Monday, May 2, 2011

Community Service - Why It Must Be Personal

It has been a rather curious and, in part, troubling time for me.  In the past days I was involved in three different aspects of community service:  A beach cleanup in Astoria, Oregon; a beach cleanup in Point Pleasant, New Jersey and the Colts Neck Board of Education elections.

Why troubling?  Let me digress for a moment by mentioning a poignant question after I lost my bid for re-election to the Colts Neck Township Board of Education, "So this isn't going to be the end of your career in politics, is it?"  The question took me aback.  I never thought of my involvement with the Board of Education as "Politics".  I thought of it as supporting "the Community" and improving things for both the families that used the schools and those that pay taxes, but either no longer do or never have.  Politics???

When my family recently was on the Crystal Symphony and I saw there was an opportunity to engage in Voluntourism (I love that word)  in Astoria, Oregon there was never a question in my mind what we were going to do:  We were going to clean the beach.  Why?  At the time, it was because it just seemed like the right thing to do.  In the end, I know it was...and not for the reasons you might think.

We were greeted by dozens of cheerful, helpful and enthusiastic citizens of Astoria welcoming us to their town.  These were some of the nicest people I have met in all of my 1,000,000+ miles of travel.  And their town - despite all their efforts - appears to be suffering greatly.  After we loaded onto a local school bus a gentleman came onboard and spoke to us about the town's appreciation and made special note of how Crystal Cruises' renting a school bus was a big assist for the local school district.  I mean saying thanks is nice, but to be running so tight that a rental of a school bus is worthy of note sent a message.  And, to me, that little comment was worth more than the actual beach cleanup. 

But there was another aspect of this voluntourism project that struck me.  Two parents were nicely, but sternly, focused on assuring all the paperwork was in order for their children to get community service credit to meet their California high school mandated obligation.  They were not there with the premise of volunteering simply because it was the right thing to do, but rather as an easy way to earn school credit...rather than doing something for their own community.  While I can see the good intention of the requirement, I believe the opportunity to really learn a valuable lesson was lost because it was no longer about doing good just for the sake of doing good. 

This activity was now was about performing a task that has been labeled as "good" in order to obtain personal benefit...like a job that pays you money.  The lesson of selflessly doing something for the betterment of a small part of society simply because that is what we do was lost.  That, to me, is a far more important lesson.

On Saturday my son took part in the Clean Ocean Action beach cleanup in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.  It is a community service project required of the People to People Student Ambassador Program he is engaged in.  While it is a "requirement" in order for him to participate in this summer's program visiting France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria, it is not something that he is doing for school credit, but rather as part of an overall program which also includes doing a community service project while traveling in Europe.  The lesson:  Community service begins at home, but has no boundaries.

(BTW, how amazing is it that a 15 year old can engage in community service projects on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts within 10 days of each other.)

While waiting for him and walking a few miles on the Boardwalk...staying out of sight so as not to embarrass or interfere with this teenage event...I could not help myself any further.  I needed to make a monetary donation.  But I felt like I was trying to buy my way out of doing what was right.  So I grabbed a bag and started to walk the beach, cleaning things up as I went along.   Why?  Because inside of me it just seemed like the thing one does.  My son didn't ask what I did while I was waiting and I didn't tell him.  The lesson was about him doing; not me.

This brings me back to the Colts Neck Board of Education election. 

Just before the election I wrote about my outrage at the conduct of one of the people running for election.  She virtually never attended a school board meeting, violated campaign laws, she (or some people) paid thousands of dollars for full page ads, signs around town, even a mailer to every home in the district and her ideas were, in my opinion, clear evidence of a total lack of understanding of what the position was about. (Buying land and building an assisted living community?  Seriously, that was part of her platform!) And she stated that she "almost" had three masters degrees.  (You gotta wonder what that means!)

Another candidate is a 26 year old son of a local councilman who also never attended a school board meeting, who admitted he probably would only live in town (at his parent's house) for one year, admitted he had no idea what the school board had been doing and spoke of wanting to assure the district didn't purchase solar panels (not knowing that I had previously...and tediously...investigated the matter as Chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee and that, after many discussions with the Board in open meetings, it was determined that solar panels were economically a bad idea.)  To listen to this young man, who was ill prepared for the League of Women Voters debate was, honestly, embarrassing.  He is, though, probably quite nice and will mature into a person who can assist whatever community he eventually resides in.  But a qualified candidate today, in my opinion, he was not.

What became clear from the vote -with that woman garnering 46% more votes than any other three year term candidate and that young man missing out on a one year term by a mere 26 votes...and a virtually unknown candidate winning 28% more votes than anyone else - that the election was not about doing for the community, it was about:  Politics.

Those that know me know that I speak my mind.  And to my mind there are some pretty silly ideas that some of the Old Guard demand...yes "demand"...must be put in place.  They do not look at the fact that their ideas resulted in horrible performance by the students, a revolving door of administrators, runaway teacher costs and an otherwise bloated budget.  Nor do they look at the millions of dollars in savings, skyrocketing student performance, elimination of 30+ positions, stable administration, etc. that the past three years had accomplished.  In hindsight...and having spoken my mind...it should not have been a shock that I was not re-elected, because it was not about the $1,000,000+ I personally saved the district on a construction debacle or the hundreds of thousands of dollars saved because of the environmental and technology initiatives I spearheaded.  No, it was not about what is best for the community.  It was about:  Politics.  

How can I be so sure:  The school budget passed!  (Interesting statistic:  that woman candidate received hundreds more votes than the budget did.  Coincidence?  I think not.)

The thing that really got to me...and still does...is that friendships and the sense of community have been sacrificed for Politics.  The horrific talking behind people's backs, keeping information "hidden" rather than having public discourse, pretending people that were once socially acceptable are now pariahs, etc. all have arisen in small town politics.

(Oh, yes, and the Superintendent of Schools resigned.  I believe it is in part because of the Governor's short-sighted constraints on salaries and in part because of the now sense of lack of community and who will be sitting on the Board of Education.  I mean why get paid less and be focused on politics rather than education?)

So is my life in politics over?  It never started.

But is my life of Community Service over?  No and it never will be. 

And for all of those who bathe themselves in "community service" when it is about politics or selfishness, just try to be honest about it.  Or, perhaps, we can talk about the local "community service" orientated folks that stole money from the coffers of volunteer fire departments, little leagues, etc.

You see I do what I do because it is something within me that I just need to do.  It is not about what someone else thinks.  It is not about what I get out of it.  It is personal.