Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Fire alarm!" in a turbulent time of the year

Scheduling at the end of the Spring Semester is always a problem at American University.  Every organization wishes to celebrate some penultimate event.  Administrators want to hold meetings before faculty depart from summer commitments of travel and teaching.  The schedule is overfull every year, but this year it has been worse.  There have been a series of visits by candidates for the Provost’s position (which included a ‘visit’ by our present Interim Provost).  The task force responsible for drafting the AU’s new Strategic Plan is holding numerous meetings.  Other task forces, too, are remembering that they must get a last meeting in.  It might seem that students would be hard pressed to remember that final exams and final papers must be their first priority, but, mostly,  they do.  Everything is ‘important.’  How is one to choose?

To comlexify things further, we had our first late night fire alarm in many months last friday night.  In fact there had not been one in such a long time that I had neglected to lay my clothes out for a quick exit - a must for South Side residents.  I did have my bowl of Snickers, Butterfingers and Baby Ruths, with its blinking light, at the ready when the gongs began to ring.

This was not a false alarm - false alarms plagued us several years ago, but have subsided.  A student had left a dish burning on the stove and it set off the smoke detector.  But the weather was balmy and the sky was clear.  It was almost a party like atmosphere, though there were a few glum faces.

We were all back in bed - or off to other pursuits - by 1:30 with no one the worse for wear.

"They have taken us completely by surprise."

Many years ago I worked with an organization whose name said nothing about its mission or what it was, “The Club of Rome.”  Under the Club’s auspices, I and a few others helped to found a new field of study, “Global Modeling,”  (You can read about this in my co-authored book, Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling.)  Global Modeling used computer simulation to study long term interrelationships between population, resources, environment and economics at a global level.

By far the most noteworthy study published under the Club of Rome’s auspices was The Limits to Growth (1972).  Limits to Growth compellingly demonstrated that relationships between the human species and elements of the environmental niche that sustains us (planet Earth) could be viewed as one system.  It showed how ‘business as usual’ policies could, within fifty years or so, could cause sustainability crises manifested as economic turbulence, high pollution levels, resource scarcities, declining economic output and, eventually, declining population.  Those of us who raised these warnings were ridiculed as doomsayers and scaremongers.  Vigorous attempts were made to discredit the Limits to Growth Model, though updates in 1992 and 2002 have shown that its scenarios are on track.

This week’s news and Washington talk shows brought me back to the days of my Club of Rome work. Pundits were describing interrelated crises:  rising energy prices, rising food prices, global warning, conflicts in the world’s poverty stricken areas and financial instability.  When asked if set of interrelated crises could have been foreseen, one commentator observed, “[these interrelated crises] have taken us completely by surprise.”

Those of us who build the first global models, and began sounding warnings about ‘limits to growth’ more than thirty years ago are not surprised.  

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Letting go

The blog I completed a few moments ago provides a context for this one.  As I reported, the recent shareholders’ meeting of the International Center for Ethnic Studies, appointed an entirely new Board of Directors, ending a formal affiliation that lasted for more than a decade.  I feel good about my work, but sad that some friendships with those involved may be strained beyond repair.  

I learned about the shareholders’ decision last Friday evening, but it took a few hours and a good night’s sleep for the impact to sink in.  Saturday morning, I realized that problems of financial management. funding, leadership and staffing at the ICES were no longer my problems,  And I realized that these problems had been a matter of almost daily concern for more that eight months.  I felt a lightening of burdens, long borne. There would be no need to scan my emails for urgent communications from the ICES or wonder what bad news the next voicemail message, received while I was sleeping, would bring. There was no longer any formal role for me to play at the ICES, even should I wish to do so.  I realized that there would be time to pursue new interests and new opportunities in Sri Lanka.  

A passage from 2 Timothy 4:7  (in the Christian Bible) came to mine.   I heard it first at a summer  camp church service when I was a pre-teen.: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

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The mediators' lot may not be a happy one

Mediators don't decide who's right. They guide a discussion so the disputants can more wisely reach agreement and move on with their lives. Most mediators love their work, helping people beat their swords into plowshares...”  (From a  ‘Best Careers’ posting in U.S. News and World Report ,, 12/19/07)

Regular readers will know that, for more than a decade, I have served as a Director of a research institute in Sri Lanka, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies.  This is one of several non governmental organizations on whose boards I have served over a long professional career.  During the past several months, I have attempted to mediate disagreements between the supporters and detractors of a former senior manager, who was compelled to precipitously leave her position - and Sri Lanka - under turbulent circumstances.  The culmination of my role was a week of face-to-face discussions, followed by intensive ‘settlement’ negotiations in which another board member collaborated.

Here is how I described my mission, in a subsequent report to all Board members.  “The primary purpose of these conversations was listening.  I sought perceptions, recollections and assessments of recent events, including perceptions of ‘public’ reactions to those events.  I asked for recommendations as to what might be done to improve the ICES’ public standing, create an atmosphere of comity, strengthen overall management and financial sustainability, especially at ICES Colombo, and create a climate that would attract strong researchers.  While there was considerable revisiting of past events, I also tried to focus on problem solving and on the future.  My purpose was to listen to opinions, not change them, but if asked about my own perceptions, assessments and possible recommendations, I provided them, as I will in this document...”

In the conclusion of my submission, I wrote,  “This report has no easy solutions to offer.  There are none.  If I learned anything from my week long reconnaissance in Sri Lanka it is that present challenges facing the ICES, and the Colombo Office especially, are incredibly complex and difficult.  The one piece of good news is how many individuals care deeply, even intensely about this truly unique institution and its future. That I include myself among them must be obvious to all.  There will need to be compromises on the part of individuals who have shown little willingness to compromise.  There will need to be forgiveness on the part of individuals who have told me they would never be willing to forgive.  The goal of preserving and growing the institution will need to transcend the need to seek retribution for personal hurts, miscommunications and differences.  Over the next six months perhaps the ICES and those who care deeply about it can provide a model of civil, humane, compassionate, effective crisis management and conflict resolution.  But this is by no means certain.

What I learned from this experience was that attempting to mediate a dispute from within an organization has a significant down side.  When I began the process, I considered regarded all of the dispute parties as and colleagues (in two instances, very close friends).  I found it easy to empathize with different sides - there were many more than two - but when I tried to intermediate, this stretched the bonds of friendships to the limit and perhaps beyond.  An outsider could have played a similar role, but then walked away from the dispute without caring how the respective parties felt about him - or her - afterwards.  I did - and do - care.

Our mediation did have a successful outcome - we negotiated a settlement that was accepted by the principal protagonists.  But at a subsequent shareholders meeting and entirely new Board of Directors was named.  This was not exactly a vote of confidence in the work of my  colleague and myself.  I depart my formal ICES affiliation with good feelings about a job well done, and no regrets.  But I do regret having lost the friendship of some individuals whom I care about.  Perhaps the wounds inflicted by my attempt to play a mediator’s role evenhandedly will heal, in time.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Choosing 'Mr. American'

On Monday night, some on campus residents turned their attention from more serious matters to participate in - and view - the “Mr. American” contest.  This annual event is a spoof on the Miss America contest featuring nominees from each dorm.  The contest featured a bathing suit parade - all contestants were quite modestly attired - a talent contest,, formal ware and questions.  At the request of the show’s organizers, officers in AU’s Residence Hall Association, I agreed to be one of three judges.  Free snow cones and popcorn were offered to the audience, which numbered between 75 and 100, including the Executive Director of Housing and Dining and a goodly number of his staff.  Housing and Dining has been working hard to strengthen the Residence Hall Association, with good success. Some years ago, “RHA” was almost invisible on the South side of campus.  Now its offices are on Anderson Hall’s first floor and it is a definite presence.

The contest lasted less that two hours and was, I thought, refreshingly unprofessional.  With one exception, the talent competition exhibited no exceptional talent; answers to questions were unpolished.  Each contestant had a small cadre of supporters who cheered their candidate, when not distracted by conversation.  By 9 PM we judges had made our choice, prizes were awarded and we all returned to dorm rooms or the Library to write term papers, study or complete end of semester projects.  I was tired after a long day and turned in early, after an indifferent swipe at my usual mountain of unanswered emails.  The Mr. American contest and been a fun and relaxing break from intense end-of-semester obligations.  A good time was had by all - including the judges.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shared space: a message from Elizabeth Harper Neeld

 have written a few times in the past about my friend Elizabeth Harper Neeld.  Elizabeth and I collaborated on the Hunger Project Book, Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has come.  Her book, Seven Choices, helped and inspired me in difficult times. Her book A Spiritual Primer: A Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer helped transform my meditative practice. She is one of those special friends who can always provide wisdom, support and strength, tempered with empathy and compassion when it is needed.

Elizabeth writes a periodic column on her website  The most recent offering  entitled ‘A Counter-Intuitive Phenomenon: Shared  Space Instead of Rules of the Road, provides all of us with food for thought.  You should check out Elizabeth’s site, which is a rich resource.  But in case you don’t have time, here is the entire text of ‘Shared Space...”

Imagine this:

You are driving into a town in the Netherlands called Makkinga. There is a traffic sign that reads “Verkeersbordvrij,” which translates “free of traffic signs.” This means there are no stop signs, no road markings, no parking meters, no pedestrian crossings. There are no stopping restrictions nor even any lines painted on the streets.

Instead of traffic rules and signs in Makkinga, there is the idea that streets are shared by drivers and pedestrians on equal grounds. The assumption that drivers own the road is replaced by the assertion that everyone has the same access to the public space. The thought is that if drivers are going to have to pay attention to pedestrians and bicycle riders and other vehicles—with no help from traffic signals and road signs—they will slow down and be more alert.

According to Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who pioneered the Shared Space approach:

“We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour…the greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles…. When you don’t know exactly who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users…You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” (quoted in Wikipedia)

The basic idea, then, is that when behavior is influenced and controlled by human beings’ taking notice of each other and being consciously alert and personally responsible rather than being artificially regulated by external signs and rules, everyone is safer. Drivers, bike riders, and pedestrians hold an equal place in the interactions in public spaces and connect through eye contact, friendly gestures, and nods of the head.

So, what’s the outcome when a town takes down the traffic lights, removes the stop signs, smoothes out the curbs so that there is no demarcation between road and sidewalk? Havoc? Chaos? Mass increase in accidents?

The opposite.

Three examples from The Netherlands: In the town of Hare, after Shared Space was instituted, the number of accidents are one intersection dropped from 200 a year to about 10, or 95%. In the town of Drachten (40,000 population), casualty figures at one junction where traffic lights were removed dropped from 36 in the four years prior to Shared Space to 2 in the two years following. The town’s main junction handles about 22,000 cars a day. In Makkinga, casualties fell by 10% in the three years following the new design.

Shared Space is considered to have such enormous positive potential that the European Union has subsidized Shared Space programs in seven cities in five countries throughout Europe. Shared space is gaining a foothold in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain, Sweden, Belgium, to name a few. And interest is spreading world-wide.

Ever since I read about Shared Space, I’ve mulled over questions like these:

Are human beings more amenable to being considerate of others–with no rules requiring them to do so– than our species is often given credit for?

What applicability of the Shared Space idea might there be to other areas of daily life besides traffic?

If Shared Space as a traffic engineering phenomenon truly caught on in a massive way, would there be positive fall-out in the amount of consideration human beings give each other in other areas of life?

It’s not always easy to find situations in the world to be optimistic about, especially when we get most of our news from typical media sources. But let’s watch Shared Space. This just might be a development that puts paid to the assertion that human beings will only behave well in public spaces if they are required by rules to do so. And perhaps if Shared Space continues to prove to be workable, there will be reason to be upbeat about other ways we human beings, on our own without being forced to do so, might cooperate.

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