Thursday, March 22, 2012

Renton Library | Engaging Constituents & Officials via Storytelling & Appreciating the Public Commons as a System

Hi Colleagues,

I continue to reflect on the Library story in Renton, Wash. These themes speak: vote as a contract, the emotions in storytelling, public commons as access, and responsive government.

Vote as Contract

In any contract the signing parties must know the terms of said contract. Terms include, but aren't limited to, obligations to cost, time, effort, and so on. Consider the vote as a basic contract. This contract, as facts, do not necessarily speak for themselves. Now before you tar and feather me, stay with me a moment when I say that at times votes, as facts, can be contrived. Note I'm describing how things can unfold, not necessarily how they "should be."

Systems thinking provides a healthy paradigm to make contracts and decisions. Systems thinking means that we as individuals and groups organize, communicate, decide, act, and live in a larger context. We understand our decisions to be ecological and we desire our outcomes to benefit the system as a whole.  Ideologically we value holism, or a Holos and healthy society. Systems thinking inverts our known method of analyzing a given phenomena as separate parts. Systems thinking recognizes overlaps. For our purposes I speak of public commons as a system.

Systems' contexts are often by design. Humans design our system and so our systems' thinking imparts moral imagination (Werhane, 2002) meaning that we understand the ethics and values at stake when we make decisions as people situated in our system. For instance, our forefathers designed a system where we the people govern with votes, an electorate, and checks and balances. Even good intentions in design may not bring about, or at least debates, the ethics in our decisions (Cooper, 1998), such as, "life, liberty, and justice for all." We know our history and mistakes with classism, gender, and race equality, which may be yet resolved.

Sometimes we can design a contract to favor one party or decision over others. To account for this risk, it's essential to fully disclose terms, vested interest, finance, and other actions relevant to the contract. If a person signs a contract, but does not know the terms under which their decision will obligate them in the future because those terms weren't disclosed by the party requesting signage, then the contract initiators puts themselves at an advantage and the signers at a disadvantage. Additionally, any claims to the proposed outcomes in a contract must be evidence-based and conducted in a due and transparent process.

Without corrected information, I contend that the council failed to fully disclose the terms of the annexation vote to the public. Moreover, I've yet to hear a direct answer to my request for full disclosure of all existing documents, contracts, and taxpayer dollars used to market to annexation, relocation, and rebuild of the library.

The City Attorney stated in his memo that the petition functions as a referendum and is illegal. First, petitioning is a constitutional right. We the People express our power as a governing body in part through petitions.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Second, we risk reducing our democracy of "justice for all" to "justice for laywers," or a legocracy (I'm creating a word here), by requiring constituents to word their petition in legal claims, which usually requires cost to hire a lawyer. Third, and most compelling, we Renton residents pay the city attorney's, a city employee, salary, which effectively means that we're paying him to interpret the petition as "illegal" and thus "invalid."

Moving forward, I want our elected and salaried officials to take a step back with me and reflect on the meaning of what we're doing. Reflection needs space to dialogue and deliberate in party by asking questions of what we want in our process, of ourselves, and our outcomes. Let not our desire for a given outcome cause us to comprise our process.

How we handle the library story shows what we believe of ourselves, each other, our public commons, and our democratic process. Let's show our neighbors we truly are ahead of the curve because we know that communicating our leadership involves disclosure, transparency, access, and respect for when our constituents, our government peers, engage in democratic process.

Emotions as Storytelling

As an aside:
Doesn't this tree look as a Tolkien's Ent?
;D (above)
It can be easy to entrench positions when we speak of votes as opposites, which closes the door to dialogue by only allowing debate. The alternatives make a space for decisions to become wedge issues that divide instead of bring together.

Reflection takes a step back to deliberate on the evidence and meaning of a given decision. Storytelling provides one such reflective step back. Storytelling invokes emotion and allows us to connect on shared experiences and meaning in a potentially less threatening way than debating our ire. So share what the Library, Liberty Park, and Cedar River Trail mean to you.

For me the Library and adjacent park grounds provided a space to reflect and heal during a season of transition. I reconnected with my city, family, and friends when I photographed the Library, Renton River Days at Liberty Park, and the Cedar River Trail. I nannied our goddaughter and niece during that time, where we enjoyed play dates, swinging on the swings, and nature walks. I later photographed storytime.

Our learning and play overlapped with relationships and nature rain or shine. We watched the river swell and surge in the winter, laughed at the ducks in the Spring, melted in the heat of Summer, and saw the salmon thrash red and purple above the brown river rock and below the overhead red and gold leaves in the Fall.

To this day I feel grateful that I taught our niece community engagement via the Library and parks, and that I experienced community as connection, learning, imagination, art, and play.

Public Commons as Access

The public commons opens access to what a society deems a fundamental need or desire for quality of life. The Renton Library at Cedar River Trail and Liberty Park provide access to a space for learning, community engagement, imagination, art, play, and the environment. Consider the public commons as a system that includes parks and recreation, or even as a sustainable community-level intervention for health and education.

In short, appreciate the public commons' impact on quality of life in terms of health, which includes education and recreation. Yes, business and economy matter, but the public commons must never be siloed in its service to a revenue stream. So govern the public commons for the sake of a Holistic system.

As I walked through Liberty Park this last Monday, the sun shone, a man in a wheelchair pushed a toddler on a swing, skaters skated at the skate park, a group of men played basketball, an older man walked his small dog, a woman jogged, and I returned a book and movie that I had checked out. Even on a weekday people used this space, and their usage overlapped to interact with each other, with learning, play, and nature.

Each person accessed this public commons without preference to race, age, gender, or creed. We risk devaluing our public commons if we monetize it. If we contain a public commons' value solely in terms of economic development, then we risk narrowing access to special interest groups such as privatized business. While we need and want our businesses to be healthy, access means that all people who use and pay for the space, i.e., residents, have the power to influence all decisions that impact that space including, but not limited to, its location, cost, design, and purpose.

Responsive Government

A responsive government responds. Democratic principles transcend metrics such as voting between alternatives or group affiliation. Democratic principles speak to organizing the collective will and reducing the divide between people's perceived and acted upon power as a governing entity (learn more via Mary Parker Follett, Kouzes and Posner, and Paulo Freire's writings here, here, and here).

Here representation and even advocacy fall short of what it means to govern democratically for we must avoid the position where we believe it our right to speak on behalf of others, especially in the absence of evidenced based, disclosed, and controlled (i.e., free of conflict of interest) conversation, and transparent process. I expect elected officials to respond when constituents, voters and residents alike, push back.

Better: A responsive government collaborates when each person or group responds to the other as a fellow contributor.

Responding includes adjusting in the presence of new information or reflection. Sometimes said adjustments involve self-correction. It shows courage to self-correct in the presence of new information, especially push back of one's pitch or idea. It can be humbling to adjust course, but the long-term gains benefit with personal growth, leadership development, and constituent trust. Constituents who trust in themselves, in democratic process, and in the effectiveness of their efforts engage and collaborate with motivation.

If we want government to respond, then we also need the people to act. In that spirit please contact our elected officials, media, volunteer with the petition group, or post your comments here to share what the library means to you. You need not mute critique if you disagree; diversity and dissent provide fail-safes, or can protect from the fall out of faulty decisions (Distelhorst, 2007). So whether you want the library to move or not, please involve yourself in this important story because

the process by which we shape our public commons matters.

Empower & Contribute

Learn more about -ocratic government types (here, here, and here). Access Text and Pixels' coverage of the library story. Volunteer with the Citizens for the Preservation of Renton's Cedar River Library. Articulate your concerns or desired outcomes to media, the city attorney, KCLS, Mayor Law, and/or to the council. Access official documents about the Library. Finally, contact me if you want access to the references I've cited below, or if you want me to include your content, or interview you, for the library story.

Update | On 4/23/12, the Renton City Council approved the resolution confirming the ballot title, description, and voter question for the August 7th library ballot (Proposition #1). The city attorney(s) now draft the full text. Then two groups will draft statements in favor of one library location or the other.  I desire to contribute to the statement drafting.

The Public Commons Calls,


Cooper. (1998).  Ethical decision-making model.  Course handout.  Spokane, WA:  Gonzaga University.

Distelhorst, D. (2007). An interculturalist's tool kit: twenty years of accumulated material about the knowledge, skills, and awareness needed to be an effective intercultural leader. Course handbook. Gonzaga University.

Werhane, P.H. (2002). Moral imagination and systems thinking.  Journal of Business Ethics, 38(1/2), 33-42.