Alternative for VLCT

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

DEI is a focus area for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) where I serve on the board of directors. The VLCT created an Equity Committee in November 2020. This committee recently adopted a charter which states that a core value of the committee is that: “Diversity, equity and inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of local government.” The charter instructs committee members to: “Use a DEI lens when making all decisions related to the work of the Equity Committee.”

The “DEI lens” is not the only way to look at the world. In fact, it may not be a particularly good way to look at the world. See Problems with DEI and Alternative to DEI. Yet the VLCT is advocating that DEI “should be embedded in all aspects of local government.” I think this is a mistake. In this post, I propose a different approach for the VLCT.

The VLCT should be a resource to municipalities who are dealing with DEI issues, but the VLCT should not promote DEI to the exclusion of other views. The VLCT should help its member municipalities understand and use Vermont’s superpower.

“Vermont’s superpower” is “the ability to practice local democracy” even in turbulent times. Vermont has nearly 250 years of experience in practicing local democracy through such turmoil as the Second Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. The DEI movement raises important issues that warrant broad discussion. The issues are emotional, and discussions can be heated. With the VLCT’s help, Vermont municipalities can work through these discussions and make needed changes.

Part of Vermont’s “ability to practice local democracy” comes from the tradition of town meeting. The VLCT is the expert resource for how to conduct town meeting. An important official at town meeting is the town moderator. The VLCT conducts annual training sessions for town moderators. The magic of local democracy is in that room, which includes VLCT staff, representatives from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, and veteran town moderators from across Vermont. There is also humor in that room, as newbie town moderators begin to understand what they got themselves into.

Town meetings can be emotional and heated. They can also be healing. We can especially appreciate the role of town meeting this year because in March 2021 most towns in Vermont gave up their traditional town meeting due to the pandemic. Susan Clark, the town moderator in Middlesex, wrote about what that meant for local democracy in the commentary that I linked above: Vermont’s superpower, revealed: The ability to practice local democracy.

One of the dangers of democracy is the “tyranny of the majority.” Town meeting is intentional about making room for minority views – something the DEI movement seeks. Meg Mott, the town moderator in Putney, explains how that works in this news article: Keep seeking dissent.

The key to making progress on contentious issues is discussion. Towns and cities that have moved away from traditional town meeting to deciding issues only at the ballot box may have forgotten the importance of discussion. The role of the VLCT should be to remind municipalities of the importance of discussion, and to provide resources to municipalities about how to conduct productive discussions. Voting should be the last thing to do, only after much discussion aimed at finding common ground.

Some municipalities may form committees to study DEI issues and make recommendations for change. The VLCT is the expert resource on how to form committees and hold effective and legal meetings.

In some communities, citizen workgroups may self-organize and “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (The quote is from the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.) There is a bright line between being part of government, such as a municipal committee, and not being part of government, such as a self-organized citizen workgroup. For example, municipal committees must follow Vermont’s Open Meeting Law while self-organized citizen workgroups need not. Again, the VLCT is the expert resource for municipalities about how this distinction works.

The VLCT is already the recognized expert resource on all the topics mentioned above. Is there a role for outside consultants? Yes. Consultants can help us understand the constantly changing language of DEI. As I noted in the second post in this series (What is DEI?), a decade ago the movement was about “diversity and inclusion.” Now it’s about “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Why this change in language? What is the intent of those words? Consultants can help answer those questions.

To sum up this post: I believe that the VLCT should not promote DEI to the exclusion of other views. A better alternative for the VLCT is to be an expert resource for municipalities on how to conduct productive discussions of contentious issues and how to form effective committees, bringing in outside consultants to help with the language of DEI as needed.

Optional extra reading:

Three recent items that have come to my attention about the constantly changing language of DEI:

  • New York Times 9/21/2021: Woke Words With John McWhorter, a Times Virtual Event (John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, discusses four words: master, slave, powwow, and Negro. This stimulating “evening of conversation and song” also features Jane Coaston and an opera!)
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Alternative to DEI

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

The previous post discussed Problems with DEI. Is there a better way? Yes! I believe we can find a better way for our country by recalling our founding principles.

The Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

This noble vision has been with us since 1776. We know that our country was imperfect at its founding because slavery existed in the southern states. Our country is still far from perfect, as evidenced by our current state of unrest. Nothing human will ever be perfect, but we can and should strive for continuous improvement. Indeed, there has been significant progress toward reaching the goal of equality.

It is useful to think of the development of our country in terms of “three foundings”:

  • The first founding was the American Revolution. This founding is encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787-88.
  • The second founding was the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The spirit of this founding is captured in the Gettysburg Address.
  • The third founding was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech “I Have a Dream” is the essence of this founding.

(For more discussion of the concept of these “three foundings” see Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) tells the story of the first founding of our country through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers:

The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: It continues it.

“What we share” are the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practical government created by the Constitution, the first of its kind in human history.

“The widely acclaimed musical” continues the spirit of “Hamilton’s revolution” because it demonstrates through its mostly non-white cast that:

American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.

The two quotes above are from the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, published in 2016 to tell the story of making the musical.

Each of the three foundings described above represents a move to a better society. How can we continue to move forward? How can we make further progress on realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream?

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

(Martin Luther King, Jr. had two daughters and two sons, so he is implicitly acknowledging that the original ideal of “all men are created equal” has been expanded to include both sexes. At the time of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the 19th Amendment had been in effect for more than 40 years. That was another step in the progress of our country.)

One step we could take to make further progress would be to remove all preferences based on group identity from the domains of government contracting, public education, and employment. The State of California did exactly that, with respect to state government, with Proposition 209 of 1996 and Proposition 16 of 2020. See the link for further information and discussion. The country would do well to follow California’s example in this regard.

There are many organizations that can help our country make further progress toward the goal of equality. One organization that I recommend for consideration is the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR): “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing civil rights and liberties for all Americans, and promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity.” In the previous post, I mentioned John McWhorter and Zaid Jilani. Both are on FAIR’s Board of Advisors.

To sum up this post: I believe that a better alternative to DEI is to continue striving to reach the ideals expressed in our founding principles. A good summary of those principles is the traditional motto of the United States – E pluribus unum – Latin for “Out of many, one.”

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Problems with DEI

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

One problem with DEI is that it categorizes people into groups. This is evident from the definition of diversity with its emphasis on race, ethnicity, gender, etc. (See What is DEI?) I believe that government should treat people as individuals as much as possible. In slavery, government categorized people into groups with one group being enslaved by another group. In the Jim Crow era, government categorized people into groups and enforced racial segregation. DEI repeats this fundamental error of emphasizing group identity.

The purpose of group identity in DEI is to categorize people as oppressed or oppressor. This is evident from the references to “systemic oppression” in the definition of equity and “power differences” in the definition of inclusion. (See What is DEI?)

Categorizing people as oppressed or oppressor is problematic because we all have in us a bit of the oppressor and a bit of the oppressed. Neither is desirable. Each of us should strive to minimize both aspects in our individual personas, as well as in society.

Categorizing people as oppressed or oppressor is especially problematic when it is based on immutable characteristics such as race and not on individual behavior. There is not enough room in the concept of DEI for personal agency.

Another problem with DEI is that it is about equality of outcomes. This is evident from the graphic about equality vs. equity from the National League of Cities. (See What is DEI?) “Equity” as used in the DEI movement means equality of outcomes.

“Antiracism” is a term that refers to similar themes as DEI. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, proposes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to enforce equality of outcomes (source).

I don’t believe in equality of outcomes. I believe in equality of opportunity and equality before the law, neither of which will result in equality of outcomes. Some people will be more successful than others. Some people will stay out of jail while others will not. Personal agency is important in life, and it is largely lacking from DEI.

Another problem with DEI is that it has effectively become a religion. I don’t mean this in the sense of a religious denomination, or that it is concerned with the afterlife, or that it proposes a deity or deities to worship (although the letters DEI remind one of the Latin root of deity). I mean this in the sense of a broad social movement that feels like a religious movement. A close analogy is the Second Great Awakening in U.S. history from roughly 1790 to 1840. Others have also made this point, as I discussed in an earlier post: Great Awakenings.

“Woke” is a term that refers to similar themes as DEI and antiracism. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, says that the DEI movement is not like a religion, it is a religion. Dr. McWhorter is a New York Times columnist. He is black. Last month he published Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Zaid Jilani reviewed this book in the New York Times on 10/26/2021: John McWhorter Argues That Antiracism Has Become a Religion of the Left.

An aspect of DEI that is especially problematic is that it leads to orthodoxy that does not tolerate dissent. DEI claims that it “fosters a diversity of thought, ideas, perspectives, and values” (see What is DEI?), but this is often not true. DEI leads to call-out culture and cancel culture. (The links are about two diverse black women.) As in a religion, heterodox thinkers and heretics are excommunicated. People lose their jobs. This aspect of DEI is particularly troubling if we allow DEI dogma to infuse government.

Finally, I question if DEI works. DEI may, in fact, be counterproductive to the goal of living together more cooperatively. Instead of bringing us together, DEI may be driving us apart.

See this podcast by Jane Coaston at the New York Times on 8/11/2021: Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm Than Good?

Employers everywhere are deploying D.E.I. programs to be less racist. But do they even work?

There is a transcript at the link.

This podcast is noteworthy for asking those questions. It is noteworthy because of who Jane Coaston is. I am an old, white, straight man who lives in rural America far from the centers of power. She is in many ways my opposite: a young, black, queer person who lives in urban America near the centers of power. She lives in Washington, D.C., and hosts a major podcast (The Argument) for the New York Times.

Jane Coaston and I do have a few things in common according to this article in the Washington Post on 4/12/2021: D.C.’s rising libertarian star, with her ‘healthy skepticism of state power,’ secures an influential podcast. We are both happily married. We both tend libertarian. We are both inclined to think about people, including ourselves, primarily as individuals rather than according to their group identities. And we both question if DEI works. In her podcast, Ms. Coaston concludes: maybe, maybe not. I conclude: not.

There are profound problems with DEI. Is there a better way? Yes! See the next post: Alternative to DEI.

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What is DEI?

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

What is DEI? The Equity Committee of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) uses the following definitions (source):

Diversity: The full range of human and/or organizational differences and similarities, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, (dis)ability, physical and mental attributes, religion, values systems, national origin, political beliefs, parental/family status, and cultures.

Equity: Equity is ensuring fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of communities most affected by systemic oppression.

Inclusion: Inclusive environments are places in which any individual or group is and feels welcomed, respected, supported, valued, and able to fully participate as their authentic selves. An inclusive and welcoming culture embraces differences, offers respect in words and actions for all people, fosters a diversity of thought, ideas, perspectives, and values, strives to create balance in the face of power differences.

I had experience with “diversity and inclusion” when I was working. Most of my career was with the Farm Credit System. The Farm Credit Administration (FCA) is the federal agency that regulates the Farm Credit System. FCA published a rule in 2012 that required all Farm Credit System institutions to incorporate diversity and inclusion into their annual operational and strategic business plans. The definitions in that rule (77 FR 25577) are not inconsistent with the above definitions.

The concept of “equity” as it is used in the DEI movement was new to me. The following graphic from the National League of Cities explains their definition of “equity” by contrasting it with their definition of “equality” (source: REAL 100 Webinar slide 28):

The text says:

Equality = Sameness. Equality provides the same thing for everyone. This only works when people start from the same place, history and set of circumstances.

Equity = Justice. Equity is about fairness, and providing people with the resources and opportunities they need, given their history and set of circumstances.

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Questioning DEI

The current movement for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) is big. In my world, it is a focus area for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) where I serve on the board of directors. This post begins a series of posts of my thoughts about DEI. Posts in this series have the DEI tag. As always, my posts on this blog are my own views. They are not the views of the VLCT or any other entity or person.

The VLCT created an Equity Committee in November 2020. This committee recently adopted a charter which states that a core value of the committee is that:

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of local government.

The charter instructs committee members to:

Use a DEI lens when making all decisions related to the work of the Equity Committee.

Information about the VLCT’s Equity Committee and DEI initiatives can be found on the VLCT’s website: Equity Resources.

I discuss my reservations about the statements quoted above and other aspects of the DEI movement in the next four posts:

Throughout this series of posts, I link to news items and opinion pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Subscriptions are probably required to access those links, and I apologize for that. There are also many links that do not require a subscription.

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What Killed Michael Brown?

Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, on August 9, 2014. He was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Michael Brown was black. Darren Wilson is white. The shooting led to widespread protests, some of which turned into riots. The incident prompted two federal investigations by the Obama administration and contributed to national discussions about policing. (Wikipedia article)

The killing of Michael Brown led to the protest slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Wilson said that he shot Brown in self-defense. Some witnesses said that Brown had his hands up and said “Don’t shoot” before Wilson shot him. Other witnesses contradicted this account and said that Brown charged Wilson. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson. The federal investigation concluded that Wilson’s claim of self-defense was supported by considerable credible evidence and refuted by no credible evidence. (source: the Wikipedia article linked above and the U.S. Department of Justice report)

The documentary film “What Killed Michael Brown?” analyzes this shooting, including what led up to it and the aftermath. The film’s tag line is “When Truth Becomes A Lie & When A Lie Becomes Truth,” referring to the false narrative of “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

What Killed Michael Brown?” was produced and directed by filmmaker Eli Steele, and written and narrated by his father Shelby Steele. They are both black. Dr. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The film was released in October 2020 – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, a little over four months after the death of George Floyd, and a month before the 2020 presidential election.

What killed Michael Brown? Was it racism? Shelby Steele spends the first half of the documentary making the case that it was NOT racism. In the remainder of the film, he makes the case that it was liberalism. The last 12 minutes or so bring it all together. Quote from 1:38:15:

The liberalism that came out of the 60s has proven to be a more insidious oppression than either slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Those oppressions confined your person. Liberalism wants your very soul. It wants you to be a grateful and mindless captive, but a captive nonetheless.

“The liberalism that came out of the 60s” refers to President Johnson’s Great Society and similar government programs, including the “war on poverty,” public housing programs, and affirmative action. Others might use a different word or phrase than liberalism, perhaps social justice movement. Whatever the label, the idea that Shelby Steele conveys is that government programs that were intended to help black people, in fact, had the opposite effect. Instead of raising up black people, they diminished black people – to the point where Michael Brown felt little self-worth.

In other words, Shelby Steele says: yes, it is “the system” that killed Michael Brown. But it is not the historical system of racism that existed in this country. It does not go back to 1776 or 1619. It manifests in government programs that began in the tumultuous 1960s. It is a modern system built in my lifetime primarily by well-meaning white people.

After you have watched the documentary, I recommend watching two episodes of “The Glenn Show” about the film. Glenn Loury is a professor of economics at Brown University. A frequent guest on his show is John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. Both men are black, but not of the same generation. Dr. Loury is 72 while Dr. McWhorter is 55.

  • What Killed Michael Brown? | Glenn Loury & John McWhorter – in this episode, the two men discuss the documentary by Eli and Shelby Steele which had just come out. Several topics are covered during the show; the discussion about “What Killed Michael Brown?” is from 28:39 to 46:00.

“What Killed Michael Brown?” and “The Glenn Show” present views on race and racism that are not talked about much in today’s mainstream media. Recommended.

You can stream “What Killed Michael Brown?” on Amazon Video here and on Vimeo here. DVD and Blu-ray discs can be purchased on the film’s website here. The image above, showing 28-year-old Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown, is from the DVD case. Used with permission.

See the trailer for “What Killed Michael Brown?

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Proposition 16

This post is about California’s Proposition 16 of 2020.

(Background information about California’s ballot proposition process may be found here.)

Proposition 16 of 2020 (which failed) sought to undo Proposition 209 of 1996 (which passed), so let’s first examine that earlier proposition.

Proposition 209 of 1996 added Section 31 to Article I of the California state constitution, which reads in relevant part:

The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

Proposition 209 passed by a margin of 55% in favor to 45% opposed. Votes were cast by 10 million citizens out of 16 million registered voters (66% turnout). (source)

Proposition 16 of 2020 proposed to repeal Section 31 of Article I. Proposition 16 failed by a margin of 57% opposed to 43% in favor. Votes were cast by 18 million citizens out of 22 million registered voters (81% turnout). (source)

There are two ways that propositions can be placed on the ballot in California: by the voters (initiative) or by the legislature (referendum). Proposition 209 of 1996 was a voter initiative. Proposition 16 of 2020 was a referendum put before the voters by the legislature.

Proposition 16 was the result of Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA-5) of 2020:

A resolution to propose to the people of the State of California an amendment to the Constitution of the State, by repealing Section 31 of Article I thereof, relating to government preferences.

ACA-5 was passed by the California legislature one year ago this month by large majorities: 60 to 14 in the 80-member Assembly and 30 to 10 in the 40-member Senate. (source)

In other words, in 2020 the California legislature sought to undo what California voters had initiated and passed in 1996; and the voters soundly rejected this attempt.

ACA-5 included a statement of legislative findings consisting of 19 “WHEREAS” paragraphs explaining why the legislature felt that Section 31 of Article I should be repealed. See ACA-5 here. In brief, the legislature felt that past discrimination and disparate outcomes justified government preferences for women and minorities. The voters did not agree that government preferences are good for society.

Three additional factors warrant noting.

First, Proposition 16 was supported by almost the entire California establishment – not just the legislature, but also:

Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein; former Senator Barbara Boxer; at least 30 Democratic members of the U.S. House, including Nancy Pelosi; and Governor Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, State Controller Betty Yee, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and hundreds of other local officials. It was also supported by many of the state’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Diego Union-Tribune, La Opinión, the East Bay Times, The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, and The Modesto Bee. (source)

California’s political and media establishments are significantly out of step with the people on this issue.

Second, supporters of Proposition 16 outspent opponents by $27 million to $1.7 million. (source) The monied establishment is also out of step with the people on this issue.

Third, California voters are notably not right-wing. In the same election in which Proposition 16 was defeated, California voters supported Joe Biden for president by 63% vs. 34% for Donald Trump. (source) That was similar to Vermont: 66% for Biden vs. 31% for Trump. (source) Furthermore, California voters today are more left-leaning and more diverse than in 1996. (source)

For additional perspective, see Conor Friedersdorf’s essay in The Atlantic dated November 10, 2020: Why California Rejected Racial Preferences, Again. Mr. Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He grew up in and lives in California. He writes insightfully about Proposition 16, and he explains why he voted against it.

Proposition 16 was defeated by a greater margin than Proposition 209 was passed a generation earlier, and with a larger voter turnout. With Proposition 209, California voters rejected racial and gender preferences. With Proposition 16, they said: And we meant it.

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Great Awakenings

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld wrote the following in the Wall Street Journal on April 15, 2021:

American religious history produced four Great Awakenings—and now American business is sparking a fifth spiritual awakening.

Source: CEOs Lead America’s New Great Awakening

Professor Sonnenfeld is Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies and the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management. He is considered an authority on corporate governance.

What is he talking about?

A Great Awakening is a period of widespread religious revival. The Wikipedia article on Great Awakening lists the following:

  • First (c. 1730–1755)
  • Second (c. 1790–1840)
  • Third (c. 1855–1930)
  • Fourth (c. 1960–1980)

The First Great Awakening occurred before the American Revolution and affected both Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. It stressed individual piety and salvation. Preachers sought to convert people to various sects of Protestant Christianity without regard to class, race, or gender.

The Second Great Awakening occurred between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It continued the themes of the First Great Awakening and expanded westward from the original Thirteen Colonies. It was often characterized by camp meetings of thousands of people lasting several days. From the Wikipedia link above:

Closely related to the Second Great Awakening were other reform movements such as temperance, abolition, and women’s rights.

Historians mostly agree on the First and Second Great Awakenings, but not so much on the Third and Fourth so I am going to ignore them.

Vermonters played significant roles in the Second Great Awakening as historian Mark Bushnell has noted: In the 1800s, Vermont produced a profusion of prophets (VTDigger, 8/30/2020). John Humphrey Noyes was one of those prophets. He founded the Perfectionists, a sect that was active in several Vermont towns including my town of Cambridge.

Our town offices are located in the Cambridge Town Hall which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Cambridge Meetinghouse. (Photos at the link.) From the nomination form for the listing:

The Cambridge Meetinghouse was erected in 1826 as a Union Church, to be shared by Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists. This unusually early example of denominational interaction evolved in just a few years into a radical brand of anti-sectarianism which kept the church, and at times the whole town, in a state of “wild excitement,” in which “the regular labors and duties of life were broken up, and in some cases dispensed with altogether. Business was suspended.” Known in the early years as Truarism, this religious ferment came to a head in the 1840’s when members of the church calling themselves Perfectionists established a free love commune in Cambridge. By 1852, they had moved away, mostly to the famous silver-making commune at Oneida, New York, and the church’s revolutionary period ended.

The Second Great Awakening brought “wild excitement” even to my town!

The First and Second Great Awakenings occurred in the context of the Romantic movement which was a reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was about reason. The Romantic movement was about emotion. (More discussion of this theme is in the Wikipedia article on Romanticism.)

We need both reason and emotion in our world and in our lives, but we should think carefully about where each belongs. In an earlier post, I wrote about classifying public life into three sectors:

  • Government
  • For-profit
  • Not-for-profit

Government based on the rule of law depends on reason. Religion is part of the not-for-profit sector and can involve emotion as noted above. We have a strong tradition in our country of separation of church and state.

What about the for-profit sector? Let’s return to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and his business CEOs.

I agree with Professor Sonnenfeld that the social justice movement in our world today can be characterized as a Great Awakening. Matthew Yglesias called it The Great Awokening (Vox, 4/1/2019). In my town there is a prominent sign saying “Believe” (see photo above). That is consistent with a religious movement.

I do not agree that CEOs are leaders in this movement. The movement for social justice began years ago in the not-for-profit sector, and gained momentum during the pandemic lockdown following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day in 2020. The CEOs that Professor Sonnenfeld writes about are now joining this movement. They are followers.

Whether CEOs are leaders or followers, is it a good thing for them to be promoters of the current movement for social justice? Professor Sonnenfeld thinks so. I am not so sure because it seems to me that the Enlightenment is working. Further discussion on that topic is for another day. My point in this post is to agree with Professor Sonnenfeld that we are in the midst of a Great Awakening.

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Is Town Meeting Obsolete?

Is Town Meeting Obsolete? That was the question of an online debate sponsored by the Moore Free Library of Newfane, Vermont, on March 16, 2021, two weeks after Town Meeting Day.

Arguing for the question were:

Arguing against the question were:

The debate was moderated by Meg Mott, Ph.D. (pictured): Constitution Wrangler, Professor Emerita of Politics at Emerson College, and Putney town moderator.

Richard Watts discussed the seminal research about town meeting conducted by Frank Bryan of UVM, whose students attended and documented 1,500 town meetings over 30 years. Dr. Bryan summarized that research in his 2003 book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. After a hiatus, Dr. Bryan’s research is being continued by Dr. Watts. Dr. Watts cited the declining attendance at town meeting documented by this research.

Susan Clark referred to All Those In Favor, co-authored with Frank Bryan, as the “Reader’s Digest version” of Real Democracy. Susan’s other book is also relevant to this discussion: Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, co-authored with Woden Teachout. In her debate comments, Susan mentioned the research about town meeting by Jane Mansbridge of Harvard University, and the research about human behavior by Jonathan Haidt of New York University.

Annamarie Pluhar discussed the research about social capital by Robert Putnam of Harvard University. Her view: “As long as we have towns, we need town meeting.”

Howard Burrows talked about how libraries are changing. He believes that libraries can assume much of the role of town meeting.

There was good audience participation in the debate, including by Jerry Cole, the Cambridge town moderator. At the end of the debate, Meg Mott asked the audience to vote on the question. It was unanimous:

The negative has it, and the affirmative was heard.

Click here for the announcement about the debate.

Click here to watch the debate: Is Town Meeting Obsolete?

The Brattleboro Reformer wrote about the debate here. This event followed the debate guidelines of Braver Angels and was made possible by funding from the Vermont Humanities Council. Librarian Erica Walch of the Moore Free Library coordinated the technology for this event.

Questions about town meeting are not new. I first encountered these issues soon after I started this blog in 2017. See Town Meeting Thoughts. The discussion continues!

Town meeting this year in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, is discussed in the preceding post: Town Meeting 2021. Like most towns in Vermont this year, we abandoned our traditional in-person meeting because of the pandemic lockdown. All issues this year were decided by Australian ballot. I hope that our 2022 town meeting returns to the traditional in-person meeting. I do believe that town meeting helps build social capital and citizenship skills, both of which are needed in our society today more than ever.

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Town Meeting 2021

There was no traditional town meeting in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, this year. Like the majority of Vermont towns, we voted all items by Australian ballot because of the pandemic lockdown.

In-person voting took place on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, in the gymnasium of the Cambridge Elementary School. The photo is from the foyer, looking out through the window toward Mount Mansfield. It was a cold day, 0°F in the morning.

We held a public informational hearing on February 25 as required by law (must be within the 10 days prior to Town Meeting Day). Click here for a summary of that hearing.

A total of 425 people voted, with 209 voting early/absentee. All articles passed. There were three contested elections:

  • Selectboard for 2 years: Larry Wyckoff 252, Teelah Hall 154. Larry was the incumbent.
  • Auditor for 1 year: Jill Bryce 205, Cindy Vaughn 151. This was an open seat.
  • Library Trustee for 5 years: Carol Plante 207, Justin Marsh 196. Carol was the incumbent.

Full results on the town website here.

An unexpected event occurred in Cambridge on the day after town meeting, when Dana Sweet retired from the selectboard after 32 years of distinguished service. Dana was mentioned in this post last month: Rumble Strip: Town Meeting.

The selectboard has called a special town meeting for May 11 to elect a successor. In the meantime, the selectboard appointed Jane Porter as interim selectboard member. Jane served the town for 41 years as town clerk/treasurer, retiring in 2016.

Although the population is rapidly being vaccinated against COVID-19, the pandemic lockdown is not yet over, and the election on May 11 will be by Australian ballot, same as the annual town meeting that was held on March 2.

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