wife Edna, raised their children, including Belmont’s future selectman, on this small one-block long street off Common Street.  Bill and Edna began their tenure on Warwick Road as the young parents on the block.  Bill and Edna, however, remained in their home for decades.  Over time, they became the oldsters and other young families moved in around them.

As Bill and Edna aged, they became less and less able to do some of the necessary chores around their home. Living in New England, one of those chores, of course, was clearing the snow that seemed always to drift along the driveway running up the hill to the back of their home.  Particularly in those days, before the time of snowblowers and contractors who cleared driveways with a pick-up and a blade, clearing snow proved a challenge to the seniors of Warwick Road.

My neighbor, Mike Smith, and I took it upon ourselves to visit the Skelley home after each snowfall to clear their driveway.  We, and our wives, had become the youngsters on the block, displacing Bill and Edna from that status.  And, quite frankly, being younger, we had stronger backs and more ability to clear the Skelley driveway than Big Bill did.   It wasn’t an obligation. It was simply something neighbors did for neighbors.

That’s where “Little Bill” comes in. By now, Little Bill had completed his star sports career at Belmont High.  He had married and had his own kids.  He sharpened his own sense of community as he coached youth sports.  He pursued that sense of community through participation on a variety of town committees, ultimately being elected to Belmont’s Board of Selectmen.  He still regularly visited his parents, however, in their little white house with the long driveway on Warwick Road.  And he noticed that his parents’ driveway always seemed to be clear after snow storms.

After he was elected to the Board of Selectmen, Little Bill visited Mike and I one night after visiting his parents across the street.  He thanked us for helping his mom and dad.  However, he did more than that.  He talked about the needs of the larger community, of the town as a whole.  He talked about the need for the town to have participation in community affairs by residents young and old. And he talked about how shoveling the driveway of an aging couple wasn’t all that different in principle from serving on a town committee addressing town needs.  He asked Mike and I to think about what committees we might have an interest in.

Mike was appointed to the Historic District Commission.  I was appointed to the Fair Housing Committee.  All because we shoveled the driveway of a neighbor in need.

There are new residents now on Warwick Road, those who have come since the Skelleys, both “big” and “little,” lived there.  The people who are the young families are different.  The people who were young have now grown older and look to others for help with more frequency.  The rhythm of the neighborhood continues.  The cycle of change never ends.  But we are lucky to have known Bill Skelley. What lives on, as embodied in the life of Bill Skelley, is the sense that we’re all in this together. We are more than a group of families who happen to live next to each other. We are a community.

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April 5, 2018 — Election Reflections

April 5, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

I pulled a wadded up piece of newsprint out of my pocket earlier this week and threw it in the trash. I gave it no further thought.  Not because it was unimportant. Quite the contrary. It‘s a piece of paper that contributed to the very essence of living in Belmont. That wadded up paper ball had served it function, as similar sheets of paper have done time and again over the years.

In Belmont, we are lucky to have an organization whose very reason for being is defined as to “make democracy work.”  The Belmont League of Women Voters is a group of men and women of all ages and backgrounds who proclaim their common interest as being to  “encourage active and informed participation in government through education and advocacy.”

It is a local organization focusing on local Belmont needs.  The national League of Women Voters was founded in 1920.  In April 1936, however, one hundred Belmont women left the Cambridge League to found the local Belmont organization.  Since then, the League has sought to educate the community on topics ranging from the needs of senior citizens, to the annual town budget, to each year’s town election.

My paper ball flows from those efforts.  I cannot remember the last time I went into a voting booth without having torn out the Precinct 6 pages from the League’s annual “Voter Guide” and checked off the Town Meeting Members I intended to vote for.  In the Voter Guide, the League publishes the results of its survey not only of candidates for townwide office, but of all Town Meeting candidates as well.  The “survey” asks simply that each candidate respond to a request to “discuss an issue or two which you consider important to the future of the town, presenting your ideas for managing them effectively.”  The responses are published verbatim and mailed to each household in Belmont.

Wow. Step back and consider for a moment the work that goes into that.  With eight precincts and twelve Town Meeting slots open in each precinct, sometimes with more candidates than slots available, someone with the Belmont League is identifying the candidates, mailing each candidate the survey, compiling the responses, formatting those responses, and arranging the printing and mailing so that the responses can be delivered to every household in Belmont.  That’s not just a “few hours” of work. And they have been providing that service for years.  The League published its first Voter Guide in 1986 and has been doing it since.

It’s not just the Voter Guide, of course.  The Belmont League also sponsors the annual Candidate’s Night, where every candidate is invited to attend and be available to any community member who might wish to come advocate a position or ask a question.  Speaking of direct one-on-one democracy!

This year’s League efforts went off without a hitch. The Voter Guide was printed and delivered. Candidate’s Night was held.  And, therein lies my concern. Why is smooth sailing a problem?  My fear is that when things run so well, for so long, they become, in a way, invisible to the public.  And when things become invisible, the people who make it all happen, and the effort involved, become unnoticed. The services are “expected” rather than “appreciated.”  For example, though I use the League’s Voter Guide every year, I can’t remember even once having said to a member of Belmont’s League of Women Voters “thank you. That Guide you mail to me? It helps.”

So, let me rectify that wrong.  That publication you mail to me plays an essential role in one of the most important tasks I do each spring: deciding who to vote for in Town elections. To the leaders who steer the League; to the workers who prepare the Guide; to the supporters who help pay for it; thank you.  Please rest assured that Belmont is better off for your efforts.

March 8, 2018–Expanding Board of Selectmen has Merit

March 8, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The questions posed by an assessment of the proper size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen, as recently considered by a Town Meeting study committee, predate the very founding of our community.  “No political problem,” James Madison said in The Federalist (No. 54), “is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number convenient for a representative legislature. . .”  While the Board of Selectmen is obviously not Belmont’s “legislature,” that function being assigned to Town Meeting, the difficult questions identified by James Madison 230 years ago are those which Belmont now faces as well.

There is no standard size for a municipal governing board. Nor are there any definitive guidelines on how such a size might be determined. Perhaps the closest that exists is the Model City Charter (Eighth Edition), last published in 2011 by the National Civic League. In its commentary on council size, the Model Charter recommends that “the council be small – ranging from five to nine members. . .[S]maller city councils are more effective instruments for the development of programs and conduct of municipal business than large local legislative bodies.”

Even the “small” council endorsed by the National Civic League, however, has a minimum of five members.  A three member municipal governing board has never been recommended by the League.  The smallest municipal council size ever recommended by the League has been four members.

The Model City Charter’s discussion tempers its recommendation of a “small” council with the following observation: “in determining the size of the council, drafters should consider the diversity of population elements to be represented and the size of the city.”  This advice seems particularly applicable to Belmont.  While obviously Belmont is not a “large” community (as communities go), there is no question but that, financially, even Belmont operates a “large” budget.  With a town budget well in excess of $100 million in Fiscal Year 2018, there can be little question that Belmont’s municipal government is a large and complex organization.

In addition, Belmont’s frequent portrayal as a homogenously white, upper-middle class community is a gross over-generalization. While, clearly, there are homogeneously white, upper-middle areas within Belmont, the diversity of Belmont is actually quite stark.  Belmont residents exhibit diversity in attributes such as age, economic status, race, homeowner vs. renter status, and length of time people have lived in the town, amongst others.  It seems, in other words, that Belmont’s diversity counsels for a larger rather than a smaller Board of Selectmen.

A 2009 study by the University of Buffalo’s Regional Institute examined the size of municipal government boards.  The Regional Institute concluded that “size choices have tradeoffs” and there is no optimal size “to maximize performance on all municipal goals.”  The Institute stated: “virtually all design decisions entail tradeoffs to balance multiple competing goals and values.”  The Institute’s study found that larger councils are generally better able to represent diverse public opinion, respond to demands for constituent service, deliberate reflectively, and tackle complex or controversial issues.  In contrast, the Institute continued, smaller councils are better able to operate cheaply, respond to community consensus, and handle a light workload of routine and uncontroversial decisions.

It would appear that Belmont falls on the side of those factors counseling for a larger council.  And Belmont would not be unique in reaching this conclusion.  The Institute’s study examined the size of municipal governing boards in five counties in New York, including communities ranging in size from villages, to towns, to cities.  The final study reported that of the 156 communities in these five counties, only one had a local municipal board of three persons.  By far, the most common size of a local municipal board was five persons.  At the least, while it would not be legitimate to decide that Belmont should have five members on its Board of Selectmen because “everyone else does,” it is appropriate to find that the relatively small size of Belmont does not make our community “too small” to support a five-person governing board.

The Town Meeting study committee’s recommendation to expand the size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has merit for our community.  Town Meeting should act favorably on that recommendation.

January 4, 2018: 2017 brought a year of progress for Belmont

January 4, 2018: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Remember when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004? That feeling of “I never thought I’d live to see the day”? That was 2017 in Belmont.

But first, some things never change.  One of those things is the pride our Belmont High School students bring to the community.  Special kudos in 2017 go to the BHS girls rugby team. In an historic first, their state championship was not merely the first in Massachusetts. Rather, the 2017 Belmont team was the first ever, in the entire country, to win a championship in girls rugby as a state-sanctioned varsity sport.  Well done, girls.  Well done, Coach Kate McCabe.

The community as a whole won when Town Meeting decided to proceed with major capital projects that have long languished.  Under the leadership of Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the Major Capital Projects Work Group, decisions were made to proceed with short-term solutions, and a long-term plan, to address the abysmal conditions of our police station and DPW yard. While challenges yet remain, for the first time, there is now a clear path forward to replace these essential public facilities. Now, let’s talk about the name of that committee, the MCPWG!

Speaking of paths, after 25-plus years of debate, the Board of Selectmen approved a route for Belmont’s community path.  Based on an incredibly inclusive public input process, the path’s route will connect our town into the larger regional network of paths going both east and west. Completion of the community path –as with the DPW and police station, many obstacles still remain—is expected not only to be a boon to walkers/runners/bikers, but is expected to bring considerable business benefits to Belmont Center as well.

No new business generated more excitement than the opening of Belmont Books in Belmont Center last spring.  Along with the in-store Black Bear Café, Belmont Books contributes to the essence of community, having quickly become a destination place to shop, browse and/or meet friends and converse. Belmont has long missed having a book store.  Belmont Books has brought one back with class and style.

New thinking, new designs, new grade configurations and a new school appear to be the future for classes for many of our students.  During 2017, one could hardly turn around without being solicited for input about a new Belmont High School by the BHS Building Committee and chair Bill Lovallo.  What do you want a building to look like? What grades should be there? What kinds of spaces should exist, both inside the building and out? Natural light? Technology? Solar power? We’ve been asked about it all.

You “may” have noticed a new building going up in Cushing Square this year. After the multi-year debacle of a permitting process, the structure of Cushing Village (nay, The Bradford) finally began to rise this year.  What you will not notice is a new Library in Waverley Square.  Efforts by the Planning Board to consider such a proposal, strangely without ever consulting the Library Board of Trustees, were quickly shot down this past summer.  Instead, the newly appointed Library Building Committee will seek to implement the recommendations developed by the Library feasibility study.

And finally, while not needing a new building, under the tutelage of News Director Fredrique Rigoulot, the Belmont Media Center (located in Waverley Square) is now producing the Belmont Journal, a weekly news show focusing on hyper-local news specific to Belmont. You can watch it on television or stream it on-line, on-demand.

As we remember 2017, and wonder what 2018 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

December 7, 2017–Combating racism through children’s books

December 7, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The data is staggering.  Racial biases begin at a very young age.  “By age three,” Story Starters Boston reports, “children have already absorbed the climate of our society in which ‘middle-class white culture is presented as a norm or standard. . .in terms of appearance, beauty, language, cultural practices, food and so on.’”  Black and white children tend to favor their own race at age three, one researcher finds, but by the time they are five, black children also show a pro-white bias.

Not talking about race doesn’t make these racial biases go away. Rather, family conversations help.  A new program soon to begin here in Belmont, Story Starters Boston, is designed to facilitate these conversations.  According to Joslyne Decker, founder of Story Starters, the program “uses children’s literature to give families the tools and support to talk about race and racism and to engage in family-centered social justice conversations.”  The program, to be held at the First Church Belmont, is funded through a grant from Belmont Against Racism and is sponsored in part by Belmont Books.

“Many of us have been taught not to see color,” Decker says.  “We’ve been told that to see race is wrong and shameful. We’ve been told that somehow seeing race is, in fact, racist.” She disputes that notion.  “Although these lessons may have been borne from good intentions,” Decker says, “not seeing race is harmful to all of us, people of color and white people alike.  If we can’t see race, we can’t see racism.”

The research supports the message advanced by Decker.  “Silence about race does not keep children from noticing race and developing racial biases and prejudices, it just keeps them from talking about it,” one researcher reported in 2009.  Quite to the contrary, a different researcher said, exposure to people of other races in books, on TV, or in real life must coincide with “explicit conversation” about race to have an impact.  “Without making specific references to the topic of race,” they found, “it is unlikely that children will understand that. . .they should not discriminate against others based on their skin color.”

The use of children’s books is one essential element to stem the tide of racism, according to Decker.  Books represent both “windows and mirrors,” she says.  “They are the mirrors that reflect how we see ourselves.  They are the windows through which we can see others.”  Reading books, Decker says, helps children develop social empathy.  Through books, she says, “children can place themselves in someone else’s shoes.”  Through books, she says, “children can learn about different kinds of families, different people, different cultures.” Through books, she says, children expand their “moral imagination,” the ability to imagine both different people and different situations.

Story Starters seeks to help parents use children’s books to have family conversations about race.  Parents are provided weekly newsletters to help guide them in talking with their kids about the books they are reading.  Parents often face two problems, Decker says, both of which Story Starters tries to address.  First, parents don’t generally have an opportunity to “practice” the conversations they want to have with their kids.  Second, they don’t have a support group when things don’t go well.  Story Starters strives, Decker says, to assure parents that conversations about race “don’t have to happen in isolation.  We celebrate our successes and we talk about our challenges.”

Story Starters delivers a wonderful service to our community.  It is a ten week program directed toward families with children in Pre-k through Grade 4.  The program begins in January 2018.  The registration deadline is December 11, 2017.  Families can register at: https://www.storystartersboston.com/register.

August 2, 2017: Purple Heart Day–Remembering the fallen

August 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

On Monday, August 7, Belmont will observe Purple Heart Day.  The day commemorates those men and women who have received the Purple Heart in service to our country.

First created in 1782 by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the award was then known as the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War until being resurrected in World War I.  According to one history of the medal, the Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.  (The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.)  Since then, while the Pentagon does not track the exact number, current estimates are that roughly 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. The categories of Purple Heart recipients have been expanded in recent years.

Purple Heart Day is not a “holiday.” Neither government offices nor businesses are closed.  No parades are held.  No fireworks are set off. It is a day of introspection, a day to say “thank you” to all those who have served through the military. Residents would be well-served by grabbing the kids and attending the Purple Heart Day morning ceremony at the Belmont Public Library.

I do have one “worry” about Purple Heart Day.  It is the same concern I have with donating to local food drives only at Thanksgiving; or embracing diversity only on Martin Luther King Day.  Appreciation of, and respect for, our veterans should not be something that is taken out and dusted off for a Purple Heart Day ceremony, only then to be returned to the back shelves of our minds to await next year’s ceremonies.

(That’s not to say that such appreciation implies an unqualified buy-in to all military policies. What our men and women serve to protect is the right to think as we wish.  That includes the right to dissent.)

Devoting a special day to acknowledge those sacrifices not only of the men and women who have fallen in service, but those also of the families of the men and women who have fallen, is the right thing to do.  Consider just one type of sacrifice: experiencing a disability.  The numbers are staggering. Of the nearly 1,000 veterans living in Belmont, nearly one-quarter now have at least one disability. (That disability rate is more than three times higher than the disability rate in Belmont’s total adult population). Part of that, of course, is because many of our veterans are aging.  Nearly 40% of Belmont’s veterans are age 75 or older, while more than two-thirds are age 65 or older. This, however, may be a situation where the numbers may get in the way of the story.  The “story” is one of service, and of sacrifice, men and women, generation upon generation.

For those who perhaps want to do more than simply attend a ceremony on Purple Heart Day, learning about Belmont’s Veterans Memorial Committee (www.BelmontVets.com) is worth your time.  That Committee is “dedicated to establishing and preserving Belmont’s memorials to its veterans and those who died in service.” For example, the Veteran’s Committee was the driving force behind restoration of the monument to those who served in WWI.  It is also spearheading the effort to renovate and expand the memorial at Clay Pit Pond acknowledging Belmont residents who have served in all conflicts since the Civil War.

Let us never forget to appreciate those who have fallen in service.  But, let us also not “remember to remember” only on those days that are specially set aside for doing so.

April 20, 2017: Louis Armstrong: Lessons for the Library

April 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Timeless. In the recent Belmont Media Center debate between Library Board of Trustees candidates, one candidate referenced how, while growing up, she used the World Book Encyclopedias as her reference source.  In contrast, I am reasonably certain that my Millennial daughter has never opened a World Book volume, turning instead to the internet as her primary information source.  The Belmont library serves both individuals, the middle-aged person who turns to books and the Millennial who turns to the internet, even though looking perhaps for the same information. As that BMC debate comment acknowledged, it is the information, not the mechanism used to record and make that information available, that withstands time.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Louis Armstrong, labelled by TIME publishing as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time.  It was almost this day 94 years ago, April 5, 1923, that Armstrong, as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recording. And the world changed. According to music historian Phillip Atteberry, “jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn’t come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong.”

More than 40 years after making that first recording, Louis Armstrong was still making history. In 1964 (May 9th), Armstrong ended the Beatles run of 13 straight weeks of having #1 songs with his recording of Hello Dolly. The musical revolution in the United States wrought by the Beatles, in other words, was grounded, at least temporarily, by a nearly 63 year old man who had been playing his trumpet for 40 years.

Much can be said about Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Born in poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong became an international music icon. Even if not the originator of the jazz solo, Louis Armstrong took the jazz solo to new heights. Armstrong gave birth to the use of improvisation in American jazz music. Armstrong began his career with one instrument (the cornet), not moving to a different instrument (the trumpet) until 1926.  Even later, Armstrong added decades of unique vocal renditions to his musical legend. All of which is known today, of course, to both young and old.

Which brings me back to the Belmont public library. As I sit here thinking about Louis Armstrong making that historic recording back in April 1923, I find myself somewhat awed by the task that the Belmont library has undertaken for our community. The job of the library is to make accessible not merely music, but information, in a multitude of forms, from a multitude of eras, to a multitude of people. From Louis Armstrong’s first recording in 1926, to his Beatles-defying recording in 1964, up to the music he recorded before his death in 1971, the music of Louis Armstrong will live on in public libraries. Whether available to my Millennial daughter (through You Tube), or to folks my age (through a paper book), information about the life and music of Louis Armstrong is made available to all comers through the public library.

In this era known as The Information Age, you truly have to appreciate the complexity of the job undertaken by the Belmont public library, as a community institution, in making available timeless information to anyone, and everyone, who seeks it. And one must admire the commitment of the people who keep that institution vibrant through all the dramatic changes in information-sharing over time.