Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 29, 2010

On Deadline: 'Civic engagement' and 'common good' to surface Saturday

by Jay Thorwaldson

Once again, Palo Alto's community goals will surface Saturday morning during the City Council's annual retreat.

There were three for 2009: Economic health, environmental protection and a third that has generated some puzzlement, "Civic engagement for the common good."

That last hinges on defining "common good," which sounds great in the utterance but boggles my mind a bit and confounds efforts to create city programs to implement it.

In 2008, that priority was simply "civic engagement." Just about anyone who has lived or worked in Palo Alto for more than a week or so knows what that means. Palo Alto seems to have invented civic engagement almost from its inception — not all of it civil, much of it impassioned, some of it angry and bitterly insulting of others.

"For the common good" was added for 2009 under the championship of Ray Bacchetti, chair of the city's Human Relations Commission and a thoughtful, longtime educator and long-ago school board member.

The challenge is how to get there. On the front lines of community issues one person's "good" is often another's "bad." Housing, high-speed rail, traffic, hospitals, shopping center expansion and a plethora of local neighborhood issues pop to mind. Potholes don't find a lot of advocates, but beyond that level "common good" gets vague fast.

Part of the difficulty with defining common good is that there has been a sub-theme attached to it, that civic engagement should be more civil, promoting a kinder and gentler Palo Alto both by example and rules of engagement, perhaps. This approach clearly works, sometimes.

Yet who's to say "common good" doesn't include vigorous, passionate, head-to-head confrontations and debates that seem to have characterized America's democracy from its early days, sometimes leading to shouting matches, duels and fisticuffs even.

Council members are puzzling over whether to include civic engagement/common good as a 2010 city priority. A suggested alternative is to seek ways to integrate the concept into city operations, a kind of easy way out of the "good" conundrum.

In its place will likely emerge one or two other priorities: a resurrection of "emergency preparedness" as championed several years back by former Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg during her year as mayor, and a specific goal of completing consideration of a massive plan to rebuild and expand the Stanford Medical Center, Stanford Hospital and the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital.

Such a specific goal has a precedent: In 2008, the city included resolving the longstanding expansion/rebuilding of its aging libraries as a fourth goal, a success.

It is virtually unthinkable that the economic and environmental priorities would be dropped, given a dismal outlook for city budgets this year and next and the impending crisis of global climate change.

There will almost certainly be discussion of how to measure progress at points during the year on whatever goals the council sets. The fancy term for such measurements is "metrics." Don't be intimidated. It's just civic jargon.

It will be interesting to see how much time council members spend on "the common good" Saturday. They discussed it a good deal a year ago.

But the topic brings to mind an experience I had last July when I was part of a small group visiting a remote village deep in Kenya, Africa, not far from Lake Victoria, the "source of the Nile" of exploration fame in the 1800s.

As we were preparing to depart the village, an organizer of the visit, Charles Odipo, whose family origins were from the village, asked me to "moderate a discussion of priorities" by the village elders. He asked me to do so as we walked into a large, new church — with a dirt floor and no windows due to lack of funds.

Our small group had provided funding for materials for a school library, the first and only library among 271 schools in the region, including high schools. Local men and a local architect built the modest building, and we equipped it with books packed in our second suitcases. (It needs more.)

Moments later I was moderating a group of 15 or 20 village elders (one of whom told me he was 93) in a discussion of what might be the next priority project. The elders had developed a thoughtful list of priority subjects that fell into three categories: Education, health and running water. (Throughout Kenya women could be seen carrying water buckets on their heads, in a stately African stride.)

At the Muguna School in the scattered village of Yimbo, older students and staff regularly had to fetch brownish water from a pond nearly a half mile away to use for general purposes, while importing drinking water.

Running water has health implications, one elder observed, urging that as a top priority. Then another added, "And our young men can't find brides because women don't want to marry someone from a village with no running water."

"Now THAT'S a priority that can't be ignored," I replied, to a burst of laughter from the elders and observers.

Then, thinking of our priorities in Palo Alto a world away in time and space, I raised a matter that seemed to come close to the heart of "civic engagement for the common good."

I said I wanted to discuss "Harrambee," the term for a Kenyan motto that translates roughly as "collaboration toward a common goal." A goal is something we can define, argue over, debate and finally adopt and measure progress toward achieving it. Neither our group nor the village could have by ourselves built the library. Together, in the spirit of Harrambee, we did it.

And it's a term even I can understand. I shared this experience with Bacchetti over a breakfast a few months back, and he was thoughtful about it. Bacchetti acknowledged the challenge of "common good," commenting wryly that perhaps there just aren't enough philosophy majors in the city's population to grasp nuances of the term.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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