When I moved back to Massachusetts nearly five years ago, I discovered volunteerism. I was 42 and had somehow made it that far in life without anyone ever asking me to be directly involved in a cause or an organization. I don’t know what that says about me, but I think that sometimes it’s best not to ruminate too much on every detail so I’ll let it go.
Joining a preschool co-op set the stage for my community involvement. Cleaning the classroom at the end of the day, taking out the trash, raking mulch in the playground, and marching in the town’s summer parade were expected activities so I just did them. Volunteering at the local elementary school was also something that seemed expected and, since I wasn’t working outside of the house, it seemed not too much to ask of my time.
Helping in the classroom, monitoring the lunch room, and observing outdoor recess was great. I take that back. The classroom was great. The lunch room was painfully chaotic and outdoor recess was a little too Lord of the Flies for my liking. That I found myself sweating and exhausted at the end of each hour suggested I might be a little too OCD for these particular jobs.
A self-serving benefit of volunteering is that it teaches you something about yourself. I’m not sure what it means in this particular case, but I did find that working at the school library’s circulation desk was the highlight of all school volunteering, and still is. I can’t explain the deep satisfaction I get from scanning book barcodes, but we’ll move on.
I soon learned that volunteerism is a slippery slope, and around this time the local newspaper — the Carlisle Mosquito — asked me to get involved. While reporters do get paid for articles, the rate is so low and the job so time consuming that it definitely classifies as volunteering more than anything else. Some pieces are delightfully short, while others require several hour long meetings, research and interviews, and test my capacity to absorb and communicate information. Here’s where OCD is helpful.
My first beat was the Board of Health (you can read all about that here) before I moved on to covering other town boards. Affordable housing became a big topic toward the end of my first year as a few housing-related boards began prepping for Town Meeting where they planned to ask residents to approve building affordable rental apartments on a town owned parcel near the school.
I began reporting on these meetings and, as a renter in a town full of home owners, soon found myself jotting down quotes that made me realize that for all my volunteerism, my perceived economic (and let’s face it, moral) status was suspect, and that of my children. It seemed that some people were afraid to let their children walk by rentals, while others explained that renters were not “involved in their communities,” and would pose a burden for the school. The message was clear in these meetings: renters didn’t belong.
The most shocking statement, which was voiced at Town Meeting (where the motion failed by a small margin), was that kids would ultimately feel bad by living in a town their families couldn’t afford. They would be ostracized at school. And while the statement did garner some audible gasps from the audience, no one stood up to counter it. My background in sociology was immeasurably helpful during this time and my kids learned a new word: socioeconomics.
NIMBY is a loaded term, but I discovered that even in an altruistic town full of well heeled do-gooders, it applies. The size of their collective heel also allows people to fight off unwanted projects in ways that other communities can’t by hiring their own lawyers, civil engineers, and hydrology experts. 40B became a topic that I would spend a lot of time reading about, thinking about, talking about, and debating. With mixed results.
At some point reporting on affordable housing became a problem — the problem being that I was decidedly in the “pro” camp. I began asking my editor to check my work for bias, and would leave meetings exhausted from biting my tongue so as to remain in my role as the official and neutral observer. Reporting on how suspect my family was by needing to rent, definitely left us reconsidering the town in which we had decided to live.
In 2014 I was asked by a friend and town official to join an affordable housing board. I knew I wasn’t joining a popular club, but thought it was time to put up or shut up. I’m not a joiner and my political leanings began and ended inside a voting booth on election days, but I’d already transformed who I thought I was so I gave it a shot.
Barely a year in there was some turnover on the board and I became Chairman. Why? The honest answer is that nobody else wanted to do it and the pause in the room made me uncomfortable enough to volunteer. To say that this was outside of my comfort zone is a gross understatement. Have I mentioned my pathological fear of public speaking? Even in groups as large as 3? There’s a reason I write, after all. I’m an observer more than a participant.
It turns out the squeaky wheel analogy is really true. Intellectually I knew that what I heard and observed during my tenure represented a small part of the town — the town in which I still live, now as a scuffed heeled homeowner. But the loudest voices do win in the end, they get the attention of the press, they get the attention of town government officials, and they set the tone for the community.
Two days ago I submitted my resignation, just three months shy of the end of my second term. Resigning was something I had been thinking of doing for months, but had resisted because I didn’t want to be a quitter, didn’t want to give up, and didn’t want to set a bad example for my kids. At some point it became clear, however, that it was time, and the lessons I would learn from this awareness also set an example for my kids. Just a different one.
If volunteerism teaches you something about yourself, politics proves to be a master class in self and community awareness.
I learned that generally people are good, but often not involved enough to seek the change they want.
I learned that while I’m much more political than I ever thought possible (aren’t we all at this point?), I’m better as an engaged spectator than a participant.
I learned that bureaucracies are truly awful things.
I learned that small town politics is the absolute worst.
I learned that if you are stubborn enough good things can happen.
I learned that saying “no” does work.
I learned that it’s possible to push yourself to do something that you never thought you’d do and come through the other side still mostly intact.
I learned that you really don’t want to see the sausage made.
But my biggest takeaway? I learned that making it possible for people to find suitable affordable housing in all kinds of communities — including and especially the affluent ones — is something that we all should care about if we consider this land of ours a society. And that ultimately building it, which we did in the form of a group home for nine intellectually disabled adults, feels absolutely amazing.
My interest in affordable housing hasn’t waned, I’ve just decided to take myself out of the ring. Advocacy can take many forms. And words are powerful.