Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Deliberate Acts of Kindness



I am prone to inspiration the way some people are prone to colds.  Even when I do remember to order decaf, the little sparks in everyday life tend to light me up and convince me that life really is good.  So, by nature, I am drawn to the notion of random acts of kindness.  They’re inspiring, they’re gratifying, they’re the spiritual equivalent of Kaizen: continuous small acts that collectively make a difference.  

And yet, there are ills that do not recede without deliberate and sustained effort; random acts might mow them down a bit, but they won’t kill them.  Random kindness did not pass the 13th Amendment, or the Clean Water Act.  In today’s world, I wondered, where so many have dismissed politics as a partisan shooting match, do we have the collective resolve to slog through the hard stuff?  

I decided to attend a Tikun Olam committee meeting at the synagogue last year, to explore whether I did.  I liked these folks right away: they were warm, smart, thoughtful people, willing to work hard to effect change, and I felt inspired (there I go again) by the discovery of this gem of a group within my congregation.  As part of a multi-faith umbrella organization called People Acting in Community Together (PACT), Tikkun Olam focuses primarily on social justice through grassroots community action.  

At the time I joined, the group had decided to focus on healthy aging – in particular, issues of senior transportation.  Sure, I said, thinking of Paula’s aging mother, that’s important.  I went and had coffee with the CEO of SilverRide to learn about senior transit from someone who had made a business of it.  I typed up my notes, sent them out, and looked forward to a lively discussion about senior isolation and how we were going to make a difference.  I was excited.

The excitement didn’t last.  Every month, I went to the Tikkun Olam committee meeting with a handful of fellow congregants, trying not to let my mind wander.  The pace of the conversation was painfully slow.  Compared to the agility and bias for action that a startup requires to avoid extinction,  PACT’s process made me want to chew my arm off.  Who was synthesizing the myriad research meetings into a compelling story?  Where was the PowerPoint presentation?  What is our objective here, folks?  And who’s in charge?  Every meeting had an assigned chairperson, but between those meetings… there was no continuity in leadership.

Still, I told myself, I don’t know anything about community organizing; maybe this is what it takes to get stuff done when it comes to government.  So I tried to remain patient as the conversations meandered back and forth.  

Last month, at the urging of our assigned PACT organizer, I attended a meeting of HALOC, the Healthy Aging Local Organizing Committee, which included members of two other synagogues and several area churches as well.  It was a three-hour meeting to get ready for the upcoming action, and I felt energized about emerging with a clear vision, a to-do list, and renewed energy.  

After 2 hours and 40 minutes, I walked out, at the end of my rope.  The meeting was dominated by a group of longtime members-- mostly seniors themselves-- who had no need for PowerPoints .  As we skittered through an agenda that afforded no latitude for dialogue, newcomers like me felt ourselves marginalized as we moved to vote on priorities we weren’t informed enough to set.  And, predictably, the outcome of the meeting was another set of meetings.  I sat there in frustration, realizing that I was the only person in that room with young children competing for those precious hours.  

After that experience, I concluded that I was going to have to find another way to change the world.  I started declining Tikun Olam meetings and relaxed into the familiar stress of startup life, replete with the comforts of a chain of command and a sense of urgency.  I rationalized my exit by telling myself that my presence wasn’t important.

But Margaret Mead’s famous words still ran through my head.  The process didn’t feel right to me… but the cause still did.  What if I actually had a lot to contribute to that group?  What if leadership and action bias and a little flair with communication were just what that group needed to propel its initiatives to success?  Around the room, there were lawyers, sociologists, retired doctors and teachers… but a striking dearth of business people.  I thought of the thousands of business leaders who have so much to offer our communities.  And then I thought of us all being too fidgety and distracted and impatient and—let’s face it— absorbed in our own lives to do it.

The healthy aging community action is happening in May.  After that, Tikun Olam will move on to other issues.  Rather than using my frustration as an excuse to opt out, I'm going to try to step up – and propose some changes that I hope will bring energy and purpose into the group.  If it doesn’t work… at least I won’t have walked away from the plate before I’ve even been struck out.

Maybe a few incendiary personalities, with our short fuses, short attention spans, and passionate temperaments, aren’t such bad ingredients in a recipe for social justice.  I guess I’ll find out.

To all the members of PACT and other community groups who put yourselves out there to bring on a brighter dawn: thank you for all you do.