I'm sure Senator Simitian had a context for this statement. Perhaps he was referring to the HRC's recommendations for allocating state and federal "safety net" funds. Or maybe he meant to highlight the HRC's public forums on landlord/tenant issues, disability, homelessness, police, intolerance, discrimination, violence, intergenerational connections, seniors, civil rights, or youth concerns about stress, violence and sexual identity.
He may have been acknowledging the listening skills of the commissioners in their service as the sounding board for people who feel mistreated, maligned, ignored or misunderstood. Or perhaps pointing out the broad purview of the HRC from civil rights, health, housing to the pursuit of happiness. In whatever the context, he singled out the HRC as the city entity that deals with social issues that can polarize as well as unite our city.
But "the conscience of our city" seems heady to me: full of purpose, intention, responsibility and, well, guilt.
I quip to friends that I have always worked within my value system but unfortunately my work is not valued by The System. Over the last 35 years I've staffed a teen-crisis hotline, counseled at a shelter for abused women, done public relations for a Native American organization, run campaigns and served on the board of directors for Greenpeace.
In my current work as the manager of facilitation programs for the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, I facilitate meetings for cities, counties, institutions, school boards, neighborhood associations and non-profit organizations. I've facilitated council sessions or retreats for Redwood City, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.
Many meetings are highly contentious or have that potential. Conflict is not new to me, nor do I avoid it. I see conflict as an opportunity for positive change.
One thing I've learned from trying to help others is that personal accountability and responsibility are essential. You can't help people who aren't willing to help themselves. When we blame others for our predicaments we are saying we are powerless. We claim victimhood over self-determination.
It was not wanting to feel like a victim that prompted me to apply for the HRC. I applied to combat the sense of hopelessness and helplessness I felt after our elected officials passed the Patriot Act's assault on our personal freedoms and privacy, dismay at the evisceration of funding for social services and the environment, and outrage at our government's drive to attack Iraq.
I proudly voted for the HRC's resolution condemning the Patriot Act and advocated creating a Federal Department of Peace and a Voter Confidence Resolution.
I know taking a stand can mean standing as a target for criticism, blame or verbal abuse in person, in the press or online. I firmly believe in our right to dissent and welcome divergent opinions. One measure of diversity in a community is spirited conversations of true dialogue.
"Where all think alike, no one thinks very much," columnist Walter Lippmann once observed.
What we've been seeing however falls short of dialogue as each side vies to make the other appear wrong rather then listen for understanding. This doesn't mean we need to agree. It does mean we need to respect differences.
I've learned from personal experience to listen for the wisdom behind an attack. It takes patience. We need to be mindful of the difference between our intent and its impact. I'm more likely to get my point across if I speak my passion respectfully, addressing the issue without attacking the person. Or in the words of John M. Barrie, "Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own."
I know all stakeholders need to be invited to the table. Communication must be complete and completely transparent. Last month in my responsibility as the HRC chair I fell asleep at the helm. It was our intent based on the tone of meetings over the last year to discuss civil discourse and community conflicts at our July 12 meeting. We hoped to explore how to address the un-civility of our civil discourse. At our June meeting, two commissioners mentioned the heated community debate over the Mandarin Immersion (MI) program. Another commissioner mentioned contentious comments about the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center's position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
A request was made to invite representatives from both sides of the MI program and representatives of PPJC and their critics to our July 12 meeting.
One commissioner agreed to contact the MI representatives, I agreed to contact PPJC. Maybe it was overwork, over-commitment, procrastination or operating under a cloud of assumptions. Whatever lame excuse I may offer, the bottom line is I didn't follow through and didn't ask clarifying questions. I didn't understand why PPJC was in the conversation.
Then HRC Commissioner Jeff Blum wrote a column in the Palo Alto Weekly inviting those interested in the "hyper-sensitive local issues" of MI and PPJC to attend the HRC meeting the following night.
Why bring this up again, a month later? Most have forgotten, for some it is still raw. I bring it up because I gave my word. Something I didn't want to again violate. I've made many mistakes, most have been learning opportunities. Over the years I've tried to pattern my life following "The Four Agreements" outlined by Don Miguel Ruiz; doing my best to be honest, not take anything personally and not make assumptions about others.
Looks simple, just try it.
Commissioner Blum's column was based on his interpretation of the HRC agenda. He was not representing the HRC as a whole, as no other members saw the piece before publication.
It was not the intent of the HRC to try to mediate the real differences in the MI debate or the deep feelings involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or the PPJC's role in seeking peace in the Middle East.
We hoped merely to open a conversation on how we could dialogue more effectively on such issues.
Please accept this as an apology to the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center and to MI opponents and proponents. You are not exclusive holders of the community problems any more than the HRC is the sole holder of the community conscience.
Being the conscience of our community is our collective responsibility. Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, "When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?" She also reminded a war-weary nation that "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
So I invite us all to share our dreams and participate actively in the community -- and world -- we want to create, starting here in Palo Alto.
As my good friend Grace Lovejoy says, "And that's just my opinion, and you're entitled to it."