Book Review: Middle-Class Lifeboat, by Paul and Sarah Edwards

Musings inspired by the book, Middle-Class Lifeboat:  Careers and Life Choices for Navigating a Changing Economy, by Paul and Sarah Edwards.  The Sentient Citizen invites you to bring your thoughtful voice online to start a discussion at http://thesentientcitizen.wordpress.com.

I remember standing in the second floor Gothic-influenced main hallway of my urban high school being censured for my conformity by a preppy-turned-punk classmate.  Something about my electric yellow socks, copious rubber bracelets, and black tinted blush had elicited an accusation of “being fake.”  I felt my confidence shrink as she strutted away in her somehow more credible asymmetric haircut and attitude-oozing leather jacket.  The resounding silence left in her wake witnessed the voluntary relinquishing of my self-respect in the name of blind self-preservation.  I didn’t trust my judgment that I had been unfairly treated.  I believed her aggression hypocritical, but I second-guessed myself (it was high school after all), and so handed her an uncontested win in that round of the Darwinian sport that is high school.

This month’s read, Middle-Class Lifeboat: Careers and Life Choices for Navigating a Changing Economy, nudged me onto this maudlin path of retrospection.  Like my teenage Self, we believe ourselves to be determined individualists – we have rights to say what we believe, rights to believe what we choose, and rights to defend our rights.  We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  We laugh in the face of adversity.  If you’re not already questioning this myth yourself (think corporate and Main Street bailouts), authors Paul and Sarah Edwards challenge this notion with a history lesson.  They remind us that as recently as a hundred years ago people used to choose leisure time over extra income.  They chose to work less, want less, spend less.  That is until calculating executives did the math:  leisure time = less work; less work = less money; less money = lost sales.  And the birthing of an insatiable consumer society was on.  The American citizenry is languishing at the same point of departure occupied by my teenage Self years ago.  Do we continue to passively give away our lives for the dubious promises of corporate advertising departments?  Individualists indeed.

Despite my philosophical read of it, the authors have written a pragmatic book that whenever possible breaks down into bite-sized chunks the sometimes-intimidating ideas and activities geared toward taking back some control of your own life.   Jam-packed with resourceful tidbits, Middle-Class Lifeboat reads like a reference book of baby steps toward greater satisfaction and ambitious life altering experiments.  The Learn More sections at the end of every chapter are divine.  And I found unexpected morsels to whet the appetite of the soul seeking a hit of empowerment.  Tender delicacies like the fact that the US is the only developed nation that taxes its citizens living abroad and the fact that the creation of money is not the prerogative of the government.  (There are 9,000+ alternative community currencies in circulation around the world today.  (p. 527))

Staying true to approachability, the book is written in four parts.  The first contains chapter 1 only and is an affirming acknowledgment that life really has gotten harder for the middle-class.

Part II, Safeguard You Livelihood, recommends self-employment as a way to create another income stream, perhaps along side a corporate paycheck.  The rest of Part II offers up chapters 2, 3, and 4, outlining needed services that play nicely with the self-employed.  Using an 8-point criteria the authors rate each career option using their “durability scale,” little flexed biceps denoting how well the option fared.

Part III, Safeguarding Your Quality of Life, contains chapters 5 through 13 and challenges the reader to evaluate the level of satisfaction obtained from your lifestyle.  A practical person might be inclined to skip this section; many of the ideas feel like dreams.  The authors admit that these ideas are not quick fix solutions.  I encourage you to leaf through these chapters anyway.  Let the experiences of people who’ve tried them percolate in the back of your mind.  Perhaps someday something will take hold and you will find yourself on a path of adventure and greater fulfillment.  I was surprised at where I arrived in my own mental journey; perhaps the seed was planted and harvest will come in due time.

Part IV, Safeguarding Your Ability to Afford the Life You Seek, comprises chapters 14 and 15.  For this author, the most powerful portion of the book is Chapter 14, Getting Out of the Money Game.  It embodies the economic voice of The Sentient Citizen.  In other words, “…shifting our personal perspective from “pay as you go” to “how can I help” goes a long way toward making life simpler and easier.” (p. 511)  In no way preachy or pedantic, the authors ask you to consider your middle-class life the way it is lived now.  Are you really living a life or just working to pay for a life unlived?

To be a determined American individualist in these modern times takes the audacity to meet instead of compete with The Joneses, to defy billions of dollars spent on advertising, and to risk failure or foolishness to create a trusted community.  You’ll find actions to take to this end in this hopeful book.

Share your experience of reading this book online at http://thesentientcitizen.wordpress.com.

Stay tuned next month as The Sentient Citizen reads on…

 

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Book Review: The Next Form of Democracy, by Matt Leighninger

Sentient Citizen commentary and musings on The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance, by Matt Leighninger.

 

Have you ever tried to “get involved” in your local world?  Perhaps you attend meetings regularly – and, you hate to admit it, but you’ve grown to dread going and you look for excuses to get out of commitments.  Okay, not you, but you know someone like that.  Uh-hum.  Me too.  This month’s author, Matt Leighninger, lets us off the hook in his book The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance.  He maintains that many people feel befuddled at best and alienated at worst when trying to incorporate meaningful citizen engagement into their lives.  He also says this is a driving force behind a growing preference to depart from government by experts in favor of democratic governance, where citizens are deeply involved in the planning, decision-making, and implementation of public administration projects.

The players on Leighninger’s stage are few in category – public officials, community organizers, and active citizens.  And the themes throughout the book are very consistent – public happiness, well-rounded citizens, respect, building trust, knowing one another.  Sounds like it should be simple, right?  So simple, in fact, that a hopeful soul might find herself lulled into naïveté by the siren sounds of a Golden Rule solution:  Treat others as you wish to be treated.  Leighninger’s examples, which include Lakewood, Colorado’s Belmar development, point to fantastic experiences in communities across the country, but alas, the Golden Rule still proves to be too simplistic as a long-term solution.

I hear you asking yourself, public happiness?…what is that?  It is defined in this book as an 18th century phrase used to describe a society where “…every individual is strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him.” (John Adams, p. 34)  In modern society, Leighninger says it is ‘a unique kind of happiness that sustains active citizens.’ (33)  I say it is a happiness bigger than individual community members can find alone.  Many heartening examples illustrate that the places where public happiness resides are filled with well-rounded citizens; that is, those citizens who resist being put into the seven citizen stereotypes outlined by Leighninger.  They are Citizen as voter, consumer, socializer, volunteer, advisor, the dispossessed, and deliberator.  As is typical with stereotypes, a community is left with a mere trifle of potential when the citizen is seen through a single lens, rather than the kaleidoscope of interests and experiences that is every citizen.  The concept of the well-rounded citizen is a clarion call to community organizers and public officials to put the active citizen at the center of the organizing structure, rather than their own agenda.  Why?  Because of the multiplier effect well-rounded citizens can have on a well-executed project.

It is at this point in my reading, I am yanked out of my enlightened bliss by this statement, “People feel hard-pressed to affect even the most basic quality-of-life issues on their street – problems like excessive noise, dogs without leashes, graffiti, and littering.” (41)   THIS is what I’ve been looking for!  Hidden in this statement are the questions I seek answers to.  Why are we so powerless, we move instead of put down roots?  How do we embrace our power as citizens, as consumers, as members of a community?  To my misfortune, the author does not pick up this line of digression; so I ask myself, must local politics always be involved in citizen empowerment?  They are different, yet they seem often inextricably linked.

Leighninger points to lessons learned in his examples of democratic governance and clearly believes that successful projects come from communities that already possess a strong sense of self.  Does metro Denver have a strong sense of self?  What does this mean?  Mountains and skiers?  Sports teams?  Delineated neighborhoods?  Is it our green-ness?  What would a good democratic governance project be in metro Denver and would we be successful at it?

Almost every organization or entity in the author’s examples made impact, but many have also disbanded or faded into the woodwork.  The author frequently circles back to this as evidence that the new generation of community organizing is still in a learning curve.  I find myself wondering, however, if it is the nature of democratic governance to ebb and flow in its effectiveness.  It might just be a keen strategy to avoid becoming myopic and turning a given democratic governance project into something focused on gaining more power, or limiting power for some, or consolidating power.  The list goes on.  Maybe human nature is our checks and balances tool in democratic governance.

A synonym phrase for the themes of this book might be found in a personal truth from my days of refurbishing furniture: the elbow grease is what makes a piece of garage sale furniture my own.  The more care and effort I put into it, the more rewarding the experience as well as the product. 

In keeping with the grammer theme, my choice of adjectives for the book itself is ‘enjoyable and engaging’. What do you think?

Stay tuned next month as The Sentient Citizen reads on…

 

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Book Review: Smart Communities, by Suzanne W. Morse

Sentient Citizen commentary and musings on Smart Communities: How Citizens and Local Leaders Can Use Strategic Thinking to Build a Brighter Future, by Suzanne W. Morse

To what era would you associate this quote, “…concerns about the impersonality of the city, the lack of genuine communication, the increased number of immigrants, and ‘too little continuity of face-to-face relations…’”? (p.8, 2004 hard cover edition)  It sounds like angst from a recent period; a time that might include televisions and iPods.  Yet, Morse, our author, is referencing a book written about life right after the Civil War.  History sets the stage for Morse’s assertion that despite attention and effort, long term, sustainable improvement in our most intractable social issues has not occurred.

Answers, Morse says, are to be found in enlightened self-interest, inclusive decision-making, and collective action driven by citizens directly impacted by the outcomes.  On the heels of six months of murmurs about personal and corporate bail outs, Morse’s assertions that community success lies in building the capacity of people to act responsibly for themselves and through their own efforts is incredibly timely.

Armed with numerous examples of success stories and years of experience in studying communities, including the preservation of Denver’s historic LoDo district, Morse uncovers a framework for community change chapter by chapter.  The unifying themes are awareness and citizen action.  To be citizens who feel connected to our communities – and thereby creating better lives for ourselves and for our neighbors – we must be aware of the critical issues in our communities.  Then we are in a position to step up rather than passively renounce our privilege to think and speak freely (www.billofrights.com); that is, to be personally invested in our communities.

Let’s look at Morse’s 7-point framework:

1.   Invest Right the First Time:  Buy and hold!  Develop priorities with the long view in mind.

2.    Working Together:  Maximize resources!  Make it a habit instead of an exception.

3.    Building on Community Strengths:  Deliberate and act based on what is right in a community (instead of what is wrong).

4.    Practicing Democracy:  “Democracy becomes real for people when they decide what type of community they want, not so much which political party…they support.” (p.119, 2004 hard cover edition)

5.    Preserving the Past:  The past informs the future.

6.    Growing Leaders:  Build bench strength.  Intentionally develop leaders at all levels, not just in the starting line up.

7.    Inventing a Brighter Future:  Invention – not just for business anymore!  Develop civic inventions to make smarter decisions.

Ponder the questions that spring to mind as you consider this framework.  What is the collective vision for the future of Denver?  Did you have a voice in setting that agenda?  Where do we have public dialogue about our vision?  How are we preparing people for leadership?  Does our strategy include everyone?  Do we punish our elected officials for taking the long view?  What do we want Denver to be?

I am reading about community and writing this article not because I have particular expertise; indeed, quite the opposite.  We have an incredible resource in Denvergov.org, but it doesn’t fill my quest for a deeper sense of connection and pride in my community.  I’ve come to realize that won’t be delivered by an external force.  There is no protocol, permission, or knight in shining armor to light my path to being a passionate and compassionate member of the Denver community.  I have to choose it.  I have to risk being wrong.  Or ignored.

My grandma, a jolly Irish lady living in our nation’s heartland, used to say, “You aren’t bett’r’n anybody else and they aren’t any bett’r’n you.  So don’t be shy.  Just do what needs to be done.”  This is a lady who took on the U.S. Marine Corp when they came a-calling for her 18-year-old son.  Legend has it that the Marines now have a three-inch thick file on my grandma.  Perhaps needless to say, my uncle’s military service was in the Army.

I’m no Einstein (or grandma either), so specific answers elude me, but I feel an increasing urgency to pay better attention – to Denver’s public transportation and public education, to Colorado’s small farmers and local food movement, to America’s clear voice for an effective and relatable leader.  Like Morse, I believe deeply in strong democratic communities; that is, communities where the adage “of the people, for the people, by the people” (Abraham Lincoln) is more than nostalgia or romanticized patriotism.  Morse quotes a citizen leader, George McLean, who expresses my unease better than I ever could:

“It is unfortunately true that in many parts of America the people have stopped coming together; discussing their mutual problems; assuming their responsibilities; and taking necessary group action.  Such practices constitute the essence of democracy and unless we return to these fundamentals, we shall further endanger our democratic freedom.  Maybe we can’t revive such practices “in the nation” – but we can make a start in our local community.” (p. 213, 2004 hard cover edition)

So make a start by sharing your thoughtful and constructive voice in the comments.  Read the short excerpts on each chapter of Smart Communities, by Suzanne Morse and decide if it’s worth a read.  Check out the resources in the “Getting Started In Your Community” sections of each chapter.  The Conversation Cafes (www.conversationcafe.org) mentioned in chapter 5 caught my attention. The genius in Swamp Gravy (chapter 7) will make your heart beat a little faster.  And the mention of a Fourth of July Parade featuring Tricycles, Baby Carriages, and Dogs (chapter 3) will make even the most curmudgeonly exercise rusty mouth muscles.

The read is sometimes a bit dry, but the examples of communities across the country making change through intentional action in pursuit of a clear vision are inspirational.

I’ll leave you with a final quote from Morse, “The empowerment of people in solving their own problems is the vehicle for civic change.” (p. 17, 2004 hard cover edition)  Or for the Einsteins in the crowd (like me) – civic engagement, the cure for what ails ya.

 

 

  Stay tuned next month as The Sentient Citizen reads on…

 

 

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Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 – Setting the Stage for Community Change

This chapter begins to lay the groundwork for Morse’s 7-point framework by talking about the evolution of communities through history, including the impact of television and the Internet.

***The following summaries are quoted from the book (pages xvi – xvii, 2004 hard cover edition) to give you a flavor of the writing style.***

Chapter 2 – Investing Right the First Time

“…examines strategies for community investing.  There are many issues that are potential community investments.  Communities have to weight priorities and the anticipated return on certain investments.  Specifically, we look at a particular community issue, dropout prevention, an issue that has far-reaching effects on a whole community.  We suggest ways that communities can begin and maintain a thoughtful process to ensure that they are making timely decisions on the issues that matter most.”

Chapter 3 – Working Together

“…profiles the kinds of decisions that galvanize and redefine community processes.  In a world of fences and barriers, the smartest communities are finding ways to work together across fault lines and county lines.  Reaching the collective potential of a community requires the inclusion of a multitude of ideas and voices.  These processes have different names, such as partnership and collaboration, but the outcome is the same: realization that our futures are intertwined.”

Chapter 4 – Building on Community Strengths

“…puts community decision making in the context of asset-based development.  In particular, we examine how several communities have been able to identify and build on their individual, organizational, institutional and physical assets and get very positive results.  Emphasizing assets over deficits can change a community’s odds for the future as well as change the lens for those outside the community.”  (My note:  this was probably my favorite chapter; both energizing and inspirational.)

Chapter 5 – Practicing Democracy

“…examines the ideas, circumstances, and processes that bring citizens back into democracy.  No longer can we count on experts to “fix” things for us; a major responsibility rests with citizens to help guide the way for community change.  Dialogue, public deliberation, and inclusion are not luxuries in a democracy but rather are necessary components of action.  For change to happen, people must be able to organize themselves to act.  Dialogue and deliberation are the processes that make action happen.”

Chapter 6 – Preserving the Past

“…illustrates ways that communities are preserving their past with buildings, history, and culture and how those are informing the future.  Preservation can build communities physically, economically, and civically.  Communities can learn how to position themselves for future success by not forgetting their past.”

Chapter 7 – Growing Leaders

“…looks at the broad-based leadership that is necessary in communities if positive change is to occur.  Old patterns of civic involvement and governance won’t work.  We need strong leadership from every sector, and our continuing challenge is for leadership that is broad, deep, and ready to work together.  Communities have multitudes of people prepared and willing to contribute more.  They need to find them and put them to work.”

Chapter 8 – Inventing a Brighter Future

“…synthesizes the previous leverage points as vehicles for inventing the future.  Just as inventors and innovative mechanics use bailing wire and glue to make things go, so do citizens.  There are sophisticated models that have been evaluated and assessed for reliability and validity, but there are also some “necessity” inventions that are doing the job.  There is a need to know about both and about how to become ‘inventing communities’.”

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