Guest Opinion: Where is the conscience of our city? | August 15, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 15, 2007

Guest Opinion: Where is the conscience of our city?

by Shauna Wilson Mora

State Senator Joe Simitian, while serving on the Palo Alto City Council in the 1990s, once referred to the Human Relations Commission as "the conscience of our city."

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."

Shauna Wilson Mora is the chair of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission; is a mediator with the Palo Alto Mediation Program; and is the manager of facilitation programs at the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by observer, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Great article! Good advise. I think I'll take it. Thanks for writing a thoughtful piece on how to play with others.

Posted by Civic Responsibility, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm

"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards" - - Oscar Wilde

Although Ms. Mora writes touchingly, from the heart, and her piece is contrite, I maintain strong doubts about whether Palo Alto requires a full-time human relations commission.

I would also question whether the conscience of our city contains heady amounts of guilt. What does Ms. Mora mean by that?

Posted by older parent, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2007 at 8:40 pm

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” - Aristotle
I'm liking the call for consideration and for reflection. If the HRC is asking us to reflect, I'm all for it.

Posted by Diana, a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2007 at 9:54 pm

I don't speak for the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, but as a strong PPJC supporter who was offended and angered by Mr. Blum's column, I personally accept Ms. Mora's apology. And I thank her for such a compassionate, well-thought-out and well-stated message to the community. With so much finger-pointing, unwillingness to accept responsibility, and bellicosity confronting us these days, this column is a breath of fresh air. Thank you Ms. Mora.

Posted by Boaz, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:31 am

No apology was due to PPJC--on the contrary they owe us am apology for years of one-sided, biased Israel bashing. Shame on them and shame on those that support them.

Posted by No Thanks, a resident of Stanford
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:32 am

It's all to self-serving.

Off with their heads.

And that goes double if the HRC is costing the city one thin dime.

Posted by Civic Responsibility, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 11:00 am

older parent, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” - Aristotle"

Then why not consider dismantling the HR commission?

The problem is that questions of an ethical nature - coming from a tacit, subjective place - should not necessarily be contrived by an appointed commission.

Why don't we have an ombudsman here? Why do we need to appoint a group of individuals (who hhave personal agendas of their own, no matter how well-meaning) to help us define our conscience? I'm all for reflection and coming together, but don't feel that our community needs a commission to tell us how to do that.

Perhaps a series of lectures by ethical luminaries, but an HR Commission??

I'm all for openn discussion of any matter, but agendizing ethical questions tends to politicize them, often creating problems that would not have otherwise existed.

If we have a problem with police relations, neighborhood conflicts, etc. etc., why not have the proncipals in those conflicts create their own ad hoc problem-solving groups, monitored by volunteer facilitators. Why make limited issues local issues? Why infect our conscisousness with someone else's definition of what our collective conscience is?

There's too much (unintended hubris) in all this. It's smacks of an appointed moral priesthood. Who needs that?

Posted by GSB, a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 11:40 am

I'm amazed by the contrast between PA's HRC and Mountain View's HRC.

Here is a link to the MV HRC's annual report to the City:

Web Link

Posted by Civic Responsibility, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 1:26 pm


Here's a link that will get you there
Web Link

I don't see the difference between Mt. View's mandate, and ours. What, in your experience, are the primary differences between Mt. View's and Palo Alto's HRC?

Posted by GSB, a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Oops, here is the correct link to the report itself:

Web Link

It seems like MV's HRC is more in line with listening to the residents and representing them, as opposed to waiting for council to tell them what to do...but that's just my opinion.

Posted by Civic Responsibility, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:13 pm


I just read the link. It doesn't appear that Mt. View's HRC is as scattered as ours is - i.e. there appears to be a goal-oriented plan.

That said, I have never seen any of those people in action, so I can't comment on their effectiveness.

What's happening here is that some HRC members (well-meaning, all) have taken it upon themselves to perform a kind of meta-analysis of community ethics. We - and other communities - do not need politically appointed priesthoods to sooth our respective consciences,

Frankly, no one group can represent the "conscience" of a city. This is the sort of thing that can lead to dangerous lock-step thinking, and personal/political grandstanding on delicate issues.

I don't have the time to do a hermeneutical analysis of the concept of "conscience", but warning bells go off when I hear someone telling me how I should be thinking about issues that are necessarily nuanced. This is dangerous territory for public-appointed commissions to venture into.

Listening, and using the action of listening in service of the facilitation of less conflict (i.e better human relations) is very different from going out and "finding trouble". This is why I argue for a more ombudsman-like, ad hoc appointee commission approach to these issues - one by one.

There's nothing wrong with appointing people to a group that is focused on a single problem, but we start to get into murky ethical waters when we have political appointees acting from on high (no matter how well-meaning) in ways that have those appointees thinking they somehow represent the "conscience" of their fellow citizens. That's nonsense, and borders on demagoguery.

The consciousness of a community is ANYTHING but fixed; it's ANYTHING from definition-bound, in ways that let any one person or small group of people begin to make assumptions based on a necessarily limited definition of their fellow citizen's personal values.

The whole thing smacks of a kind of subtle group-think that was so very popular during the heyday of the New Age movement. The one thing that almost always stands out about those days was the near totalitarian group-think that operated among groups who were into "healing" this, or that. I'm not ascribing the latter qualities to our HRC, but (with respect) some of the contriteness, and "touchy-feely" sentiments that have been driving that group's behavior lately has made my consciousness (pun intended) perk up.

Think about this: we now have the behavior of the HRC to consider - as a problem - in Palo Alto. Commissioners, heal thyselves, and let the rest of us work in good faith to do the same. The last thing this community needs is an "anointed" commission looking for ways to fill its time.

Posted by Say what!?, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Boy are you off base GSB. The Palo Alto HRC brought a number of resolutions to the City Council over the last 30 years that were not referred from the Council, and in fact some members of the Council would have preferred to avoid. All the resolutions were based on input from the public. In this article alone, Ms. Mora refers to HRC resolutions against the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and a Voter Confidence Resolution. Before commenting on Commissions in our City, GSB, you may want to do your research.

Regarding other comments here about the uselessness of the HRC, sorry, I don't agree. I've attended some of the meetings and they look at a lot of tough issues. I think there does need to be a place for the hard stuff to be discussed. I'm sure the City Council appreciates having someplace to send people who complain about injustice and civil rights. Are any of you willing to take that on? And by the way, as far as I know Commissioners on all the City Commissions are volunteers. That means "No Thanks" that they are not paid, even one thin dime.

Posted by GSB, a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:41 pm

Say What:

My comment is based on all of the (mostly negative) feedback i've seen in this forum on numerous occasions re: your HRC. I know they are volunteers (just like MVs), but MVs isn't met with as much hostility. I'm just curious to know why the PA HRC is talked down about so much.

Posted by Rhonda, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:56 pm

"All the resolutions were based on input from the public. In this article alone, Ms. Mora refers to HRC resolutions against the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and a Voter Confidence Resolution."

Say what, what proportion of PA citizens objected to the Patriot Act? What proportion of PA citizens wanted the Boy Scouts kicked out of Lucy Stern? Just because a FEW citizens make a complaint to the HRC, it does not follow that the HRC, voting in favor, represents the majority of PA citizens.

Civic Responsibility (above) has it about right. We don't need to be told what our collective conscience should be. That sort of thing belongs to the taliban. As a woman who prefers not to cover up, I object to your heavy hand.

Posted by "Conscience of our city", indeed! - ha!, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Say What!,

No one said that hard issues should not be discussed, but why are so many soft issues made into hard issues, just because someone on the HRC thinks it's important to "heal" a difference?

In fact, what about the hard issue that defines itself as "why do we have an HRC?". THAT"S a hard issue worth debating. Why aren't policy makers willing to take that on?

"Conscience of our city", indeed!

Posted by Say What!?, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2007 at 5:50 pm

What heavy hand are you talking about? I don' t represent the HRC and I sure as heck haven't suggested women cover up. I'm just somewho who is glad I've had a place to go an air my concerns. As far as public input, I was at the HRC meeting on the Patriot Act. The room was packed and nearly everyone wanted the HRC to do something. Which they did. As for the issues, I doubt HRC members are making stuff up to discuss. My guess is people come to meetings and complain enough times the folks on the HRC decide to take it on or look into it. As far as I know the HRC doesn't make policy. That's the City Council's domain. If the City Council doesn't like a recommendation from any of the Commissions they don't vote for it. I'm actually stunned at the level of hostility a few people have for this group. As I read the article Ms Mora is saying the HRC DOES NOT represent the conscience of the City. Guess some people just read the headlines.

Posted by Civic Responsibility, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 6:20 pm

The initiatives covered by Simitain's HRC, and the current HRC are worlds apart - in quality and quantity.

Patriot Act? I think the Patriot Act is a piece of rubbish, violating the very foundation of human rights as we (most of us) understand it. However, I don't want a local commission making statements on national policy. Yes, that national policy DOES impact us, but so do energy, transportation, criminal justice, drug enforcement, Dept. of Interior, etc. etc. policies. So?

Legislating ethical policy is not a good idea. HRC's, as appointed commissions, are a very short stone's throw from that, as they advise policy makers.