Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Building Sidewalks

Sidewalks don't need to be this fancy or expensive
nor require a federal grant or expensive "program".
Just build the danged sidewalk!
Community "Issues" Aren't Always What the Community Organizers Tell You They Are

One forgets sometimes how insular is the life of many a pundit, reporter, editor and publisher that we rely on for information and opinion in our daily news consumption. I saw a case in point this morning in an email from Ruth McCambridge, editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly. She was announcing the addition of a new cadre of on-the-ground reporters to broaden the coverage of nonprofit activities in the Good Old U.S. of A. and explained a bit about what she saw as their role in the new and improved NPQ.

  • We believe in the intelligence of those who are doing and negotiating the grounded work in communities. You are the ones who have to understand the patterns of your operating environments—what it will mean if this philanthropic leader leaves her post, or if that organization embarrasses itself, or if such and such city decides that the CDBG money is needed for sidewalk repair instead of housing. You watch all of these interconnected dynamics, and if you are worth your salt, sometimes you understand what that will mean for the work you do. 
Ruth has an excellent point. The only thing dangerous is in listening to only one of those on-the-ground voices. I suspect that, given the left lean of NPQ, that the editorial staff may jump on reporting by on-the-ground voices which echo their own sentiments before they accept opposing voices. They may not even hear opposing voices, I suspect, as many of those on-the-ground voices don't even read NPQ or know that they are looking to hear such voices.

To be fair, NPQ has attempted to report opposing viewpoints. They've even published articles by me (unpaid, of course), so they can claim to include views from both sides of the political spectrum – me being unabashedly conservative and all. Even then, there is a danger of getting things wrong. That's why reporters who really do want to get their facts straight and unbiased should probably, almost always, do a part 2 to any controversial article in which they do follow up investigation with reference to the criticism their first article received in the comments section. That's how I'd do it if I were the editor.

Case in point: McCambridge mentions an issue in which the city decides that Community Development Block Grant money is used for sidewalk repair instead of housing. CDBG is a federal block grant for cities. Cities have relatively broad latitude so far as what to do with CDBG funds. Housing is one of the areas CDBG goes for. Transportation is another. Infrastructure repair and upgrade is another. While a lot of community activists might get their hackles up if money were diverted to sidewalk building and repair instead of housing and let out a howl, it would be wise for any reporter tempted to wax critical of the city to stop and take a deep breath and TALK TO SOMEBODY ELSE.

I worked as a transportation activist in a small urban center where this issue came up. The city was originally laid out along old trails and cowpaths. Roads were narrow and, as it was Texas, house lots were large. As cars came along, roads were widened, but there was a limit to how far you could widen them. In the oldest part of town, there were sidewalks that connected the neighborhoods that surrounded the city center to the old Interurban trolley stops. Citizens who wanted to go anywhere, walked to the trolley stop on sidewalks that kept them up out of the horse manure and mud. Once the Interurbans were shut down and everyone began to drive cars, roads and new suburban neighborhoods went up. No one thought much about poverty and disability during the oil boom years because it wasn't much of an issue. No one needed sidewalks because they drove cars, so sidewalks were deemed an expensive luxury that nobody would use.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Jogging is popular. Twenty-five percent of the adult population cannot drive because they are elderly or disabled. More people live through accidents with disabilities thanks to modern medicine. They can get motorized chairs and scooters, city buses are accessible, but people with disabilities have to drive their scooters in the street to get to the bus stops because there are no sidewalks or curb cuts throughout most of the city. While all city buses are wheelchair accessible, the bus stops are miles away from many older neighborhoods and accessible bus service is expensive. In my town, housing was important and the housing advocates shouted down any idea of improving the sidewalks or worse building new ones.

It was hard to make people see that $2000 worth of asphalted trails or concrete sidewalks could, in time, save the city many more thousands of dollars annually by creating a safe path for elderly, low-income and disabled individuals to get to the bus routes without having to call for expensive para-transit buses. In addition, the sidewalk network would mean that instead of waiting for the city to build expensive accessible housing for seniors and people with disabilities, a majority of them could remain in their own homes and access goods and services they need by sidewalk and bus at very low cost to both the users and the city. I hope that NPQ and other news agencies who report on community issues and activities will take the time to think outside the usual liberal activist box. Sometimes there are other ways to do things than simply by squabbling over who gets what federal funds. Communities often come up with very powerful solutions all on their own without any advice at all from the graybeards in Washington DC.

My friend Darrel, for instance, lived in a small East Texas town with lots of old people living around the area. Most were on fixed incomes. Many were fast losing the ability to drive. Darrel got busy, rounded up some old school buses and with the help of the local churches, began running a twice a month "trip to town" for retirees on the dates that social security and VA checks came out. They'd pick them up early in the morning. Walmart would host a bingo tournament in the McDonald's providing the game callers and even some prizes. The bank inside the Walmart had a bank location, a beauty salon, a pharmacy and Walmart's wide selection of grocery and retail goods. If the folk wanted to visit downtown or any other stores, the volunteer driver's were very flexible. They even rigged one of the buses to be wheelchair accessible. The thing ran until Darrel's death and I think may be running yet. They didn't get any federal money. Each church adopted and shared a bus. They didn’t charge a thing to passengers. Drivers were all volunteers. They did things that the "official" rural transit system refused to do or claimed was impossible.

Those are the "Little Engine That Could" kind of stories I'd like to see NPQ and other media report on. The only thing is that most of such organizations that do what Darrel (not his real name) did don't want the publicity lest some activist spot them and report them for not doing it the "right" way. What they usually mean by that is the way that brings in federal or state dollars that they can control. Forgive me for being a cynic, but 40 years in the nonprofit sector has taught me that.

As a member of the local disability issues review board in my town, I once suggested what I thought was a clever and economical solution to a disability issue we were discussing. The other members, more seasoned fellows than myself, told me it would never work.

 "Why?" I asked

 "Because," they answered, "It makes too much sense."

 Which is why I've changed my status from that of nonprofit professional to nonprofit amateur.

© 2014 by Tom King

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