Friday, December 19, 2008

The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be

Last night, the book store fulfilled its promise, maybe for the first time. I had always envisioned it as a creative community gathering place, a resource for the literate and literary. We had sponsored numerous events to foster the growth of that type of relationship with the community, but attendance, especially on non-Friday For the Arts nights, had been sporadic. This was partly due to my sometimes clumsy efforts to promote the events and partly due to the events themselves not quite resonating with their intended beneficiaries. It has been, to say the least, a steep learning curve. But last night, the walls rang with the musical clack and clatter of words bouncing off of words. The shop teemed with talented young writers who shared their work and worked on building their own creative community. The Governor's School Reading Series kicked off here last night, and we traded in ideas, coffee and comfortable seating, the way I've always intended.

It's important for writers to commune and equally important for them to read their work aloud in a supportive environment. But it's not only important to the writers. It's also important to a healthy, vital community to hear new voices and fresh ideas. The best thing about these particular voices is that they're good! So often, young writers (and some not-so-young writers) fall in love with their own vocabulary and use their writing first and foremost as the vehicle to show it off. Another mistake young writers frequently make is to write outside themselves. Because their life experience is usually somewhat limited, they try to compensate with vividly imagined but unwieldy fantasies. Not so with the group that was here last night. To a one, they had something to say; they had strong, viable voices; and they weren't afraid to use them. They wrote and spoke with passion and clarity about topics that mattered. They showed they have the courage to write and speak honestly, and they deserve ears to listen. So mark your calendar for the next reading in the series: January 15 at 5 pm.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Efficiency Review, Reviewed

Following is an open letter to the Mayor of Petersburg, pasted in its entirety, from Greg Werkheiser, executive director of the Phoenix Project in response to the paralysis and, in some cases, foot dragging recalcitrance surrounding city government's response to the Berkshire Advisors' Efficiency Review. Will this latest bout of heightened visibility be the impetus for real change in this city's government? It's long, but worth a read through, particularly the recommendations section. My comments on it to follow.

Dear Mayor Mickens,

Thank you for your willingness to adjust the format of last night’s public meeting on the Berkshire Advisors’ Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness Study to reflect the expectations of the public for a more direct exchange of feedback. I am sure you were as impressed as I was at the size of the meeting’s audience and their deep hunger for timely action on the recommendations of the Study.

As you know, I serve as Executive Director of the Phoenix Project, a nonprofit organization that serves as a facilitator and matchmaker in Petersburg, helping the community identify its priorities for revitalization and helping bring to bear resources on those priorities. Over the past three years, we have built a strong partnership between the Petersburg community and nine colleges and universities, each of which regularly makes available students, faculty and administrators to work on economic and community development projects for the City. To date, more than 350 students, faculty and administrators have completed more than 150 capacity building projects for fifty-five nonprofit and municipal organizations serving the residents of Petersburg. Our work together in Petersburg is now serving as a model for efforts in other parts of Virginia and is receiving national attention. We are grateful for your support of our efforts and your continued welcome of our work in Petersburg.

As we have come to know Petersburg, its residents, nonprofit organization leaders, faith leaders, business community, and public servants, we have been impressed with their resilience and determination in the face of many challenges. As our university partners have brought resources to bear on these challenges in the short-term, we have also engaged our partners in Petersburg in a discussion about the longer-term revitalization of the City. It has become clear to us through these conversations that the lack of accountability and capacity in City government are chief impediments to sustainable revitalization of the City, and that our work here provides short term infusions that cannot lead to longer term positive results without significant changes in the City’s management.

We believe that you and your fellow members of Council were therefore acting responsibly and with great respect for your constituents when you voted to engage a third party consultant to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of City government in an effort to ensure that Petersburg’s citizens are well served. Our Associate Director, Marion Werkheiser, served on the committee that selected Berkshire Advisors to conduct the Study, and the Phoenix Project helped organize community gatherings to provide input to the consultants as they gathered information for their report. We also remained in close contact with the consultants as their report was repeatedly delayed by an inability or unwillingness of city staff to provide basic information about city operations; their contract called for delivery by the end of 2007, yet the report was not delivered to Council until August of this year. I write to clarify some of the process questions that arose at last night’s meeting and suggest a path for Council’s response to the Study.

In keeping with the Phoenix Project’s role encouraging community engagement to develop community-wide priorities, I was particularly dismayed by the excuses offered by five City Council members at last night’s meeting for their repeated and intentional failure to turn in completed surveys to the consultants performing a study for which taxpayers paid tens of thousands of dollars. These excuses included a lack of time to respond (even though they were given more than seven months to respond); inability to articulate their consituents’ preferences (articulating constituents’ preferences is the definition of serving in representative government, even when one is newly appointed to the position); not having the report on which to base the survey (but the survey was required to inform the report); and Berkshire’s failure to receive the survey upon first transmission, and the Councilmember’s refusal to re-send. If City Council members do not have the time or commitment to complete and deliver a survey critical to the fair assessment of the operation of City government, they will not have the much greater amount of time and commitment required to oversee the fixing of the very broken city government. These members should be invited publicly to affirm their willingess and ability to assume the time-consuming responsibility of oversight of transformation change, or they should be thanked for their service and invited to resign from their office to make room for leaders who do have the time.

I was further dismayed last night by Council’s refusal to admit the true circumstances surrounding the absence of representatives from Berkshire Advisors at this meeting. As you know, Berkshire Advisors was contractually obligated to present its findings in person to City Council and to the Board of the Cameron Foundation. Berkshire staff repeatedly, and for many weeks, requested permission from the City Manager for the opportunity to present their findings and recommendations at a City Council meeting, but they were consistently ignored. We are grateful that Council finally voted last night to invite Berkshire to present its findings to the public. Yet this situation reveals the detriment of Council entrusting further action on the recommendations of this Study to the very City personnel who sought to deny the opportunity for the public to hear directly from the consultants. How can you now expect the public to agree with you that such persons are earnestly committed to or capable of fundamental change?

In the first two minutes of last night’s meeting you berated in front of all attendees Councilmember Pritchett for speaking out publicly about the Council’s unwillingness to fulfill its oversight responsibilities by relying too heavily on the City Manager for information and to do the Council’s work. Yet the excuse the Council offered last night for not having developed in the four months since the Study was delivered an action plan to address the significant management challenges it faces was that Council has not yet received guidance by City staff. This failure simply affirms the reality Councilmember Pritchett acknowledged. The Council seems unwilling or unable to offer leadership independent of the City Manager.

This places front and center the question raised by the Study: whether top City staff, on whose long watch the dysfunctional conditions have manifest, are the appropriate persons to lead the City through transformational change. Of course it is the case that no single person is responsible for the maladies facing the City. But top management has demonstrated clear and extensive failures within their direct control. As the Efficiency Study pointed out, there are no accountability mechanisms for government in Petersburg. Is the Council still not willing to put in place such measures of accountability at all levels of government, including top management?
The Study proposes significant changes in every City department, the implementation of which could take a number of years. It will be important for Petersburg residents and community leaders to be involved throughout that process, as difficult decisions are weighed and made. To that end, I respectfully suggest the following course of action for City Council:

1. Prior to the next City Council meeting, members should frankly assess whether the transformational leadership required to fix the many troubles identified by the Study will require more time and/or energy than they are personally able to commit over the next several years. If so, they should have the courage to tender their resignations at the next meeting. Candidates to replace them should be asked to describe in detail their plans for supporting transformational change in the management of City government.

2. Those members of Council who remain should prepare themselves to describe in detail to the public at the next meeting and at all meetings thereafter, their personal plan for supporting the transformational change required in City government.

3. You stated last night that City Council will receive memoranda from City staff containing scenarios for implementation of the Efficiency Study recommendations at a meeting in January. Please request that those memoranda be submitted to Council and made available to the public at least one full week in advance of the January meeting. Failure to provide the memoranda in advance severely limits the ability of Council and the public to prepare for the meeting and further delays informed discussion of action that must be taken.

4. As you indicated you would do last night, employ the public school phone tree to provide notice of the next public meeting; also, ask the Progress-Index to do an article in advance of the meeting (in addition to the legal notice), put details of the meeting on the City’s website, and circulate notice to City leaders for whom the City has email accounts encouraging them to circulate it to their contacts.

5. Council should be prepared at the January meeting to announce a complete schedule of meetings for 2009 and 2010 dedicated just to public discussion of progress in reforming City government as indicated by the Study. The meetings should be held at least every other month, in an open-exchange format, without the presence of City staff. Every City Council member should come to these meetings fully prepared to discuss and answer questions about progress on specific action items. The maladies diagnosed by the Study are far too serious and numerous to be adequately addressed to the public’s satisfaction in a handful of episodic meetings.

6. Appoint a private citizen-led task-force to provide guidance directly to the Council on implementation of recommendations of the Study.

7. Set aside thirty minutes at each regular City Council meeting for members of the task force to report exclusively on the City’s progress in tackling an aspect of the dysfunction in City government diagnosed in the Study. The Council should suspend its practice of not responding to specific citizen questions for this portion of the meeting.

8. When inviting Berkshire Advisors to present their findings and processes at their earliest availability, please advise them to be prepared to describe the process through which they solicited input from City Council members and City staff. The public deserves to understand the true circumstances surrounding their representatives’ failure to participate in the survey process.

9. Conclude, as so many of us have, with deep regret given our personal affinity for Mr. Canada, that it is no longer an open question as to whether he has the ability to lead transformational change in City management. Hire a professional recruiting firm and task them with securing the highest quality applicants for the position. Set above-market salary for this position to enable the recruitment of applicants with proven experience in turning around broken city governments. Have a candidate in place by March, allowing him or her to immediately, with the further assistance of the recruiting firm, hire replacements for the many vacant positions in City staff leadership and build a team capable of delivering the change the community so deserves.

The Phoenix Project stands ready to partner with the City in this process of transformation, and we will seek out resources from all of our university partners and other contacts to assist in whatever ways we can be helpful. We are committed to our work in Petersburg and believe that the Efficiency Study represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Council to reverse Petersburg’s decline and chart a new course for good government and prosperity for all residents.

I have been impressed by your personal character in the three years in which we have had the opportunity to work together. I think you have the ability and the courage to set an example for other Council members at this critical time in the City’s history. Should you lead boldly you will have my full support and deep gratitude.

Respectfully yours,
Greg Werkheiser
Executive Director
The Phoenix Project

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Who Is Venus Flytrap?

He's not speaking in a dungeon, really. It only looks that way because my camera is cheap and crappy.

The world needs more Tim Reids. Tim Reid was an articulate, insightful, thoughtful black man before Barack Obama made it fashionable. Long before Obama rose to rock star status after the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Reid quietly laid part of the path for him by chipping away at overt and covert racism through television and film. Reid has made it his life's work to bring real African-American people to us through his characters. Real people with real problems, joys, sorrows and triumphs. People that aren't based on exaggerated stereotypes and white perceptions of how black people "should" be. People that don't demean themselves by taking the path of low self-expectation. People that don't spend their energy denigrating themselves or others. People who, in short, don't cater to the lowest common denominators of our society, whether they be racist, misogynist or otherwise unable to see and respect our shared humanity.

Tim Reid was here at the store last night, and it was a rare treat to hear him speak. He spoke about passion and integrity in art and life. He spoke about the responsibility he felt to use his art to add something to the world. He lamented the lack of moral compass in today's artists, particularly comedians. He talked about the way young comedians of the hip-hop generation (whether black or white or whatever) spend a lot of time and energy trying to come up with new ways to be shocking, but not much time inventing new ways to be FUNNY. He talked about how our political correctness has taken a lot of the fun out of our culture.

What struck me maybe more than anything about his talk was that his voice was the same one in his memoir. The same quick, mildly self-deprecating wit came through in person as did in the book. Normally when a celebrity "writes" a book, they do little besides allow limited access to the person who REALLY writes it, and provide a name to stamp on the front. But Reid managed to once again, tell a very compelling story in his own voice in his memoir and, by doing that, has once again given us a real person to admire.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

Petersburg is all about opportunity right now. The city brims with potential. All over town, airguns and hammers and drills drum a steady cacophony of progress. There are at least ten buildings I can think of off the top of my head whose owners are pouring ideas, money and sweat equity into them in the hopes of renting the bottom floor to a business and the top two or three to residents and, ultimately, creating the kind of urban vibe that makes people excited to come here.
So now I'm in that mix (as if I weren't already). I've been introduced to an opportunity to move my store from its current back alley into the commercial corridor of Sycamore Street. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's actually kind of a tough decision. On one hand, I get approximately zero walk-up customers and no impulse shoppers at my current location. It's a full five minute discussion to explain to someone how to get to me. Sometimes, it takes multiple phone calls. There is nothing particularly special about the building, except that it does have a warm, open feel and, maybe most importantly, it's MINE. I own the building and all the sweat blood and tears I and many of my friends have poured into it. I've thrown my back out there, right there in the front flower bed. I've dug up spark plugs and light bulbs and manifolds. Beth and I painted the floor its current Ronald McDonald red.
Flip side: the guy I'd be working with to renovate the proposed Sycamore Street location TO SUIT has already been featured on HGTV's "What You Get For the Money." His sense of style and aesthetic are impeccable. And he's excited about putting together an ultra-hip book store/coffee shop/neighborhood hangout in the space. The kind of place people go to because it's cool to be seen there. The space itself is located on Sycamore Street in the Uptown section. So it's not exactly "there" yet, but it, like so much else in Petersburg, has a lot of potential. It's a few blocks removed from the bulk of the existing businesses and the Friday For the Arts crowds, but one of the city's best galleries will move there in the summer and another is projected to open next year as well. The new ice cream and snack shop just opened, a full service spa is already there, and another beautifully redone historic building waits for the right tenant in the next block.
Flop side: the parking situ is less than optimal. There is minimal onstreet parking, usually full, and only one city lot in the back to service increasing numbers of residential and commercial properties. Although my potential landlord says he's never had a problem finding parking, I have...several times. And, as far as walk-up customers, it may be jumping from the freezer to the ice tray. There is little pedestrian traffic in the area right now, partly due to limited parking and partly due to limited business to attract it. There is the pain factor and expense of moving, not to mention the minor problem of needing to sell the building I'm in first. In this economy, that may be the long pole in the tent. So I'm torn. On one hand, I see it as a great opportunity. On the other hand, I see it as yet another leap of faith. I've made so many of those in the past year, I'm starting to worry that not having a net is going to catch up to me.

Tha Dog Pound

It was unnaturally warm last night. So much so that we were sitting on the front porch enjoying a beverage when a meatheaded old brindle pit bull we'd never seen before wandered into the yard to play with Harper. It was an idyllic dog romp through the clover--Harper dominating the dog as she is wont to do, him letting her, us petting them both. Then Shaft, the skulking little ne'er-do-well male dog across the street, decided he couldn't take this affront to his territory.
Side note on Shaft's personality: Shaft is the kind of uneasy little beast who sees you come in and out of your house several times a day and sometimes he barks at you and sometimes not. When you're out walking sometimes you'll get a sense that something is following you and you whirl around expecting to fight the Walnut Hill knife rapist, but it turns out it's only Shaft, sneaking around behind you like he's trying to pull a flank maneuver. You call him, he starts growling. You walk toward him, trying to make friends. He turns and slinks off, only to resume following you after you turn and keep walking.
Meanwhile, back at Michael Vick's Ranch: Shaft charged down the hill toward the street and growled at the stranger dog. Bared his teeth. Then he ran. Well, he got about ten feet before that pit bull was on him like stink on crap. A blur of brown and white and then the most horrible, asphyxiating yelping sound. The pit had him by the throat. That fast. And he wasn't letting go. I have never seen anything like a pit bull when it has something locked up. The scene escalated rapidly. Beth ran over, the people in the house came out. When I ran over, a fully grown man and woman were out there kicking and hitting this pit bull as hard as they could, screaming, cussing, etc, hollering about, "he's gon' kill that mother f------!" And ole Shaft WAS, in fact, rapidly expiring. Beth and I both yelled at them to get a water hose, because that's really the only chance to get a bulldog off of something without killing it. About that time, one of the men went and got a shovel and was about to brain the dog. The pit got distracted by the woman hitting him in the head and went to shift his grip and Shaft somehow weaseled out of there. He ran on around the house with the pit hard on his trail. The neighbors managed to get Shaft into the house and the door closed just before the other dog showed up at the door. Just as quickly as he'd gone berserk, the pit calmed down into the same docile fellow he'd been before the ugly scene. He was wheezing from the exertion and from being kicked in the ribs and his nose was bloodied but, other than that, he was totally calm. It's hard to tell, because it seemed like everything was in super slow motion, but I'd estimate the whole thing lasted less than five minutes. If it had lasted a minute more, I have no doubt there would have been at least one dead dog.
We fended off the guy with the shovel, who looked like he still had some inclination to use it, and took the pit bull back over to the house while we called the police. They didn't want to send anyone out at first, because it was an animal control problem, but finally they agreed. Fast forward to the end. After some cajoling and convincing on our part (there apparently is no provision for after hours animal control emergencies except to call someone with a key and hope they can come out), the dog rode off in the back of the police cruiser.
All that to say this: the ugly, snarling, violent scene last night made me kind of rethink my opinion of pit bulls. I had always thought they were a breed whose behavior doesn't justify their negative reputation. I had always thought the way an animal, any animal, acted was a direct reflection of its owner and how it was trained and treated. I had owned a pit bull before and thought it was the most loyal, gentle dog I had ever had. But this dog was also someone's pet. It was well cared for and not scarred. And it turned on a dime and became a killer. Granted, Shaft is annoying and it wouldn't have been any great loss to the Brandon Avenue scene, but still. I wouldn't have a pit for a pet now. Not after seeing what I saw last night.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Two Worlds Collide

About three weeks ago, I received the "gift" of a starter for Amish friendship bread from an alleged friend. We'll call her "Lana." Now, I have the cooking skills of a caveman, but this was something I could appreciate--an easy, gradual-rising recipe with explicit instructions. Although my culinary past has been checkered at best, I saw myself working through my cooking issues with this, then moving on to more and more complicated recipes before finally romping gloriously through Elysian Fields with the Larousse Gastronomique.
The idea of the bread being slow and methodical appealed to me. I liked that "only the Amish know how to make the starter." I pictured some humble, Nurse Ratched-haired Amish lady back in rural Pennsylvania humming as she mixed it by hand before sending it out into the world, and I teared up at her innocence. I loved the notion of kneading and burping the bag every day and watching it bubble and ferment. I liked that you could only use wood and glass cooking implements. Somehow, it harkened back to a simpler time. AND, given my current fiscal constraints, and my ever-growing disdain for the gross commercialism Christmas has become, I thought it would neatly address both these issues. I would give a loaf of bread and a starter kit to many of the people on my list. It would be both thoughtful and frugal. That is, if I survived the vicious cycle of the bread itself.
The first run was almost biblical in its magnitude. Each bag makes four more starters and two loaves, which made me think of the five loaves and two fishes (or two loaves and five fishes, I forget). We were gonna feed the multitudes, except we couldn't give the things away. Most of my friends, it turns out, have already been through their friendship bread cycle and have no desire to get caught up in its yeasty clutches again.
Every day, there's work to be done with the starter bags. I'm either kneading or adding ingredients, or both. This is all well and fine--it doesn't take that long and it's easy--until day six comes and I'm late for work and out of milk and the $*^&# starters each need a cup of milk, in addition to a cup of flour and sugar. Then I realize, I have become a slave to the bread. I get two of the four situated at home by diluting the 2% milk with water to make two cups, dropping half a starter on the floor when the bag slumps over the counter edge while I'm diluting the milk. The dog dutifully laps it up before I can get to it, and I'm already running through my mental phone book in search of an auxiliary kneader for day seven, because I'll be at the vet all day with the sick dog. Because there's no way I can make it by the grocery store AND open on time, I drag the other two bags to work with me and do my duty by them with milk from the store, promptly squeezing a big splash of starter onto the counter and floor when I knead a bag that wasn't fully closed. It's 1050, I open at 11, and the bread has just taken over the last bastion of my sanity. By now, I am hating on the Amish--God bless their modern-convenience-hating, wholesome family-oriented gray-clad hearts! I seethe through days 7,8, and 9, lulling myself into a false sense of normalcy. Day ten rolls around, and I realize when I walk in the door at 9 pm and four bags are sitting there staring at me like some evil, amorphous, self-rising devils; that it's baking day and I was supposed to get the vanilla pudding on the way home, but I didn't and now Food Lion is closed. So I put it off a day, come home the next day proudly dragging the bag of vanilla pudding, only to realize I'm out of sugar. The bread is, by now, LAUGHING. I hear it when one of the bags explodes because I forgot to burp it on days nine and ten. Exhausted, I call Lana and make her feel somehow responsible--you GAVE me this stuff, remember? So she gets out of bed and brings me all her sugar and I manage to make it through baking two of the starters before I collapse in a flour-coated heap on the floor to awaken the next morning and start the cycle all over. I want to throw the remaining starters away, but somehow I can't bring myself to do it (what if it doesn't come back around in time for Christmas?). So I put an ad on Craig's List to give them away. So far, no takers.