Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Range of Nonprofits Varying Quality, Leadership, and Compensation Structures Overlooked

On April 27, the Hartford Courant published my letter to the editor, "Cheap Shot Taken At Nonprofit Leaders," in response to Robyn Blumner's April 21 opinion piece.

The full text of my letter appears below.

To the Editor:
Robyn Blumner's demagogic, superficial April 21 piece found targets at hospitals
and other nonprofits "raking in the dough."
Scapegoating sometimes-inflated salaries may be expedient, even cathartic. But it can obscure the variety within the nonprofit sector -- and the range of nonprofit salaries.
Many leaders of nonprofits, not to mention their staffs, are paid modestly -- particularly considering the significance and burdens of their work.  For example, key longtime employees of New Haven's regional Domestic Violence Services organization arguably are underpaid -- certainly not overpaid -- for their professional skills and dedication. They do tough, emotionally draining work to protect, counsel, advocate, and educate for progress around a vexing social problem.

Even after two decades of accomplishment as leader, the executive director was paid less than counterparts in the public as well as private sectors. If anything, these kinds of nonprofit leaders deserve higher pay for long, demanding hours, extensive responsibility and crucial work spanning the management, fund-raising, reporting, advocacy, and public liaison realms.
Glib derision of an entire sector serves little purpose. Many nonprofits are lean and worthy, others less so. An upper tier of nonprofit executives may receive lavish compensation. Most community providers do not.
Josiah H. Brown
New Haven
Josiah H. Brown is volunteer past president of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven.

12:43 am edt 

Monday, April 27, 2009

More on Service, Career Choices in Hard Times

Following on the April 12 post below . . .

An April 17 Yale Daily News article by Shahla Naimi notes that "Applications to Nonprofits Skyrocket":

“Applications to national post-graduation service programs such as Teach for America, Peace Corps and AmeriCorps have reached record proportions this year, driven by graduates seeking stable employment in a crumbling job market and looking to fulfill what some have termed the ‘call to service’ of President Barack Obama.  Applications to TFA this year broke organization records, rising 42 percent over the 2007-’08 application cycle to reach a total of 35,000. That figure includes a record number of Yale students: 16 percent of Yale seniors applied to the program this year, up from 11 percent in the class of 2008. Meanwhile, nationwide applications to public service program AmeriCorps have more than quadrupled.”

Other recent items in this vein:

  April 20, 2009, Hartford Courant article, by Kathleen Megan

"College Grads Job Hunting with Volunteer Spirit" “Gabriel Ellis-Ferrara always wanted to go into the Peace Corps. Now, with the economy in a slump, he sees this possibility with its two-year commitment as an even better option.” 

  April 18, 2009, New York Times account by Steven Greenhouse

Business Grads Looking Beyond Wall Street  “Business students graduating this year know they are less likely to get a job offer in investment banking. For some, that's liberating.”

  April 26, 2009, Hartford Courant opinion piece by Maryam Roberts

'Economic Draft' Forces Many Into Military “In 2008, all four branches of the armed forces met their recruiting goals for the federal fiscal year, as 185,000 men and women signed up for service. This was the highest number of people joining since 2003. The number probably will rise as the economy gets worse.  The Army offers attractive signing bonuses of $40,000, as well as support with college tuition and valuable job training.”

  April 21, 2009, New York Times article by Fernanda Santos

In MTV Style, Mayor Urges New Yorkers to Get Out and Volunteer  “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, with the aid of MTV News, announced a new plan to encourage volunteerism among city residents.” 

7:32 am edt 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Service and Organizing, Reflecting on PIRG

There are many reasons to deplore the current state of our economy, the unemployment and under-employment affecting people of all ages, their families and their communities.  The emerging relative appeal of lower-paying service and organizing jobs offers a measure of consolation.  It promises to draw additional talented, energetic people into professions in which they can have especially useful effects.

Earlier blog posts (e.g., in 2008 and on March 10, February 24, and January 18 of this year) discussed themes of service and the blend of professional and volunteer roles that is needed across our country and communities. 

The Partnership for Public Service is one resource. 

Note that the Serve America Act includes portions of the Service for All Ages initiative that Senator Chris Dodd and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced in February.  LEAP and Public Allies, through which Solar Youth's Gamaliel Moses originally came to that organization, are among the New Haven groups that have had AmeriCorps partnerships.  They might be able to expand -- or at least remain steady during an adverse economic and philanthropic period -- as a result of the Serve America Act.  This would be good news for the youth of New Haven and for causes such as literacy, with tutoring receiving a boost.

The following four linked articles suggest the context for the balance of this post, appearing below them:

  April 12, 2009, By STEVE LOHR
With Finance Disgraced, Which Career Will Be King?

“Public service, government, the sciences and even teaching look to be winners, while fewer shiny, young minds are embarking on careers in finance and business consulting.”

 April 07, 2009, By SAM DILLON
Report Envisions Shortage of Teachers as Retirements Escalate  
“Over the next four years, more than a third of the nation's 3.2 million teachers could retire, depriving classrooms of experienced instructors.”

 March 24, 2009
Editorial:  Expanding National Service
“A measure to enlarge the opportunities for Americans to participate in productive national and community service is a sound investment in the nation's future.”

 March 19, 2009, By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
House Passes Expansion of Programs for Service  
“The House voted to approve the largest expansion of government-sponsored service programs since the Kennedy administration.”

. . . . .

Today's New York Times article featuring Marshall Ganz -- who co-taught a course I took in grad school -- is a reminder that Barack Obama's first public interest work was not as a community organizer in Chicago.  Even earlier – roughly a year after earning his bachelor’s degree from Columbia – he joined the staff of New York PIRG, as Janny Scott’s October 30, 2007 Times article  describes.  According to Scott, after about a year at a business research firm, Obama “was hired by the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes consumer, environmental and government reform. He became a full-time organizer at City College in Harlem, paid slightly less than $10,000 a year to mobilize student volunteers.”

Writes Janny Scott, “Nearly 20 years later . . . Gene Karpinski, then executive director of U.S. PIRG, a federation of state watchdog groups, met Mr. Obama in Boston. It was at the time of the 2004 Democratic convention, when Mr. Obama delivered the speech that made him a party luminary. Mr. Karpinski introduced himself. And, he recalled, Mr. Obama told him: ‘I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well.’”

. . . . .

Nearly 20 years after my own last PIRG experience, I feel similarly appreciative toward the organization and its work.  I will always be “a PIRG guy,” despite my anger in 2000 toward Ralph Nader, a widely admired inspiration within the PIRG movement who alienated many of us with his destructive presidential run. 

I canvassed door-to-door for ConnPIRG for five summers during high school and college, from 1986 through 1990.  Toxic waste and air pollution were the key issues we discussed then, often after introducing PIRG for its role in enacting Connecticut’s “lemon law” protecting purchasers of used cars.  We roamed eastern and central Connecticut from the Storrs office, venturing from the challenging turfs of then middle- and working-class rural towns (e.g, Ashford, Chaplin, Ellington, Willington, which have subsequently become somewhat more upscale bedroom communities) with which I was familiar as a former student in regional school district 11, to the more welcoming college-town surroundings of Mansfield; the Willimantic to Hartford corridor of Columbia, Coventry, Bolton, Hebron, and Marlborough; the sprawling suburbs of Glastonbury and South Windsor; the central towns of East Hampton and Portland; the affluence of Avon, Chester, and Essex; and the conservative skepticism of East Windsor (which then had KKK sympathizers) and East Lyme (which required each canvasser to obtain a photo ID “vendor’s permit”). 

The hours, which involved working all afternoon and evening and virtually not seeing one’s family or friends all summer except for weekends, were slightly crazy.  The pay was, past about a 5 dollar hourly wage assuming collection of a nightly contributions “quota” (then $75), commission-based and therefore irregular.  Approaching strangers at their doors and asking them for money, and to mobilize, could be tough.  Doors were slammed, insults hurled, snarling dogs an occasional hazard.  Still, I was hooked.  I relished the job and could not go back to the farm work that I had done an earlier summer, and which my brother continued to do readily.  Among my points of persuasion, in encouraging citizens to support ConnPIRG with their cash and their membership, was that it was a vehicle for engaging college students, on their campuses and at their state Capitol, in social change.  Door-to-door canvasser became part of my identity, as the summers of my later adolescence were substantially absorbed with this endeavor.  Though another summer job the next year -- with UConn Upward Bound -- was similarly rewarding and drew me toward working in education, the PIRG experiences will always endure, too.

Now, as a middle-aging husband and father, I am an unusually easy sell -- okay, a pushover -- for the ConnPIRG canvassers who make it to my door most summers.  The spinning off of Environment Connecticut in recent years brought some questions and led me to split my modest contributions.  (1000 Friends of Connecticut and Environment Connecticut as well as ConnPIRG are among the state groups that merit support.)  But this PIRG guy will always welcome the canvasser at the door over the telemarketer on the phone.

There is a PIRG alumni network in which I hope to become more involved, having so far been only occasionally in touch with a few contemporaries from two decades ago.  If any PIRGer should see this post, please say hello.  The eclectic fellow travelers of the PIRG circuit, many of us with our eccentricities, are among its virtues.

. . . . .

Years ago, these pieces included related themes:

  2000 October 30 Boston Globe "Don't Mistake a Low Youth Vote for Apathy"

  2000 May 31 Christian Science Monitor "Graduating to Public Service: Is It Affordable?"

  1997 June 7 NY Daily News "Charity Needs Pros"

6:46 pm edt 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Decriminalizing Marijuana, and Its Medicinal Use

My aunt, a former chemistry teacher and then a nurse, in the 1970s once baked marijuana brownies for my grandmother.  She was suffering from breast cancer that had become bone cancer, and it was hoped the pot might ease her chronic pain. 

A friend of mine with a severe spinal-cord injury, who endures tremendous digestive pain despite a quadriplegic condition that has cost him use of his arms and his legs, would surely appreciate the legalization of such remedies in Connecticut.  Unfortunately, Governor Jodi Rell vetoed 2007 legislation that would have made medicinal marijuana legal in this state.

New Haven’s state senators, Martin Looney and Toni Harp, have rightly called for Connecticut to move toward decriminalization of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  While a judiciary committee compromise led the threshold amount to be cut in half – to half an ounce – the legislation deserves support as a step toward treating low-level pot offenses as civil infractions drawing a fine rather than criminal record.  Precious police and judicial resources should be directed more toward preventing and punishing violent offenders and dealers of drugs.  Gauging the example of Massachusetts, Connecticut could save several million dollars a year from the enactment of this measure.  (It was estimated that with one ounce the threshold, $11 million might have been saved.)

Drunk driving and other abuses of alcohol present more serious public problems than low-level use of marijuana.  Pot should be legal for medicinal use and – over the governor's veto if necessary – in small amounts should be regarded as a civil rather than a criminal issue.  Cancer-stricken grandmothers and their families, and other sufferers of chronic pain including those in a quadriplegic condition, should hardly be the targets of law enforcers with far graver threats to confront. 

Senator James Webb of Virginia has wisely introduced federal legislation to examine comprehensively the system by which the United States incarcerates so many – including non-violent drug offenders – at such great cost and with such mixed results.   A March 2009 Pew report concluded increasingly high incarceration rates have failed to reduce recidivism much. More than three percent of American adults – more than 7 million individuals – are in prison, on parole or probation.

Additional articles, from the NYT:

   March 30, 2009, on the Webb bill
Editorial:  Reviewing Criminal Justice
 “A bill that would establish a national commission to review America's prison system should be “given high priority in Congress.”

  March 26, 2009
Editorial:  Relief for Patients
“A decision to no longer prosecute dispensers of medical marijuana should bring relief to the people who need the drug for health reasons and free up law enforcement.”

  March 24, 2009, by REBECCA CATHCART
Shift on Marijuana Policy Delays Sentencing
“A federal judge postponed the sentencing of a man convicted of running a medical marijuana dispensary and asked the Department of Justice to clarify its position on such cases.”
7:38 am edt 

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