Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eating a Gelato at the Memorial? It Could Cost You

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

Planning an Italian vacation anytime soon? If you’re headed to the nation’s capitol and planning to take in the sights, make sure not to take any snacks with you.

Rome has recently passed a municipal ordinance that bans people from eating on or near areas of historic or artistic value.  So, if you’re headed to the Trevi Fountain and stop for some gelato at one of the many shops that outline the piazza, you could be fined up to $650 for consuming your treat too close to the storied landmark. 

City officials said the ban was intended to preserve monuments’ “proper decorum” and protect Rome’s most prized landmarks from food spills, litter, and tourists camped out for their mid-day meal.  Their reasoning stems both from an effort to maintain the beauty of these ancient structures but also to preserve everyone’s enjoyment of these destinations.  As Rome's head of tourism noted, "You wouldn’t eat a pizza and drop tomato sauce all over the steps of the White House in Washington.” And, I guess, the last thing you’d want in the middle of your token photograph of the Spanish Steps is a group of tourists munching on paninis (or the wrappers they might have left behind). 

But this story made me think about how quite a few major cities across the world are instituting rules and regulations for their public spaces (New York’s passage of a smoking ban for all public parks in 2011 comes immediately to mind), and what that means from a Commons perspective.  If a ban like the one in Rome or New York truly does serve to protect the space and ensure that most people get more enjoyment out of their experiences there, does that make up for the fact that governments are slowly but surely increasing the limits upon what we can do in those areas and how we can enjoy them?  I’m honestly not entirely sure what my conclusion is on the matter.  For example, I often take my lunch in a park close to my office, and I enjoy the fact that the park is required to remain smoke-free.  But I bet a smoker who finds the smell of my lunch upsetting feels the opposite way.  So what’s the verdict? And who gets to make the decision? If you've got an opinion on the matter feel free to leave it in the comments below!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Few Good Women

Posted by Kim Klein

More than 30 years ago, I was asked to do a training for the board of directors of a community foundation in a fairly large city in the Midwest. Community foundations, unlike private or corporate foundations, are created to serve the community but also to be representative of it. The idea is that the needs of the community are probably best known by people who live there, and so the boards of directors and other decision making bodies in the foundation look, at least demographically, like the community. In this instance, the foundation was well established but wanting to dramatically increase its grantmaking capacity. This meant the board of directors had to raise a lot more money and my job was to help them see how to do that.
I was surprised when I came into the conference room to see about 35 people who were all white, all men, and all over 50. Although I did not know the community the foundation served very well, I knew that unless I had taken a wrong turn and was actually at the Vatican, this collection of people was not demographically representative. I asked if they felt they represented their community. “OH, yes” said the board chair. I said, “Interesting community you have in that case. How do you reproduce?” This caused much coughing and snorting by the assembled group. Finally another board member said, “We have searched for women to be on this board. Good women are hard to find.”

Of course, that was 30 years ago. I believe we have made progress in those three decades and so I was interested in what Romney said in the debate last night. In answer to a question about equal pay for equal work, Romney told a story about when he was governor of Massachusetts he saw that his cabinet had no women, so he instructed his staff to go find some. Clearly neither he nor his staff knew any personally--no wives, girlfriends, neighbors, classmates, sisters, or friends came to mind as qualified. But fortunately his staff were able to amass “binders of women.” And from that, presumably, Romney was able to find a few good women. So we have made progress—from the foundation that couldn’t find any good women to Romney’s staff, who, when pressed, were able to assemble a binder full. Just think, at this rate where we will be 30 years from now?!

The problem is that versions of Romney’s statement are heard more often than we would like to acknowledge. I can’t tell you the number of people who call me asking if I know “a diversity candidate” for a job they have open, or the countless board meetings I have attended where people say, “We need a Latino” or “We have to get some millennials” or “Does anyone know any disabled people?” I am grateful that I travel in a world where women are common, but I think all of us need to take seriously how segregated our communities remain, particularly around race.

Racial justice is central to issues of equity, and of course, equity is the driver of a healthy commons. So as we make fun of Romney, let’s not lose sight of the ways we may search for “binders” of certain kinds of people because we don’t know them personally.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reducing Income Inequality To Help "100%"

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

It's been almost exactly one year and one month since the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the moment when the term "income inequality" entered the national lexicon.  The time between then and now allowed academics across the country to begin to study how the extreme conditions of income inequality in this country affect us now and in the future. In the past week The New York Times has published two articles related to this idea.  

The first (and, for this history major, most enlightening) article details some historical examples of other societies who have enacted policies that promote socioeconomic inequality.  The author asserts that the United States has instituted it's own example of medieval Venice's "Libro d'Oro", or "book of gold", which officially instituted a way of ensuring that only those born into the ruling class would continue to hold that power.  Beyond the ubiquitous tax code, the article notes other socially-implemented policies in this country that affect a person's ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder.  Things like legacy admissions at top universities, poor public school performance, and moves to de-unionize certain labor sectors have all contributed to the fact that those in the lower, working, and middle class find it harder and harder to move up.  While the United States once demonstrated one of the highest rates of economic mobility, now several studies are reporting that it is harder in the US to move from the social class of your birth than it is in most European countries.  It appears that those who have gained success seek to prevent anyone else from following in their footsteps.  As the article notes, "Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top". 

But, as the other article points out, this era of income inequality is unsustainable.   This piece discusses the results of a recent economic study by the IMF that shows that reducing income inequality and promoting economic growth might be "two sides of the same coin".  Conversely, if the US doesn't enact any specific policies to reduce the rate of income inequality, economic growth for the nation as a whole will come to a standstill.  This will obviously mostly effect those of us not in that 1%- as we continue to struggle to find work and pay the bills.  But, while the economic elites will continue to hold the majority of the wealth, they will also languish in a failing economy and so will their business interests. Perhaps we will be more successful if we re-frame the argument. Because, apparently, reducing income equality won't just help the 99%, it will help us all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Becoming a Village at High Altitude

Posted by Kim Klein

Flying Southwest Airlines is, in its own weird way, an experience of the commons at 30,000 feet. With no assigned seating, the entire plane is like benches in a long and narrow public park. You can sit where you want as long as no one is already sitting there. But unlike a park, you are forced to sit very close to total strangers—closer than most of us sit next to anyone except our lovers. And of course, it is not free, and you can’t really move around a lot.

But the commons part is not the price or the physical reality—it is the personas people take on in order to cope with flying, and the way we shed those personas and return to our true selves when the need arises. People in the “A” group get on and find a seat they like. Then they studiously avoid eye contact with anyone else hoping to keep the middle seat empty. Many people casually put their coat or briefcase on the middle seat to give the impression that someone is there. Someone seeped in zombie movies might well think she had entered a space full of them. The message from people you are going to be sitting an inch away from is “Don’t look at me. Keep your distance. Don’t say anything.”

I took a short flight to Austin a few days ago. I had noticed a soldier with his daughter in the waiting area. They were laughing and hugging. Later, when I got on, I could hear in the next row up the sound of sobbing. I looked and it was this little girl, quietly sobbing and every so often almost wailing. She was by herself. Pretty soon, seats filled up around her although the flight attendant kept her row empty. Our carefully cultivated “I can’t see anyone” looks melted. People around her tried to distract her. “You have such a pretty purse.” “Would you like some candy?” All efforts were met with louder wailing.

Finally a woman sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong. “I miss my daddy” she wailed. “How old are you?” she asked. Between sobs and hiccups, the child answered, “Five.” The man next to me said, “Five? How could someone let their kid travel alone when she is five?” Several other people nodded in agreement, showing how many of us were paying attention to this small drama. The flight attendant said, “Her father is being deployed tonight and she has to go to her mother.” We were temporarily silenced by that news, but then in some unspoken arrangement, we became a small village.
For the next 90 minutes several people took turns talking to the child. One woman held her hand much of the way. I contributed a red felt tip marker and scratch paper, and another person had a rub-on tattoo she put on the child’s arm. About 20 minutes into the flight, the little girl was smiling and talking. She said her mother was also in the service and that her parents were divorced. She said she lives with her dad most of the time, but now he has to be gone for awhile “to help another country.” None of us said aloud what I imagine many of us were thinking, “What if her dad does not return?”
I have no idea if my seatmates approve of the war or not. I don’t know how they will vote, or even if they vote. But I felt a little commons happened amongst us as we all set aside our magazines, books, I-pods and computers to comfort a little girl.

As we landed and disembarked, she had to wait for a flight attendant to walk her off the plane. We all wished her well and I think she was not the only one cheered up on that flight. I was reminded of how our instincts are to be helpful, to take care of those having a hard time taking care of themselves, and to be kind. Of course it shouldn’t take a sobbing five year old to bring that out in us, but at least it is there. I have to fly on Southwest again tomorrow. I am going to leave my Zombie persona behind and see what happens.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Spirit of the Marathon

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

I am, admittedly, a sports fanatic.  If it’s a Sunday in fall, you can guarantee I’m hunkered down in front of a television in my New England Patriots jersey ready for the game.  I have a chalkboard in my apartment on which I keep a daily countdown until the next Olympics (485 days until the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in case you were wondering).  I plan my weeks around first pitches, face-offs, and kickoff times.  Yet more than any Super Bowl or World Series or World Cup Championship, there’s one day in sports that I think is slowly becoming my favorite- the day of the New York City Marathon.

The New York Times kicked off its “Mile by Mile” series today- one post a day for each mile of the NYC marathon, describing the route and the experience for the runners who will snake their way through every one of the city’s five boroughs 26 days from now, on November 4th.  It’s the kind of sports journalism that I love- writing that evokes feelings of what it’s like to be there, pounding the pavement with thousands of your fellow athletes in a feat of individual strength and determination.  But the series hasn’t yet touched on what I, as a spectator, love most about Marathon Sunday.

I have a friend who has run the race the past couple of years, and who will run again this November.  Each year a group of us gather on First Avenue with our posters and t-shirts to cheer her on.  We get there early to secure a spot close to the street so we’ll be able to see her as she passes.  We make friends with the people standing around us, usually folks who are waiting for their own friends or family members to run by.  And then, as the first wave of runners streams up the avenue, the cheering begins.  The streets of New York become a raucous symphony of people cheering - calling out names when runners have them written across their t-shirts, high-fiving those who come close to the spectators, giving a little extra encouragement to some who seem to be struggling as they hit the last few miles. I cheer for Bob, Mary, and George regardless of their political affiliations, their tax brackets, or whether or not they are Yankees fans.  It is one of the best examples I have seen of New Yorkers coming together to cheer on their friends and neighbors for the simple accomplishment of finishing what they started. 

We accept that finishing a marathon is an extraordinary feat, and we want everyone to succeed.  I walk away at the end of every Marathon Sunday thinking “I am proud to be a New Yorker”.  Every year it is one of those experiences that makes me feel most connected to this city, a part of the fabric that makes it an inspiring place to live.  And from what I’ve heard, cities across the country come together in much the same way when it’s their hometown’s turn to host a big race like this one.  So it always makes me think- what if every day we supported each other like we do on that day?  With less yelling and fewer high fives, sure, but with the same ideal that we want those around us to achieve their goals and reach their own personal finish lines (so long as those goals don’t come at the expense of someone else’s success).  So often, we put too much weight on competition and feel that we’ve succeeded only if someone else has failed.  But if we came together in collective support and understanding, we might be able to achieve great things.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Miracles Replace Taxes

Today’s paper, (which I read as a paper and not on-line) has this headline: “Union City School Library Rescued by Donor” (SF Chronicle 10/3/12 Section C). The article says that 4000 students at James Logan High School will have access to their library because a generous anonymous donor has given $60,000 to keep it open. Prior to this donation, the library had only been open for one period a day. The school’s ability to maintain a library had been cut when the residents of Union City failed to pass a $180/yr parcel tax. The school administrators all exclaimed, “It’s a miracle.” And “It restores my faith in humanity.

Union City, CA is a little south of Oakland. It is a middle class town of about 70,000. Like many towns in CA, it is majority people of color (43% API, 25% Latino, 7% African American and 30% white.) Median household income is $87,000, which is higher than the state as a whole ($59,000) but on par with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

One could wonder about the reluctance of the home and business owning population to be willing to tax themselves less than 50 cents a day to keep their school libraries open particularly in light of the fact that the median age in Union City is 33 and 45% of households have children under 18. But of course the story is more complicated than it looks. California requires a 2/3rds majority to pass any tax increase (66%) and this ballot measure only got 62.9%! In any normal place that would have been seen as an overwhelming approval of the tax. Most sad is that less than 10,000 people voted on this initiative and so it lost by about 300 votes. Basically, about 300 people decided the fate of school libraries. A requirement of a 2/3rds “super majority” is, in fact, rule by a tiny minority—often 2-4% of voters.

I am happy for the students of James Logan High School and certainly feel grateful to this donor. But this will only take care of this year and next year the students will once again have very limited library hours.

This is a teachable moment in Union City to have conversations about how public school libraries should be funded—by miracles? Or by taxes? The reality is that most libraries, art, music, language and sports programs in public schools which are now on the chopping block all over California will not (indeed, cannot) be rescued by generous individuals.

The miracle I pray for is three-fold: 1) that California will someday return to majority vote and overturn our 2/3rds rule, 2) that people who can vote will get out and do so, and 3) that people will vote in favor of revenue.