Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Note from Mom

Dear Michigan Senate:
I've had enough.

As the parent of a teenager, you might understand that I say that a lot. The frustrations of dealing with a pre-adult (her term, not mine) can be overwhelming. There is constant bickering, attempts at back-talk (NOT ALLOWED), ceaseless bargaining for more, MORE, MORE when it's something she wants, and the most amazing cases of hysterical amnesia that conveniently pop up when chores, tasks and general help-out-edness falls by the wayside. But I understand that living in this kind of an environment is part of the job when it comes to parenting. And despite the fact that I sure do get tired of saying I've had enough right before I lower the boom, I know that in order to raise a polite, dependable, trustworthy child, it's important to be relentless as a parent and not shirk my responsibilities just because it might be easier to do so.

This is why, Michigan Senate, I'm writing you today.
I've had enough

If you're going to act like a child, you're going to be treated like a child. So now it's time to get a few things straight:

1. Legislating is serious, important business. What's more important? Running around enjoying perks, or getting in the trenches and solving the problems you were hired to solved? Let me answer that for you: SOLVING PROBLEMS. We have some serious problems in this state, and I don't care if you had a Fall Break trip planned to Outer Slobovia since 1980 with all your friends. Your job is to solve problems, and you cannot do that if you are in Outer Slobovia taking in the sights. You have to be here, in the State Capitol, IN YOUR SEAT, talking, compromising, and casting votes. I know you're disappointed, but life is full of disappointments. It's a hard lesson, but learn it now. YOU HAVE RESPONSIBILITIES. START LIVING UP TO THEM.

2. I don't ever want to hear "It's not my problem" or "I didn't do it" or "we are waiting for THEM to go first." I don't care. It IS your problem. It's everybody's problem. If you want to run around laying blame, fine. DO IT LATER. Right now sit down, be quiet, and get to work. And if you continue to insist that that other guy goes first, well, fine. We'll make sure next time OUR vote comes around you won't have to go first ever again. Or second. We'll bench you permanently and then all your wishes will come true. Call me the Fairy Godmother of Tough Love.

3. Compromise means compromise. Compromise means give and take. Did you catch BOTH words? You give up some, the other side gives up some. It has to be difficult for everyone. You won't win, and I know you don't like that. But guess what? The other side won't win either, and if that makes you feel any better, they won't like it either. But someone WILL win, and that will be all the residents of this state who sit day after day wondering how we can collectively smack all of you upside the head to get you to do something.

4. Constructing a workable, livable budget is is not a game. People's lives and livelihoods depend on its outcome. You toss off a list of potential budget cuts -- $5 million for transportation funds here, $78 million for Community Health there, $50 million for Department of Corrections, and $116 million for the Department of Human Services -- as if this were a game of "Sims Senator." While that might sound like a lot of fun, if you make lousy decisions, there is no rebooting here. No starting over with new characters to get it right the second time. No second chances. No mulligans. It seems you have forgotten there are consequences to your actions and decisions. Now I know that nobody likes to be reminded of consequences. They are so 1970's Bobby Brady "no throwing ball in the house." But it's time to put down the joystick and deal with reality.

Cuts in transportation means cuts to urban public transit systems. No buses? No getting to work. No employment. More unemployment. Less safety. More crime.

Cuts in community health means less money to rural hospitals. Better hope you live in a city that has a hospital. Oh, but better hope you don't need to take public transportation to get there because that got cut back there with transportation. Cuts in community health also means cuts to vital programs offered via the Healthy Michigan Fund. No more programs for Alzheimer's outreach, infant mortality and cancer prevention and control, just to name a few.

Cuts in the Department of Corrections means closing prisons and eliminating guards. But hey, who needs those extra 4000+ beds anyway? I mean, they're swimming with room over there at maximum security, right? Right? Oh, and when you release all those inmates, will they have cars waiting for them or will they have to take the bus ... that won't be there ... because of that pesky little transportation cut you stuck in ...

Cuts in Human Services? Oh, take your pick. Which would you prefer? Cuts in Day Care? Foster Care Caseloads? Bureau of Juvenile Justice? Maybe it would just be easier to cut 800 or so full time employees. Hope they have their own car...

5. Speaking of reality. Enormous pigs do not help. Neither do chickens. It makes you look even more juvenile than you already are. Stop it.

6. Think before you speak. I know right now your favorite sentence is "live within your means." Well, let's get one thing clear. YOUR means are most likely not MY means. I'm not a six-figure, benefits rich perk-a-holic elected official. And don't get me wrong, I'm not begrudging you your job at all. But means are not equal across the board. As a single parent, I work two jobs in order to live within some sort of means that do not include the words "welfare" or "food stamps." And despite the 60 hour work week, get this: I think I'm lucky. I'm lucky because I was able to use the words I WORK. Many others? Not so lucky. So please, while living within our means is easy to say when you have all the means in the world, it's a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who live every day trying to figure out how to make do with so much less. Once there is an equal playing field, then we can talk about living within OUR means.

I'm hoping you take this letter in the spirit in which it was written. Good parents know it is important to love the child but hate the behavior. It's time for the behavior to change. Now sit down, stop arguing, keep your hands to yourself and get the job done. Or else.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Homeward Bound

Community is now the hot commodity.

Many people in the Lansing area are gearing up for the Lansing Localvores Eat Local food challenge (September 8-15). Now local business owners are getting into the act, hoping to remind the community to shop local.

Capitol Area Local First (CALF) is a growing local business coalition whose goal is to encourage consumers to shop at locally-owned businesses and keep dollars spent within the community. The statistics here are staggering. Whereas shopping at a locally owned business keeps $73 of every $100 in the community, shopping at chain stores or other non-locally owned businesses keeps only $43 of every $100 in the community. If there is one thing everyone agrees on, it is that these are difficult economic times in Michigan. It makes a lot of sense to keep as many dollars as possible here in our own community.

But this isn't just a Lansing-based idea. Several cities throughout Michigan have begun to recognize and promote the importance of locally-owned businesses. Regional websites are in place for locations throughout the state, including Grand Rapids and Western Michigan, Washtenaw County and Traverse City. Thinking even bigger? Check out the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The point is, no matter where you live in this great state of Michigan, there are locally owned shops and restaurants eager to serve you and anxious to play a vital role in the community where they do business.

Investing in locally owned businesses strengthens community bonds. Here in East Lansing there are many locally owned stores and restaurants, and it isn't unusual to see the owners themselves working the counters and greeting guests. A personal connection is so much better than the perfunctory recitation of "Welcome to GlobalShopMartPriceBusters!" muttered over and over again under blinding fluorescent lights to a Muzak soundtrack as a shopping cart is shoved in your gut. Locally owned businesses mean real people you have an opportunity to meet and get to know. I'm much more willing to pay a little more for my merchandise for that kind of one-on-one experience.

The list of CALF members is impressive and growing rapidly. If you're not familiar with some of these fine places, consider attending their kickoff campaign, which happens to tie in quite nicely with the Lansing Localvores Eat Local Food Challenge. According to CALF's press release:

A kickoff event will be held at Dublin Square in downtown East Lansing, 327 Abbott Road, from 4pm-7pm. The community is invited to attend this event and meet local business owners and supporters, and discover why locally-owned, independent businesses are key components of regional vitality and livability. Enjoy locally-grown food and sample local beers and wines. A minimum $10 donation is required.

Stop by, meet the real people behind the store fronts and see what they have to offer. Sure, GlobalShopMartPriceBusters might be a behemoth to be reckoned with, but nothing beats the charm, uniqueness and hospitality of a locally owned business.

And your gut will be shopping-cart free.

Pass the locally-prepared waffles.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Cultural Revolution

In tight economic times, funding for The Arts is often seen as a frivolous extra that cannot be justified as a community attempts to tighten its belt yet another notch. Less money means tough decisions and then next thing you know it's Roll Over, Beethoven, Papa's got a brand new bag of past-due bills.

In light of the current fiscal difficulties here in Michigan, it is especially encouraging to see local communities step up to the plate in support of the arts. Last week it was announced that The City of East Lansing planned to assist arts-based businesses and it also pledged to make a donation to the new art museum planned at Michigan State University.

"We are excited to help in bringing a stronger art presence to a central location along Grand River Avenue," Mayor Sam Singh said.

This is a win-win situation on many fronts.

Studies have shown that the arts play a vital role in any community, and far from being an impracticality, they have proven themselves exactly where many nay-sayers look first: the bottom line. According to the study Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences the arts provide an important and substantial source of revenue.

Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year-$63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences.

The $166.2 billion in total economic activity has a significant national impact, generating the following:

  • 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs
  • $104.2 billion in household income
  • $7.9 billion in local government tax revenues
  • $9.1 billion in state government tax revenues
  • $12.6 billion in federal income tax revenues

And as much as we love to quote dollars and cents, there is an important word in this report -- easily overlooked, maybe -- but is critical to reshaping the opinion of the arts and its importance in a community. That word is Industry.

This report speaks of the Arts and Culture INDUSTRY.

I've lived and breathed the arts all my life, and even I have never thought of it as an industry. But looking at all the statistics, that's exactly what it is: an industry. And yet the arts provide so much more. Certainly they are a boost to the employment sector, to national and local tax bases and to tourism. But they also improve the quality of life which in turn builds and strengthens any community. All you have to do is look at the amazing transformation of Lansing's Old Town. Between the diverse music festivals held in the heart of the community and the many local artisans who now call Old Town home, community pride is swelling and this eclectic corner of The Capitol City is enjoying a true Renaissance.

In addition to the obvious financial benefit, The City of East Lansing will win major goodwill points with the MSU community. It's easy to focus on the many problems that arise between the city and the university, and this collaboration provides an excellent opportunity for both sides to work together and build strong bonds able to bridge the great divide known as Grand River Avenue.

So bravo, East Lansing! It's encouraging to see a City willing to invest in the culture industry today, knowing there will be a rich payoff tomorrow. An increase of arts in any community doesn't only make dollars. It makes sense.

Pass the waffles.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Faces of Labor

I am the face of labor.
I am a long-term university employee. I belong to a union whose charge it is to build and safeguard all those things that make a fair and safe working environment. My union must work to ensure its members receive equitable wages. My union must strive to ensure its members work in a humane workplace. My union must battle to make sure I have adequate health care for myself and my family. My union was my rock when rules were broken and my rights were ignored in the name of "doing more for less." Although my union isn't perfect, I am grateful to have one, and I can count on its advice and assistance when I need it. Having that security to rely on brings a peace of mind which makes me a better, more productive employee. For that, I am grateful.

I am the face of labor.
I am an adjunct faculty member of a small private college. I belong to no Union. I have no rights. I have no benefits. I have no job protection whatsoever. I am grateful for the yearly appointments that I have secured for the past 14 years, but worry every August that the next one might not come through. Money for institutions of higher education is a constant worry, and when things get tight, adjunct faculty are the first to go. Because we have no benefits, pensions or health care, we save the college thousands upon thousands of dollars each year, meaning we are both cost-effective and expendable. It is a most unenviable Catch-22. I cannot and will not complain because financially, I need this job, and professionally, I love this job. So I put up with the unknown and often pay for expenses out of pocket to properly do my job. Despite my lack of security and employee ownership in this small private college, I care deeply for my students. They deserve no less than my full commitment to their education, even when the college cannot or will not commit the same to the person providing that education.

I am the face of labor.
I work every day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and I never receive a paycheck. I am a cook, a chauffeur, a teacher, a psychologist, a handyman, a doctor, a banker, a lawyer and personal secretary. I am a single parent. I get no days off, no presidential proclamations and no parades. I have no second or third-string replacements to take over when I'm tired, sick or need a vacation. My job is a permanent, life-long appointment and the compensation for a job well done over the decades includes no golden parachutes, fancy watches or expensive trips. The work is all-consuming, but the rewards are immeasurable.

I am the face of labor.
I work but do not receive any monetary compensation. I am a volunteer. I work very hard, but I must admit it often doesn't feel like work at all. I volunteer to help others, and in doing so, I am building stronger friendships and stronger communities. Despite the lack of a paycheck, I know my work is important to others, and to myself.

Labor Day shouldn't just be a day to pay tribute to The American Worker and American Industry. It should honor all the faces of labor and recognize that today, the average American worker is anything but average. Some enjoy rich benefit packages and golden parachutes. Some live from paycheck to paycheck, hoping the next grant or temporary assignment will come through in time. Some receive no wages at all, and instead work to care and nurture family or community. But each is important and all of them deserve respect.

To the faces of labor --
To the union worker with a contract and security,
To the temp worker with no guarantee for tomorrow,
To the parents doing that hardest unpaid job in the world,
To the volunteers working for the people of today and for the good of tomorrow,
Thank you.

Happy Labor Day.
Have a waffle.