Tuesday, November 25, 2014

“They Treat Us Like Children”

When I reluctantly agreed to serve as President of the Western Park Residents’ Council, I sensed the Council would have to be assertive to develop a real voice with management. The deeply ingrained, widespread paternalistic assumptions of superiority that I discussed in “Comments on ‘It’s All for Your Own Good’ are manifest here. I often heard residents complain, “They treat us like children,” or variations on that theme.

But I never guessed that our managers would refuse to engage in any dialog with the Council. I was shell-shocked when at our monthly Council meeting with more than forty residents in attendance, three managers walked out after merely giving a pro forma report and refusing to respond to questions, including questions that had been submitted to them in writing.

The whole experience has been painful and mystifying, leading to many sleepless nights, countless hours trying to figure out what to do, and neglecting other priorities.

Now I feel I’ve finally settled on how to proceed. Rather than resorting to the old notion of leadership and trying to rally “followers” to do what I want, which was my first impulse, I will try to facilitate the Council finding its mind on the matter. I need to practice what I preach and trust the “wisdom of crowds.”

Some residents accept our current situation. Perhaps most do, more or less. We have a beautiful, newly rehabbed building, with affordable rents and a good location. The nonprofit owner, Northern California Presbyterian Homes and Services, has good intentions. Our managers are kind, competent, and hard-working. Residents can offer input into management decisions as individuals. If an objective study were done of all of the complaints and suggestions made by residents, it may well be that management has generally responded in a reasonable manner.

So why rock the boat? Why ask for collective input from the Council as a whole? Why not just accept that management will come to Council meetings and engage in dialog if and when they choose to do so? Why create more tension by trying to persuade management to promise to briefly engage in dialog when requested? Why alienate the building managers by going over their head to their supervisors and/or the Board? Why should residents risk receiving a less favorable response to their individual requests, or maybe suffer retribution, because they supported efforts to restructure the Management-Council relationship? Why not be submissive and accept that we are dependent on management? Why not accept that we have a good thing going? Why risk ruining it?

Given those considerations, yesterday I circulated to the 200 residents who live here (except for one who has requested not to be informed about Council activities) a proposal that the Executive Committee place on the agenda of the December 9 Council meeting the following item:

Do you believe WPA management, when invited, should engage in dialog with the Council on issues identified by the Council?
    1. No. Not at all important.
    2. Yes. It would be nice but is not very important.
    3. Yes. It is a very important goal that we should aim to achieve.

It will be interesting to see how folks respond.

Reflecting on all this, it struck me that this struggle hit a nerve with me because it is part of a lifelong pattern: the refusal on the part of people with power over me to dialog, starting with early childhood experiences with my mother and high school teachers who punished me because I was a “freethinker.” No wonder Martin Buber’s I and Thou blew me away with its affirmation of mutual encounter. And no wonder that for fifty years I’ve endorsed the critique of disabling liberal paternalism.

After the Council had been dormant for more than a year, some residents called a meeting to revive it. I went to that meeting and presented some proposals for how to conduct the election in a more democratic manner than had been the case before. Those proposals were accepted and implemented. Old-timers predicted about ten residents would come to our membership meetings, but more than forty have participated each time.

When no one else would serve as President, I agreed to do so. More than 60 percent of the residents cast their ballot in support of the slate of candidates. Great enthusiasm filled the air. Many residents expressed to me passionate appreciation for my efforts. I became hopeful that a great, warm sense of community would emerge here, leading to this place being a great place for me to spend the rest of my life. Since I believe that residents having a meaningful, collective voice in decisions that shape their environment helps foster that sense of community, I’ve worked hard to establish structures to help make the Council democratic, and have sought a commitment from management to engage in dialog with the Council. We were on the verge of a productive partnership. I felt it was just around the corner.

Then the staff threw cold water on all this good spirit by walking out of our meeting. Their action threatens to undercut the Council and diminish participation. If they had simply engaged in a brief dialog with us, we could have been off and running with a marvelous collaboration. Why they walked out is a mystery to me. I can’t read their minds. But it hurts, and it leaves the future uncertain. Only time will tell if we bounce back.

In the meantime, I hope to return to posting to my blogs, posting My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography chapter by chapter, working on “Changing the System: A Proposal for a National Conference (10/17/14 Draft) ,” and perhaps writing a memoir that would focus more narrowly on my efforts to nurture community and fundamental social change.