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.

March 23, 2017: Boston Belmont Friends Group: A service to yourself

March 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do you do?  What do you do when the school day ends at 2:30 and your play rehearsal or basketball game doesn’t begin until 7:00?  Where do you do your homework? Eat dinner? Simply stay grounded for that four or five hours?  These are very real questions facing Boston METCO students attending the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School.

The Boston Belmont Friends Group helps fill that gap.  According to Lorraine Kermond, one of four parents who helped organize the group at the Chenery, one role of the Friends Group is to provide a safe, welcoming place –a home-away-from-home if you will– to allow Boston students to be grounded when they have time gaps created by participation in after-school activities and can’t just run home for a few hours.

“Having a host family is a lifeline,” says Janee Carroll, one of the Boston parents involved with the Friends Group.  “I don’t have to worry if my son (a ninth grader at BHS) gets stuck at school. He has a place to go.”  In the same way, Belmont host families help, also, when kids get sick at school.

While important, says Kermond, the role of “host families” misses the core of the Friends Group.  Yes, the Friends Group is a collaboration to ensure that kids don’t get stranded. Yes, the group helps parents in each community make connections in the other community.  However, Kermond says, “the parents who help make this group go are not merely fellow committee members, there is genuine friendship. We all have interesting jobs. We all have had interesting life experiences.”

And I “got it.” After all, our daughter has been out of Belmont High for six years. Nonetheless, some of our closest friends remain those parents we first met while waiting outside the Wellington for school to be dismissed.  The Friends Group recognizes that since the Boston parents will not have that after-school waiting time to bond, special efforts must be made to provide opportunities for relationships to sprout and for friendships to blossom. The kids are in school together and will choose their own friends. The parents would never have reason ever to meet.

Accordingly, parent-to-parent dinners are arranged throughout the year. Local events are scheduled when school events (such as curriculum night) occur.  Indeed, this year’s annual all-family bowling night is on the calendar for March 26th (contact Carol Sabia, crsabia@gmail.com if you’re interested in attending).  It takes effort and persistence to reach out to connect people, Kermond says. But it is an effort of passion, she says, given what each community has to offer the other community.

The parents of the original Friends Group at the Chenery have now aged with their kids into the High School; the friendships have followed.  Nonetheless, a Boston Belmont Friends Group persists at the Chenery. Starting next year, Kermond says, the aspiration is to also have such groups in all four elementary schools. Parent participation at all grade levels is sought.

Parents do a remarkable number of volunteer tasks to support their kids in Belmont’s public schools. The Boston Belmont Friends Group, however, feels different in nature. It feels like opening yourself to new friendships more than like volunteering for a job needing to be done. Opening your home to let a kid crash for a few hours; taking your family bowling; going to dinner with the parents of your student’s classmates. In short, making cross-community connections. It’s one of the things that METCO is all about.  Participating in the Boston Belmont Friends Group is not just a service to your child or to your school.  It is a service to yourself.

December 29, 2016: 2016 brought beginnings, endings to Belmont

December 29, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

2016 will go down as one with significant beginnings and endings for Belmont.  One of the most substantial beginnings was the start of the process to renovate and rebuild Belmont High School.  To say that the process “started” this year is perhaps a misnomer.  Belmont officials have sought a state go-ahead for years. Both repairs and expansions are needed.  In January 2016, however, state approval finally came for the expected $100 million project. The project still has a long way to go before a renovated school becomes a reality. A building committee was appointed to usher the BHS project through the design and construction process.

Another education journey came to an end in 2016.  After residents overwhelmingly voted “no” to funding for a new Minuteman High School building, Town Meeting voted further to have Belmont withdraw from the Minuteman Regional Vocational School District.  For Belmont students to attend Minuteman in the future, they will need to apply for open spaces, as do students in other non-member towns.

Chenery middle school students are eager to use their new modular classrooms.  Seven classrooms, known as “the mods,” were delivered to Belmont in October to be installed on the Chenery tennis courts.  Chenery principal Mike McAllister notes that, given the increased student population in Belmont, the mods will be used for the foreseeable future.

Multi-year projects really can come to an end in Belmont.  In 2016, the reconstruction of the Belmont Street/Trapelo Road corridor, along with the reconstruction of Leonard Street through Belmont Center, were completed.  Requisite ribbon cuttings were held, smiles were seen aplenty, and more than a few heavy sighs of relief were heard.

One Belmont initiative generated some real excitement this year.  The Belmont Goes Solar campaign resulted in the sale of more than 250 solar systems to be installed on Belmont rooftops.   Before the campaign, only 20 Belmont residents had installed solar systems.  Belmont Goes Solar generated more solar sales than through any other community solarization campaign in Massachusetts.

Intoxicants were at the center of one major controversy this year.  The Board of Selectmen approved, on a rare 2–1 split vote, a highly controversial decision to allow The Loading Dock to transfer its liquor license to Belmont’s Star Market.  Legitimate arguments were raised on both sides.  On the one hand, owners of The Loading Dock needed the money from the sale of the license to stay in business.  On the other hand, the original intent of Town Meeting was to use liquor licenses to promote economic development by small locally-owned businesses in commercially undeveloped parts of town.  Fears were expressed that granting Star Market a liquor license will harm existing small local businesses, such as Cushing Square’s Spirited Gourmet and Belmont Center’s Craft Beer Cellars.

Other issues in Belmont continued to drag on throughout 2016.  Chris Starr (finally) sold the development rights to Cushing Village to another developer; nonetheless, by the end of the year no demolition, let alone construction, had yet begun.  The community path was laid over on yet another committee for further “public input” and “feasibility study.”  Reconstruction of the old Macy’s building continues, but still disrupts Belmont Center.

2016 gave Belmont residents a reason to have a fundamental optimism about how well local government works in our community.  Streets and schools were taken care of. Irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with the outcome, intensely controversial issues (such as The Loading Dock and Minuteman Tech) were squarely addressed and resolved.

As we remember 2016, and wonder what 2017 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Happy holidays to all.

December 8, 2016: Belmont’s role in ‘season of giving’

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 8, 2016

Belmont residents are a generous sort when it comes to financially supporting their favorite charitable institutions.  According to data maintained by the Internal Revenue Service, almost, but not quite, half of all Belmont residents filing a tax return in 2015 (tax year 2014), reported making some level of charitable contributions.  Nearly 5,500 Belmont taxpayers made total charitable contributions exceeding $40.3 million, an average of $7,400 per taxpayer.

In contrast, statewide, just over 30% of all Massachusetts taxpayers made contributions in 2014, the IRS data shows, averaging not quite $4,600.  These numbers do not include political contributions.

While the generosity of Belmont is driven somewhat by the higher incomes in many parts of our community, contributions come from all levels of income.  More than one-quarter of all Belmont contributors had incomes less than $100,000 and yet made contributions of almost $2,000 in 2014.  Belmont residents with income less than $25,000 made contributions averaging more than $1,200 in 2014.

Belmont provides ample opportunity for residents to make local charitable contributions.  The Belmont Food Pantry and Belmont Affordable Shelter Fund supply important social services to help people maintain healthy eating habits and preserve their place to live when trouble strikes.  The Belmont Citizens Forum is an important institution that focuses on local environmental concerns and is supported almost exclusively through local contributions.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society maintains the Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont, a refreshing substantial open space conveniently located in the midst of our sprawling metropolitan area.  The Belmont Dramatic Club, founded in 1903, is the second oldest continuously operating community theatre in the United States.  The Belmont Gallery of Art is a privately supported gallery nestled on the top floor of the Homer Building next to Town Hall.

These institutions set aside the many “Friends” organizations in Belmont, whether they be the Friends of the Belmont Library or the Friends of the Council on Aging.  Support groups for various public school activities abound, whether it be athletics (Belmont Boosters), high school and middle school theatre (PATRONS), or the school system in general (Foundation for Belmont Education).

The Japanese have a word, tashinamu.  According to one etymologist, the word articulates the notion of privately devoting oneself to a project or goal, whether or not you will be recognized for the effort.  I frequently associate the word, for example, with the efforts of people who stoop to pick up trash along the sidewalk as they are out walking. Why do that? For the sake of tashinamu.  The English language does not have an equivalent word.  Nonetheless, this holiday season provides an opportunity to provide financial support to an institution of your choice. . .for the sake of tashinamu.

I have long admired the writing of American author James Baldwin.  Author of works such Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin once wrote that “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.”  Your giving this season can help change the world.  It matters not so much which particular institution you might favor.  Charitable giving lends strength, lends vitality, lends vibrancy to a community.

The holiday season means different things to different people, depending on age, religious affiliation, family traditions, and other factors.  Religious observance. Family gatherings. Seasonal recreation.  However, as we head toward the end of the year here in Belmont, I encourage Belmont residents to view the holiday season in our community as a Season of Giving.  Large or small, local or otherwise, a financial contribution to the charity of your choice is an expression of community.

November 3, 2016: Election campaigns as marketplace of ideas

Belmont Citizen-Herald: November 3, 2016

A long and painful federal election season will come to a close next week.  There’s not much need to beat up on the oft-stated complaint during this election year about the substance, or lack thereof, of the Presidential campaign.  I will not repeat the thinking of many voters that the Presidential campaign, based largely on personal attacks, has not well-served the country.

Given, however, that not long after the federal elections are over, there will soon be a local election here in Belmont, even now it is not too early for us to think about what we would not merely hope for, but what we should affirmatively expect, from any candidate for a local office in Belmont’s town elections next spring. How should our community’s elections differ from that which we have been experiencing?

I was recently reading a back issue of the Christian Science Monitor, one of my favorite news sources, about “personal choice” and its relationship to free enterprise.  “[F]ree enterprise is not just about enjoying abundant goods and services,” the Monitor said. “Its subatomic structure is ideas.  Free markets run on ideas. People try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others. . .Good ones will become better. Lousy ones will go down the drain.”

The Monitor’s article predated the 2016 Presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it would have provided sound counsel to both of the two major political parties this year.  And, looking forward to Belmont’s local elections, there are lessons to take away for candidates and voters alike.

“Free markets run on ideas.” One role of a campaign is to present those ideas for public consumption.  A campaign that fails to do so cheats the voters out of an opportunity to hear those ideas and to “try them on.” Too often a candidate avoids offering ideas, particularly new ideas, out of fear that voters will disagree.  Such conflict avoidance does a disservice to the community. A much better approach is to follow the counsel of British author Edward de Bono, who I believe rightfully opines that “it is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” Belmont voters should demand, and candidates should commit, that our local campaigns will be idea-oriented.

The dynamic nature of a campaign, be it for President of the United States, or Belmont Selectman or local Library Commissioner, does not flow exclusively from the candidates. It flows also from the voters.  In discussing the role of ideas, the Monitor said “people try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others.”  Elections, in other words, assume a certain level of active voter engagement. Elections are like marketplaces, with exchanges not of currency but of opinions and values. Campaigns should not be monologues, with candidates simply talking to voters; they should instead be dialogues, with voters also talking back (as well as with each other).  Just as one cannot truly participate in a marketplace by simply showing up at the cash register, one cannot truly participate in an election by simply showing up at the voting booth.

Let’s all take a deep breath, and a brief respite, when the Presidential campaign ends. It is, however, not too early for Belmont candidates, whoever they might be and for whatever office they might seek, to pledge to run an idea-based campaign.  And it is never too early for Belmont voters to commit to being actively engaged in the community dialogue which a campaign should generate.

Through a commitment to ideas and public engagement, we can do better than what we just experienced.

September 8, 2016: As school year begins, “keep kids in motion”

September 8, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the summer months wind down and school hours again take up much of the day for our community’s school-age children, one increasingly difficult task facing parents is to promote healthy living by our kids.  Healthy living involves not simply healthy eating, according to Be Well Belmont, but involves efforts to “keep kids in motion.”

Both the message and the messenger deserve public attention.

Be Well Belmont is a project of the Belmont Food Collaborative.  The effort, according to Suzanne Johannet, an M.D. and the BFC board chair, is based on the observation that unhealthy living imposes costs, both governmental and societal.  Be Well Belmont is pursuing several major “themes,” Johannet says, including both obesity prevention and mental health.  Youth services, Johannet says, is an important aspect of both of these themes.

Be Well Belmont is part of a larger network of community-based health initiatives.  It joins sister efforts such as Live Well Watertown and Shape-up Somerville.  In most states, Johannet observes, the activities of these efforts would be undertaken by the county public health department.  However, she says, Massachusetts has never had strong county governments and county health departments are non-existent.

Accordingly, Johannet says, local grassroots efforts are supported through regional networks called Community Health Network Areas. Belmont is part of CHNA (pronounced, Chuh-NAW) 17, which also includes Somerville, Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington and Waltham.  Funding is provided to the CHNA when regulatory actions such as hospital consolidations are approved by state regulators.

Be Well Belmont began in late 2015 by pulling together more than 70 community leaders, ranging from the school superintendent, to the library director, to the police chief and a host of community volunteers, business people and clergy, not as policymakers but rather as idea generators and community role models.  The evening’s conversation was charged with identifying “gaps in community wellness activities.”

One resulting objective of the Be Well Belmont organization was to “keep kids in motion.”  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6 – 17 participate in 60 minutes of physical activity daily.  Such activity, HHS says, not only helps build healthier bodies for our kids, but also helps improve academic performance, including grades, attentiveness in the classroom and ability to concentrate on tasks.

Paying particular attention to keeping kids in motion is important both by gender and by age.  Engaging in physical activity declines as young people grow older, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.  The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study noted that by high school, only 29% percent of high school students had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on each of the seven days before the survey. Young females were half as likely as young males to have engaged in such activity (17.7% vs. 36.6%).

The Be Well Belmont efforts are part of a growing campaign to keep kids physically active outside of the classroom in the face of video games, television, and other screen time attractions.  For example, physical activity might beneficially be viewed as part of each child’s daily regime as much as daily homework is.

As the summer days of bicycles and camps turn into days of classrooms and nights of homework, it is important to keep kids in motion.  From walking to school to hoola hoops to bikes; from backyards to houses of worship; from friends to family to neighbors, renewing our community’s commitment at the beginning of this school year to help our kids stay healthy by helping them to stay physically active is one promise we should make and keep.