April, 2011

It’s Knot Easy


It’s not even noon on Monday yet and this is my mental imagery.  My mother would say I am wound as ‘tight as a $2 watch” so I tried to find clip art of such a watch but it was stressing me out so I settled for the knot.

I pride myself on being able to work through a great deal of stress.  This comes from years of practice of juggling a lot of different projects at once and having a fairly interesting personal life.  But there are times when one really does just become totally discombobulated – a cutesy word like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – which actually means to become unhinged.  Because complaining about being unhinged is likely to scare off clients, consultants use cute words like multi-tasking and juggling. 

Let’s be frank.  There are days when the harmonic convergence works in reverse.  When the dog has a seizure, child care falls through, a colleague gets annoyed, your project is late and there’s crap on your shirt.  (I just noticed that last one.)

I can remember being so stressed out that even though I had lit cigarettes burning in two different ashtrays, I picked up a pencil to smoke.  (This is a long time ago in the good old days when I smoked.)

All of this is by way of saying — man, sometimes it is really hard to focus on work.  This morning was one of those days.  Of course, I decided to add to the stress by deciding I needed to finish this blog by noon. 

The key to me is all about making a list and working the list.  Sometimes, I even make a little sticky sign that tells me “Work the list.”  What relieves my stress most of all is getting things done and knowing that even though there might be a lot of chaos and debris being flung around in my life, that I can produce what I’ve promised.

So that’s what I tell people who are flustered or stalled or paralyzed by their stress.  Make a list.  And work it.

What Would Sinbad Think? (about the suspension of democracy in his hometown)

Everyone has a hometown.  Sinbad’s is Benton Harbor, Michigan, a town that was recently taken over by the State of Michigan.  This morning, the Emergency Financial Manager tossed out members of the city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and its Planning Commission and replaced them with new people.  This, after he basically ended local government on Friday by telling the City Commission it was free to continue to have meetings but not to conduct any city business. The city’s governance – not just its financial situation – is now in the hands of a person appointed by Michigan’s governor.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, feeling Lansing’s hot breath on his neck, is trying to game the new state takeover system by seeking authority to act as an Emergency Financial Manager would – the equivalent of aggressively policing your own party so the real cops won’t show up.

I have pretty strong feelings about all this.  Starting off, I am attached to all things Michigan.  I was born in Michigan and did a little bit of a life tour of its great cities — Hudson, Hastings, Detroit, Mt. Pleasant, East Lansing, and Flint.  Like many people in the 70’s, I couldn’t wait to get out of Flint – a grimy, hard, tough as nuts city that was falling in on itself as a result of the slow, bloody death of the auto industry – and flee to Milwaukee, which at the time, seemed like the garden city of the universe.  The phrase– will the last person to leave Michigan, please turn off the light — was more serious instruction than joke.

That Michigan is hurting isn’t news.  What is news is the state’s decision to colonize one of its cities.  Because this is what this is.  The State of Michigan is essentially occupying Benton Harbor, suspending local government, and installing the equivalent of a colonial governor.  One could argue that the situation in Benton Harbor calls for drastic action and that financial mismanagement, terrible city services, and a host of other screw-ups warrant takeover by a little army of government technocrats.  The 11,000 people of Benton Harbor deserve a government that protects them from crime, saves them from fires, and keeps them safe from disease.  Absolutely. 

But I think there are other factors to consider.  First, there is the heart-stopping racial disparity evidenced by Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, its twin city, located just across the Paw Paw River.  Here’s all one needs to know on this front:  Benton Harbor’s population is 92% African American and its median household income is $17,471.  St. Joseph (wave hello across the river) is 90% white and has a median household income of $37,032.  Does anything else need to be said here?

Second, there’s that democracy thing.  For better or worse, the people of Benton Harbor elected their government.  They are free to recall their elected officials or to run against them in the next election.  They’re free to go to city commission meetings and raise hell.  Free to organize neighborhoods and community groups to protest.  They’re also free to ask for help, seek outside expertise, and engage in reform.  Or, should I say, they WERE free.

Sinbad is a smart, successful guy.  He grew up in Benton Harbor, went to high school there, went on to play ball at the University of Denver.  He’s a person of substance.  He’s not the only such person to have come out of Benton Harbor.  There are people there who know what they’re doing.  They’re not children.  They’re grown.  They’re taxpaying citizens.  They have the right to run their own damn town.  For better or worse.

I Love This….I Mean I Really Love This

There are a bunch of stories in this terrific article about Milwaukee’s Drug Treatment Court.  There’s the story of Judge Joe Donald’s leadership.  And there’s the story of teamwork.  And the one about forging ahead without knowing all the answers.  And the best one — the one that I love — there’s the story about how having faith in people and giving them a chance to get straight pays off in concrete ways. 

Judge Donald is so right — putting addicts in prison for the incredibly long sentences that have become so popular these past few years just pumps up the Corrections budget, cracks up families, and makes nothing better.

This Drug Treatment Court?  It makes things better by giving people the tools, the structure, and the helping hand.  I don’t think going through Drug Treatment is particularly easy.  There is a huge amount of accountability, treatment compliance, and other expectations built into the program.  When a person graduates from the Drug Treatment Court, he/she has accomplished something of great significance.

This article has had me beaming all day — love it when government looks sharp and does right.  I’m also secretly (well, maybe not so secretly now that it’s on my blog) proud to have played a wee role in the Drug Treatment Court’s financial security by working on the federal grant that supports its current operation.  What a great idea, what smart people, what teamwork, what a professional pleasure to have been involved – if only in a small way.

So go buy the May issue of Milwaukee Magazine when it’s available in stores (I tried to post a link but no luck for now).  Maybe you can use your copy to wave in the face of the folks you meet who think that government can’t do anything right. 


Good Sailing, Brighter Futures

It’s unusual for a consultant to have a ten-year relationship with a project.  I started with Brighter Futures as the evaluation coordinator in 2000 when it was just Ramon Wagner’s wild dream to create a prevention movement in Milwaukee that would take up where the CAP Network left off.  His vision was a system of community-based organizations that had the sustainable capacity to offer immediate, relevant, and meaningful services to children, youth and families. I was fortunate to work on Brighter Futures until I decided in February to end my involvement with the project.

Chaordic was the word of the day. Chaordic: combining elements of chaos and order.  And Brighter Futures was just that when it started and, to a large extent, remains that way today.  To effectively reach youth and families, programs need to be agile, smart, unrestrained by convention, and willing to try the ridiculous.  To stay in business, programs need to have capacity to keep funding, track outcomes, and plan for the future.

In my work on Brighter Futures, I tried to find that balance by structuring an outcome system that recognized the local service delivery context and acknowledged the right of funders to have proof of performance and results.  I’m proud of the evaluation work that was done on Brighter Futures and deeply appreciative of the opportunity afforded me by Community Advocates to work on a sustained basis with Joe Volk, Racquel Bell, Ken Germanson, and Aricka Evans.  I learned from the many Brighter Futures agencies — like The Parenting Network, Alma Center, Milwaukee Christian Center, and others — what it takes to b e a sustainable, high engagement program.  Nine times out of ten – wait, make that ten out of ten – it’s all about leadership and relationships.

So why leave?  Brighter Futures had become too comfortable for me.  Too safe and predictable.  A good body of work but the years’ products were beginning to look alike and blend together.  So I traded Brighter Futures for something unsafe and unpredictable.  I’m beginning a new evaluation of a statewide process improvement initiative being implemented in county Aging and Disability Resource Centers by the State of Wisconsin and NIATx/UW-Madison.  Part of this evaluation is visiting all over the state – Fond du Lac, Eau Claire, Marshfield – so I’m looking at a lot of miles and probably way too many drive-throughs. 

At this stage of my career, I don’t want to be on automatic pilot.  No coasting for me.  Far better to head off to a new city and wonder what’s happening there.  How will I understand the process?  Who should I talk to?  What should I ask?  Will I be able to make sense out of a complicated change process?  Can I help improve things for people?

Being in business is fundamentally about taking risks.  That’s a skill that gets rusty fast if you don’t force yourself to use it. 

So, my best to Brighter Futures and the wonderful people involved in that program.  And hello, Fond du Lac.