Tuesday, January 20, 2009
"The price and the promise of citizenship"
As Barack Obama called on us to embrace the "price and the promise of citizenship", I sat with several dozen of my fellow Middletown residents in the Hubbard Room at Russell Library, watching the events in DC on a big screen.
We clapped for Aretha. We were mesmerized by "Simple Gifts." We rose as a group while Obama took the oath. And then we listened.
It was clear from the occasional uh-huh's and amen's that his message resonated with this group -- especially the idea that we should believe in our power to come together and create change -- and it's time to get up and start working on that right now!
As the lights came up, the Community Conversation got underway while people snacked on sandwiches (donated by the Realto Cafe on Rapallo Avenue). I was pleasantly surprised to see a diverse crowd that included more than the usual suspects (although we were there too!) Susan Bysiewicz, the CT Secretary of the State and longtime Middletown resident facilitated, and the event was organized by a local committee led by Lisa Santangelo and Ron Klattenberg.
Art Meyers from Russell Library promises that a fuller report will be available, but I'll mention a few themes that came up over and over.
Programs that help people should be a top priority, especially for children, with calls for better integration between the different resources that are out there. Julius Thomas, a new Middletown resident, spoke eloquently about the need for us to not be so excited about the new administration that we underestimate how much individual work it will take to change things. He called for making families a priority, especially educating and supporting men who need to "step up and be fathers". (I noticed Donna Marino handing him a card, no doubt recruiting him in her work as the Parent Resource Coordinator for the Middletown schools.)
Another priority was the environment and the potential for new energy technologies. Katchen Coley worried that the stimulus packages will be targeted to "shovel-ready" projects, which means that any "green" or alternative energy projects will be ineligible, just because they are not as far along with their planning. Instead we will fund the same old bridge-and-road projects that got us into this mess in the first place. Susan Bysiewicz mentioned that Congressman Joe Courtney has written to Obama to ask him to target the stimulus for retrofitting schools with energy efficient systems -- which would both improve the environment and lower costs for local school districts. Matt Lesser, our new State Rep from Middletown, talked about the pressure that the state legislature faces in trying to plug the $6 billion hole in the state budget -- they get proposals to cut programs for saving farmland or creating alternative energy sources. Those are the very things we should be supporting.
Transparency in government was a problem for many in the room, with calls for better media coverage, better use of the web to make public documents available, and more responsiveness from local officials. Marilyn Mills noted that of all the places she has lived, Middletown is the most "closed", particularly when local officials and commissioners don't attempt to answer questions that are raised by residents when they are asked in public meetings. Judith Brown pointed to the problems caused by our short, 2-year terms for local elected officials, and the system of electing at-large council members, instead district or ward representatives.
This event owes much of its success to Susan's expertise as facilitator. As each person offered their ideas for our city, she thanked people for their involvement or offered ideas about how they could find other people who wanted to work on the same problem, or even programs that were already in place on those issues. I saw her quietly deflect a request to silence a particularly controversial speaker from the Green Party, which allowed the debate to reach a deeper level as a number of later speakers debated his points on their merits.
Spending an hour or so listening to my fellow citizens offer their ideas for Middletown was a fitting way to spend the after-glow of Obama's speech. As poet Elizabeth Alexander read at the end of the ceremony, let's give a "Praise song for the hand-lettered signs. The figuring it out at the kitchen tables." That's just what we were doing at our Community Conversation today.