Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Provenances of Beauty

How do we see and understand the beauty hidden all around us--especially when both our definitions of beauty and the world itself are constantly shifting? The Foundry Theater's new performance piece, "Provenance of Beauty," takes audience members on a bus tour of the South Bronx to explore this question. During the 90-minute "tour," narrated by three voices (two recorded, one live), participants are treated to a personal, political, and often hidden history of that most downtrodden of New York City's five boroughs, the Bronx.

Did you know the Bronx was NOT named for a Dutch farmer, but rather for a Swede? Did you know that in Hunt's Point a prison barge; a water treatment plant; and a fertilizer manufacturer hold sway, shoulder to shoulder, over most of the waterfront? That in the late 1970s, the South Bronx burned at a rate of more than 10 city blocks per day for more than four years? That the "eminent" master planner Robert Moses constructed tens of thousands of low-income housing units in tall towers in the Bronx--consolidating and isolating those in poverty in ways that would forever mark this neighborhood; while simultaneously displacing more than 1500 families when building the Cross Bronx Expressway?

What the "Provenance of Beauty" shows most critically is the constant change that all of our communities undergo, and the tidal and often seemingly uncontrollable powers behind such changes. When a blighted waterfront is turned into park, are there losers as well as winners? When an abandoned piano factory is turned into high priced condos, how is a neighborhood and its population morphed? How does our particular aesthetic of what is "beautiful" or something we are able to see effect our community development and planning decisions? How do our aesthetics affect those living in poverty? And ultimately, what are the full ramifications from the process we know today as "gentification:" happening not only in the South Bronx but in many of our small, traditional, and rural communities as well? Who ultimately decides what is "beautiful"? Who wins, who loses?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Consolidated Education

This Columbus Day Weekend, I drove from my current home in Stonington (ME) to Stonington (CT) for my 30th high school reunion. I hadn’t attended previous reunions, and catching up with my peers caused me to reflect on my 40-year old education in a consolidated public school district—an experience that may be relevant to many Maine residents as we debate how to cast our ballots on the consolidation issue in the November 3 “people’s veto” referendum.

There are obvious and maybe not so obvious similarities, as well as differences, between the two towns—Stonington, CT is a lobster fishing town with a village population of only 1,032. Like Stonington, ME on Deer Isle, there are several unique and beautiful surrounding villages with populations loyal to the shoreline geography and quality of life: a large proportion of my classmates returned there to live after college. Yet my long ago education included subjects and opportunities our island students can still only dream about, in large part because Stonington, CT was already a consolidated town and school district.

Stonington, CT’s school and municipal districts include the villages of Old Mystic, Mystic, the Borough of Stonington, and Pawcatuck, on the Rhode Island state border. These villages consolidated services and school administrations long before my memory, yet each maintains, to this day, a completely unique character: Mystic is the location of the Mystic Seaport and its preserved legacies of whaling and boat-building; Stonington Borough home to the predominantly Portuguese-American fishing fleet; Pawcatuck the poorest of the three, built on textile and other light manufacturing.

Through sixth grade I attended a “seven room schoolhouse”—one classroom for each grade—in Old Mystic. There were 15 students in my class, and the teacher-student ratio in the district is about the same today. There were multiple neighborhood K-6 elementary schools in each of the villages. These neighborhood schools sent us on to one of two middle schools, grades 7-9, one in Pawcatuck at the eastern end of the district, and one in Mystic at the western end—arch rivals in all things, of course. From there we brought our rivalries under the same roof, at Stonington High School: a 45-minute bus ride, 20 minutes by car, from my house.

This consolidation had many happy results for my own education: the district was able to pay more competitive salaries than any of the individual villages could have, and thus was able to attract and retain talented teachers. I am in Maine today because several of my very best teachers were Mainers: teachers who had relocated from their beloved home state because they could make a better living, and work in stronger school districts, while maintaining the quality of life they had in Maine. They encouraged me to attend Bowdoin College, which inspired my own deep love for, and subsequent relocation to, the Maine coast. The consolidated district was also able to support an excellent and diverse music program; great science labs; foreign language classes, including Latin; a full range of A/P courses, and, in addition to sports, co-curricular activities such as a school newspaper, which encouraged our civic engagement as well as educating our bodies and spirits.

As a volunteer in our local schools, I see that our students don’t have many of the same opportunities I had 40 years ago. It makes me want to cry: with sadness at their missed learning opportunities; and outrage at the adult decisions that cause them. So what if I had to travel 20 miles to high school? Mystic and Pawcatuck lost none of their uniqueness by not having their own high schools; and students there received a top-rate education that better prepared us to succeed in college and in life by providing more quality opportunities than Stonington, Maine’s students have access to today. The larger tax base created by consolidation makes it possible for Stonington, CT to spend almost $1,000 more per student than we spend in Stonington, ME. With Maine’s much lower property values, we don’t necessarily want to increase spending per pupil: instead, consolidation will enable us to provide increased educational opportunities by sharing and reallocating existing resources.

Maine only recently passed legislation requiring the consolidation of school districts; yet Question 3 on the November 3 ballot asks us if we want to repeal this law. While the law isn’t perfect (what law is?), its concept is right on, designed to reduce our rural state’s top-heavy school management (does paying a school superintendent a six-figure salary to oversee a district which includes less than 700 students, as we do in Deer Isle-Stonington, Sedgwick, and Brooklin, make sense to anyone?) and to shift those resources to improving the quality of education for our students. Those districts which have focused efforts on using this legislation to share resources and improve educational quality are successfully creating additional opportunities for their students. It’s past time to give our Stonington, ME students the same opportunities I had in Stonington, CT 40 years ago. Vote “NO” on Question 3.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Navigating the cross-currents of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal rights for all

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed a Catholic, and to this day, despite a wide range of experience with other world faiths, including a deep engagement with Buddhism, the Catholic liturgy and mass is the spiritual practice I consider my own.

I’ve had to make peace with contradictions between the actions of the Church hierarchy and my faith, my spiritual, and my political beliefs for most of my life, from the Church’s historical atrocities to its modern strictures against ordaining women. The majority of my friends and family long ago gave up this moral wrestling. And while I have deep respect for individuals’ personal moral choices, I have no tolerance for religious organizations such as the Catholic Church using their pulpits and funds to impose such choices on others in our secular democracy—particularly when the results seek to restrict and/or discriminate against the human rights of others.

I have been “married” to my partner, Judith Jerome, for more than 10 years—in the eyes of our loving god, our families, friends, colleagues, and communities. Under Maine state law, we are registered as domestic partners. Yet because the concept and term “marriage” is so intricately woven into the state and federal legal structures which confer rights and benefits upon couples, the creation of domestic partner and civil union laws are not enough to ensure our equal rights with heterosexual couples: the law must be changed to allow us to marry.

Legislation passed last spring by our elected Maine legislature, and signed by our governor, makes this change, lifting years of discrimination against gay people. At the same time, the legislation is very precise, as it should be, in not forcing the Catholic Church or any other religious denomination to conduct such marriages if they do not wish to.

Yet this Sunday, at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea where I am warmly accepted as a member by my fellow congregants, I had to prematurely leave the service when the priest began urging the assembled to attend a rally in Augusta next weekend to “defend” marriage against this pending legislation. Once home, I learned from the news that the Maine diocese is holding a second collection in masses statewide next Sunday to help fund the political effort to veto this legislation. Lobbying from the pulpit around a specific piece of legislation at best breaks the guidelines of the church’s federal, tax-exempt status; and at worst crosses the important and fragile line between spiritual ministry and political organizing. For many of us, the intersection of our faith; freedom of speech; and engaged citizenship can be much like a confluence of rivers, ever moving, and we count on our spiritual leaders’ sensitivity to this. As with previous issues, the political fight over the definition of “marriage” makes obvious moral contradictions between the spiritual tenets of Christianity and the worldly actions of many of its churches.

As a Catholic—who was brought up to believe in and to act upon “love thy neighbor as thyself” as the primary moral rule—I find these actions by the Maine church hierarchy, in opposition to my basic human right to be treated equally in love, to be heartbreaking. Participating in my Catholic heritage is always challenging, and such actions make it impossible for me to be at home in my own church.

As a citizen, I am outraged by the muscle the Maine diocese has opted to exercise in the political realm. To my fellow Catholics whom I love, and who I know love me: let the Church know this is not right. Don’t give to that second collection next weekend, and let your priests know you are affronted by their politicking from the pulpit. As Jesus himself taught us, sometimes being the best christian means standing up to church leadership. As history has repeatedly shown, they, like us, are only human, and just as fallible.

And for the rest of us: let’s affirm that love and respect are our guiding principles, and be sure to keep our country moving toward equal rights for all by getting to the polls in November and voting NO on 1, which seeks to overturn the new Maine law allowing same-sex couples to marry. For more information on how you can support this effort, go to www.protectmaineequality.org.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Maine is Setting New Graduation Requirements: and the Arts MUST be fully part of them

Here we go again: our state legislature is hard at work trying to "dumb down" our state high school graduation requirements.

There are 8 learning standards defined in the Maine Learning Results, yet a new piece of legislation, LD 1325, An Act Regarding Curriculum Requirements, calls for students to "fully meet" standards in some of these areas and only to "partially meet" them in other areas--including the Visual and Performing Arts.

This kind of requirement officially devalues the arts in state law--and ignores broad-based research which proves that students perform better across the board when they learn in and through the arts.

It's important for our students'--and, by extension, our state's economic and cultural--futures that we let our legislators know our students need to FULLY MEET standards in all 8 learning areas: including the Visual and Performing Arts. All Maine students must have equal access to rigorous instruction by highly qualified teachers and their learning must be appropriately assessed. Students must be required to fully meet those essential standards in all 8 areas! For the Visual and Performing Arts, this means students would be required to receive instruction in 2 of the 4 visual and performing arts disciplines--not too much to ask for a well-rounded education, is it? The arts education community is willing and ready to work with the Dept of Education and local districts to find effective ways to make this work within the realities of the school day schedule.

So if you can, gather in Augusta at the Cross State Office Building Room 201 by 1PM THIS MONDAY, MAY 11.

If you are unable to attend the hearing: you can contact members of the
Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs
Senator Justin L. Alfond (D-Cumberland), Chair

Senator Elizabeth M. Schneider (D-Penobscot)

Senator Carol Weston (R-Waldo)

Representative Patricia B. Sutherland (D-Chapman), Chair

Representative Edward D. Finch (D-Fairfield)

Representative Alan M. Casavant (D-Biddeford)

Representative Richard V. Wagner (D-Lewiston)

Representative Stephen D. Lovejoy (D-Portland)

Representative Mary Pennell Nelson (D-Falmouth)

Representative Helen Rankin (D-Hiram)

Representative David E. Richardson (R-Carmel)*

Representative Howard E. McFadden (R-Dennysville)

Representative Peter B. Johnson (R-Greenville)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


How could the events detailed in this film have occured 30 years ago?

That's what I was thinking by the end of the biopic "Milk," which we screened this weekend, one of the most moving and inspiring movies I have seen in a long time. But then, of course, this was my life: Harvey Milk was first elected as the nation's first "out" gay official (after several failed attempts)in 1977, the year I came out at age 16. The protests he lead against Anita Bryant's national attempts to deny gay people our civil rights; and against the infamous Prop 6, or Briggs Amendment, in California which threatened to have all gay school teachers fired (!)-- these were the initial events of my own activism. This was a time when gay culture was very much a bar culture; gay life was very much about sex; this was very much pre-AIDS. Gay pride marches were not solely celebrations of our unique lives, but rather angry protests against our oppression.

It's a different world now, although having come of age in that one I sometimes have difficulty believing how different it is. With gay people on TV and in movies; on the covers of national magazines; and also increasingly part of our public political life--such as Christine Quinn, a lesbian who is the chair of the New York City Council--our fight has moved toward achieving the right to marry. Yet as we suffer the responses to that fight, we see how much homophobia is still alive in parts of our culture. Where are the out gay federal legislators? Judges? Mayors? Governors? We're not there yet, Harvey: but we sure have come a long way. Thanks to you for your inspiring, fearless leadership.

And for those of you who have not yet seen "Milk," including Sean Penn's amazing, Academy Award-winning performance--get thee to your local theater.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ironies and Tragedies

It’s ironic at best--and tragic for our students at worst--that those fighting school consolidation under the banner of “local control” are looking to the state “for a better deal”(or a legislative repeal) to provide our students with access to better education.

School consolidation is not going away. Coordinating and sharing teaching resources, and spreading administrative costs across larger districts, are proven, effective methods for sustaining small rural schools and improving the level of education we are able to provide for our students. 80% of Maine’s school population is now consolidated.

The close vote on the island, despite months of one-sided, negative reports riddled with unsupported facts, shows there is no mandate here for fighting consolidation. Instead, we could assert some real local control—the kind that provides a better education for our students—by creating a positive, pro-active plan which leverages the benefits of regionalization and is worthy of support.

This effort might start with creating efficiencies in our existing school union: synchronizing schedules to enable the sharing of teaching resources, professional, and curricula development; consolidating contracts to eliminate the costs of multiple negotiations; consolidating purchasing to decrease expenses; collaborating to seek independent grant funding to support important educational initiatives; and creating school cultures which attract peninsula students to take advantage of Deer Isle-Stonington’s particular strengths (marine trades, the arts). These kinds of cooperative initiatives, savings, and educational improvements are necessary and should not require legislative mandate.

State and local funds are limited: funding will be awarded to those with the best, most effective performance, management, and governance; and withdrawn from those who don’t keep up. In turn, we will be asked to cut educational resources our students need; when instead we could embrace administrative change to ensure our kids don’t get left behind other parts of Maine or the country. The sooner we really shift our focus locally—recognizing it’s the children who matter, and not the school committee or where the superintendent is—and implement a good plan for administrative change, the more fiscally and educationally viable our schools will be for our students’, and our community’s, futures.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Yes, We Can: Locally as Well as Nationally


While our country is standing at the threshold of great change this week, those of us born and raised along the New England coast have never been very comfortable with it. We’re stubborn Yankees, descendents, as the journalist Colin Woodward noted in his fine history, The Lobster Coast, of fierce Anglo and French stock. Not only do we not like change: the desire to actively FIGHT it seems embedded deep in our genes.

While fiercely sustaining our unique island culture and traditions is critical, resistance to change can also hurt us and limit our future prospects, most especially when it comes to educating our children.

As world change happens ever more quickly—including in our fishing industries—spurred on by technologies that make once complicated functions possible in mere seconds, the requirements for and demands made on each new generation of students change exponentially. Meeting these needs requires vision and the ability to take risks. Yet instead of leading necessary changes to our schools so our students can compete equally, and succeed, we’re being asked by local school leadership to resist such change.

The biggest change at stake, in a vote on January 27, is school consolidation: whether or not to bring together our small area schools under a larger umbrella, to ensure their survival and ability to provide the resources our students need for a 21st century education.

The benefits of a consolidated rural school district are uncontestable and are currently being realized throughout the small coastal towns in Regional School Unit (RSU) #1 around Bath where, in the first year of consolidation, they have saved over $1.2 million AND added quality to their school program (in the form of additional AP classes at their high school, foreign language at elementary level, etc.—the very things our current structure is lacking). Consolidated rural school districts allow small schools like ours to align schedules; professional development; teaching resources and specialists; curricula; and purchasing and other contract negotiations to keep our small schools alive and thriving. While there are short-term costs to making such changes, the long term savings and benefits are much more important.

Perhaps the most misunderstood component of consolidation is its focus. This is not about closing schools: in fact, the island will be able to strengthen our position by becoming part of the larger district. The focus of consolidation is administration, not buildings. By mandating larger administrative districts, consolidation shifts the focus of control, and costs, away from superintendents and unwieldy numbers of school governing boards, meetings, and disparate contracts, correctly recognizing that true “local control” resides in strong principals in the buildings themselves, as well as active parent-teacher organizations. Consolidation is not about losing our local schools, or control; it is about preserving and improving them.

Students around the country and, increasingly, around Maine, from Bath to Ellsworth and beyond, benefit from consolidated educational structures. Our own students are benefitting immeasurably from the consolidation of the Deer Isle and Stonington elementary schools, another bitterly fought change more than 15 years in the making. Let’s hope it doesn’t take us 15 more years, plus state penalties and further mandates, to take this next necessary step to improve local education.

It’s just plain sad that our local educational leadership has chosen to discuss and plan only for the short term costs of consolidation, rather than the more important educational improvements and long term financial savings. Not surprisingly, those mounting the strongest opposition are those whose roles will be most directly changed in a regional school district: the superintendent and school committee members.

The state law mandating consolidation—similar to the state law mandating the creation of the Stonington Sanitary District in the 1980s, also opposed by local voters—is not perfect. The consolidation plan brought to us by our existing school committees, for an Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS), is so badly put together, taking advantage of few of the benefits offered by RSU’s, it only makes clear they want consolidation to fail.

That leaves making this necessary change up to us, the voters. Even though the current proposals are imperfect, we must vote YES—for the sake of our students and the future of our communities—to keep this critical process moving forward. The existing structure is broken and will not survive the economic and educational demands of the 21st century. We can’t afford to drag our feet on this issue. We owe it to our children.

On January 27, vote for a new and improved future for our students and our communities. Vote YES for school consolidation.

Written from my perspective as an active volunteer, mentor, and teacher in the Deer Isle-Stonington schools, who helped to draft and pass the schools’ Strategic Plan.