LTE: Essay on the Proposed Library Position

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The proposed expenditure of funds for a new position under the Library is the latest topic that has evoked an emotionally charged and divisive discourse in Reading. While a simple vote, the issue is complex, and attempting to summarize the many considerations takes time. To avoid taking up valuable time during Town meeting I offer the following perspective on the debate.  

It is obvious to acknowledge the presence of all that is wrong in the world in terms of discrimination, lack of diversity, what others say and do against those among us. Speaking up, sometimes loudly, or through actions against those who think, say, and do whatever offends us is our collective responsibility, and in this country, so far, a right, ethically and legally. This struggle has always been and always will be part of the human condition. Can one person make a difference in this world? Should we support efforts to change the world for the better? Absolutely.  

The question I would like explore is how?

I have lived in Reading for more than five decades.

I would observe positive change happens in many ways, I am a strong believer in education, it has made a difference beyond imagination in my life. As important, positive change happens by individual acts to do something good for another, and that those actions, when observed by others, helps make the world a better place. The person who benefits from an act is happily surprised and at some point passes it along, the person giving kindness gets tremendous satisfaction and does it again, and others who see these kind acts may someday choose to do the same. Performing these acts in quiet, without fanfare, or showing off is the greatest honor. But perhaps this is a good time to reflect on how positive change happens, for real, and how it changes lives.

Living in Reading has provided great opportunity to live life by example. When our children were in school, we embraced the METCO program; our children studied and engaged in after-school programs with people very different than they are. Actually, maybe the lesson we were teaching is that we were not so different, being that our immigrant parents and grandparents all faced hardships and harsh discrimination. Sometimes METCO students missed the end-of-day transportation when participating in after-school programs. We opened our home, we fed them, they got had a much-needed night’s rest, they got up, ate breakfast, and went off to school again. It was easy to see how hard and grueling the program was and how hard they worked to just make themselves better. We became friends with them, and their families shared food at table on holidays and become life-long friends. They became interns at our firm, paid interns. Paid interns and not “work for free because you need to pay your dues…” intern. Paid intern because when one person pays cash money to another person, it is an acknowledgment that you are important, your time is valuable, you have an education, and it is important that you recognize the value of education, and cash helps a person improve their lot in life. This is how people advance and change their lives. We supported them in their job searches, providing job leads, written and oral recommendations, counseled them in their life’s decisions through good times and errors in judgment. Can all the programs like METCO, supported with quiet, simple acts of kindness, make a difference? Yes, absolutely, and as reported in the local and statewide papers (and in online news!), a former Town of Reading METCO student is now mayor of Boston! This does not reduce the importance of all the achievements of all the program participants.

I have enjoyed many joys in many activities in Reading, some of which include coaching, church, and scouting, all of which teach us the right values. Sometimes, as in the case of scouting, we must counsel young people to stand up to what they face being a member of a group that might not be so popular. Often other activities force young boys and girls to decide between scouting and those activities that demand “commitment.” Every organization, like every person, has faults and could benefit from change. Scouting is no exception, and in this respect, I have personally shared with scout parents some of these shortcomings. In this respect, the organization and its policies were influenced by groups who have very honorable intentions and strong beliefs. Like many conflicts, there was debate and change. It is greatly satisfying to know many of my fellow scout leaders in the Northeast, Boston, and here in Reading stood strong and quietly sought, and achieved, historic change to this great organization at the national level. 

Our church, among others in Reading, provided homestays for child victims of the Chernobyl radiation disaster. They were very different, did not speak our language, yet we, along with service providers, paid for the health care and basic needs their own government would not provide.

There are enumerable and virtually infinite stories in Reading, as in every community, of the great things people actually do. The point in the stories is to simply illustrate a difference in philosophy of change and how Reading seems to have changed. Simply quoting, or just saying, the adages “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words” is applicable. I wonder how Reading is changing as I drive through neighborhoods and see lawn signs crying out to others to do as I want you to do. You will never see a sign on my lawn; I prefer living change by doing and leading by example, not talking or complaining.

Nelson Burbank asked me to carry on his role helping to manage the library endowment. The library endowment was created and funded by generous local citizens to help support the staff and programs at the library in part because town staff and town meeting cut back funding in favor of other “priorities” over years and years. The library was built and maintained by the generation before us, a generation that toiled, struggled, brought us all up, and saved enough to provide us with a quiet and peaceful place to learn and become educated. It was and is a physical statement and symbol of openness and education, as have libraries been throughout history. Our parents’ generation did this with far less income and resources than those living in Reading today. The library was entrusted to our generation to be kept up and cared for. When the good old building was in need of renovation, the Town’s financial management left it unprepared to properly fund the effort. Decision-making delays and mother nature resulted in additional costs that needed to be paid for; the Town was not there to help. Some of us even provided the funding to cover the renewal of this treasured asset, to provide a place for all people, young and old, regardless of what they say and do, to go to a place where they might find solace and knowledge and become more educated about the diverse world we live in. Who knows, maybe some of those people who disagree with us might find the welcoming atmosphere of the library to pick up some material that will bring us closer together. Some of us are might be frustrated that our fellow citizens, who had the time to govern, did not exercise the financial discipline managing our fair Town to have the money to care for that which was entrusted to us. Alas, like so many times, we bite our tongue, quietly give our support and stand ready for the next time to “fill in the gap” that could have should have been covered by our friends and neighbors if only our collective management was more disciplined. When I walk through that wonderful welcoming space, it is satisfying to see the many names of library supporters who have served in this role.

Now we have before us a vote on a new position to be established at the library. The above discussion makes several points. The library is, as libraries throughout time have been, a sanctuary for quiet solitude, of openness to all in the broadest terms, and a place one can go to learn, mostly alone but while being in the company and presence of others doing the same, and to educate oneself. A second point is that we have been entrusted to care for this physical asset and symbol of these virtues. Lastly, our ability to serve as good stewards is a function of simple financial discipline.

Based on the above principles, I must recommend a vote to remove this position first and foremost from the budget and without hesitation remove it from the domain or responsibility of the library. The following comments provide further perspective on this view.  

Lack of spending discipline. The fiduciary responsibility of the Town is to impartially serve the needs of all residents. The Town has not fulfilled its prior obligations to provide the care and physical maintenance of the library and has failed to fully support its basic library staffing and programming needs. The endowment partially makes up this gap. Imposing a position on the library regardless of where the funding might technically come from is but another of many examples that spending is not disciplined.

If diversity is not already part of the Town administration it should be.

The library trustees are attempting to satisfy a need in Town, and that is admirable. It is important to help influence people to change their minds, and the library performs programs to that end already, and it should do so in future programs. Our schools have many diversity programs funded in many ways that students and teachers participate in regularly. These can and should be adapted as our society changes. But as for the administration of the town for which Town meeting is responsible, we pay for teacher professional development days during which students cannot attend school, diversity training must already be an integral part of that training, if it is not, Town meeting should demand it. This is best done by the administration, who have the legal authority to demand compliance of Town employees, including negotiating such policies with employee unions. As much as the library would like to help in these matters, a library employee has no power to force union employees to work beyond what has been negotiated. Likewise, any civic activities conducted under the town’s purview should, without question, already comply with these obvious matters of common courtesy. If not, policies should be immediately updated by administrative employees who must be obligated to do so as public employees responsible for complying with all laws, regulations, etc., against discrimination and any other obvious injustices. These are serious matters, and there should be no question that the town should be addressing them in every possible way already; if not, our administrators are not doing their job and thus should be remanded by Town meeting to correct any deficiencies. Any more serious matters should be elevated to the proper legal authorities who are also well trained in conflict resolution; if not their training should be supplemented. They have the flexibility to handle incidents, investigate and mediate as they see appropriate, and, if needed, elevate to more serious legal action.

The position is politically motivated and charged; it will damage the core responsibility of the library to be open and welcoming.

I am always receptive and sensitive to the idea of making Reading better in all respects, including social matters, after all, I am only one of many people who have tried throughout their lives living here, through actions, to achieve this goal. I can honestly say I do not know anyone personally, to the contrary. I consider myself a person who has and will defend at all costs those who might be disadvantaged. I will never waiver from that daily goal, and the added position of a new “sheriff” in town will not change my positive actions. What is hard to discern about what is written and voiced from supporters of this expenditure is whether the passionate, loud, and emotional words being used to justify and promote the position is tactical or simply emotional support. If this were the first time we have heard this kind of passionate, loud, and emotional argument, it might lead one to the conclusion they are passionate and trying to do what is right (to them). It seems, however, that invoking discrimination, hate, and such terms to justify spending money to fight back against such injustices is a way of one group attempting to impose and transfer the guilt of someone’s alleged misbehavior on to the rest of us who are not guilty in order to shame people into supporting a vote and/or to spend money to make us all feel better and believe that we are doing something about it and this will result in change. The more this tactical approach is invoked and used, strategically or reflexively, because it works, the more it appears to be deliberate and tactical, and the less believable the arguments are and harder to be supportive of. Such a charged political effort as this will put the library in a position to be a permanent megaphone for those who have been aggrieved or would like justice relative to someone else or some entity. Imposing this position on the library when no other Town department would have it is not appropriate.

There are vast resources already in place to assist in these matters. There are vast resources at the town, state, and federal level to investigate, mediate, prosecute, and jail all manner and form of injustice and discrimination or societal wrongs. Further, individuals who need assistance or help in this area may avail themselves of many non-governmental resources far too lengthy to list here. Reading Police, Fire, churches, teachers, coaches, extra-curricular adults, many of whom are paid town employees trained in conflict resolution. They see students daily, know their moods and lives, they are often confidants of students and change their lives for the better. Students interface with other adults in many off-school programs, as well as medical professionals, and on and on who are good resources for young people and adults who may not feel comfortable confronting or discussing these issues. A person sitting somewhere in Reading will not have frequent and skilled interaction with students and adults to earn their trust or even know who they are. Such a person may well try to contribute positively to the problems, but the position is being promoted to catch people doing something wrong, there is no news in catching people doing something right.

Furthermore, Reading has a Human Rights Advisory Committee (HRAC). The committee is composed of individuals appointed by Reading citizens and includes the Chief of Police and other officials, including a liaison from the Select Board. The new position is not only redundant to HRAC but could work to undermine its work and purpose. Why is the new position being proposed in this context? 

The library is no place to add to this complex of resources, education, authority, and punishment. The position would not add sufficient value to the many resources available in society, the position cannot be justified as adding enough value to justify the expenditure.

Who are these people called parents?

Let’s not forget an important resource and advocate for young people who may experience anything that may be considered wrong. There are people called PARENTS. Any teacher, coach, volunteer, and so on knows that if a parent ever feels their child has been slighted, criticized, not given a good grade, or anything else, knows the wrath of a parent. Parents universally want the best for their children and will advocate for them. They are also responsible for their actions, and most parents will do the right thing. If not, punishment for misbehavior has been so institutionalized in schools, sports, etc., that if we are making any errors righting wrong, it is that we are raising a generation of extraordinarily risk-averse people who are afraid of all authority. Parents should be informed of student misdeeds and be allowed to appropriately discipline and correct the behavior of their children. I favor a three-strikes process.

We have created a “never tell” young people society.

Importantly, any child or student who misbehaves or utters something another feels slighted by is not counseled but punished, often severely and quickly without opportunity to defend themselves. Regularly our children see their friends suffer severe out-of-proportion institutionalized public punishment, they are ostracized from society. They are thrown off clubs and teams and lose leadership positions. Parents no longer have the authority to discipline their own children. I have personally attempted to discover who among a group of young people was responsible for a misdeed. Yet long ago, we have made it clear to young people that to identify a friend as having made a mistake is to subject them to vastly out of proportion public punishment and embarrassment at the hands of a system of rules and punishment created and doled out by organizational leaders who themselves must dole out punishment or risk punishment themselves. We must get to a relationship where it is easier to discuss problems and resolve conflict peacefully and constructively. Establishing a new position that will operate yet another kind of hate, injustice, and discrimination authority will exacerbate this unhealthy relationship we have developed with young people and among ourselves. The debate itself on this vote is exhibit number one on this point.

Why does the Town need to spend taxpayer money?

There are many valiant causes in life. If people feel so strongly about these issues, there is always the alternative to reach into your pocket and help fund an organization to pursue this goal. Many Town organizations exist to do good and admirable work, and many families support all manner of parent organizations for drama, the school band, sports, church, and civic groups, and so on. Many of these organizations exist to fill in the gap of funding for school organizations that have been cut back. It is not fair to ask taxpayers and families to, on the one hand, pay for that which used to be part of Town budget with their own money and time while now asking them to fund a new position that will inevitably grow in expense and immediately result is less money for these other activities. The Town is already paying for professional training of Town staff that the new position endeavors to accomplish.

The position may be used to avoid public meeting protocol.

One concern is that the position is being proposed under the library department to avoid the need to comply with open meeting criteria. It should be debated if Town Meeting supports this plan. One concern is that the position will be used as a forum to vocalize and publicize complaints or accusations of the various injustices among parties in town and that this could be done without the need for the accuser to identify themselves nor would those accused be able to fairly respond or defend themselves in the public domain. The last thing we should allow is for the lofty mission of library to be compromised by such conflict. The desire to right wrongs is admirable, but the cost to the library’s core mission is too great to risk.

Roll call 

This is my first year in Town Meeting, but in a very short time, I was rather shocked to see a group of people call for a roll call vote in a virtual meeting on the subject of climate change. Many people who supported the roll call vote are supporters of the new position. The vote on climate change could have easily been concluded with a raised hand vote. Another town meeting member expressed dismay and shock at the intentions of that roll call vote. The roll call vote was without question a tactic to put on notice that whosoever might vote against the climate change proposal would be targeted by the climate change supporters and punished for their vote. Since I was attending my first Town meeting, I was more than shocked that this group of my fellow citizens would be so hostile to their friends and neighbors to single others out for future discrimination and hate. Many of these constituents are supporting the new library position. I predict they will call for a roll call vote for the same tactical purpose. Town meeting members who vote against the new library position will be targeted for discrimination without question in a malicious way. Yet, these same people want to select the individual for the library position. The last group of people who should be in charge of policing for injustice, discrimination, and hatred are those who promulgate these civic tactics. Yes, Reading is changing from the wonderfully positive Town of good action-based relationships, but this sort of change is not positive.   

Kindness begins at home. 

As a new Town meeting member, I have been asked to vote for condemnation of the Floyd killing (I voted yes), climate change (I voted no), and now discrimination, hatred, and all manner of what makes Reading and the world a terrible place to live (I will vote NO). When voting for the Floyd proposal, I wondered if the people who proposed and voted on this subject were aware a young man was shot and killed at the Sanborn Gas station. This was a great human tragedy for the deceased and the officer who found himself in an extraordinarily difficult situation. The officer is also a Reading native and attended Reading schools. As a customer of the gas station, I have come to know the station staff that includes a sibling of the deceased. I happened to arrive on the scene minutes after the incident. I have seen the family suffer for over three years since the death, they are heartbroken over their loss and very frustrated at the silence of the community in which they live. I have expressed my condolences and am aware at least two current or former Select Board members know of the family’s struggle to obtain closure vis a vis the Town. The most stressful aspect of their loss is that no one from the Town has so much as offered even a small expression of sympathy to the family as I have come to hear. So members of our community were quick to condemn another community far from Reading for the Floyd killing, but as the vote was taken, I wondered about the hypocrisy of condemning others while our community has not found it in our hearts to simply say I am sorry for the killing of one of our own neighbors. Yet now, people want to establish our very own observer and re-education czar of injustice. I wonder about the sincerity of such efforts. I respect actions, not criticism of others.

Let’s act positively.

To finish positively, here is a novel idea, let’s collectively decide to improve the diversity of the Town of Reading by expanding the diversity of staff at our schools. The benefit of this action is that students will experience every day in the classroom what it is like to learn from and trust people from diverse cultures. The learning will be reinforced over and over again. This will be positive and effective action for diversity and set a good example for the Town. 

Please accept my greatest thanks for spending the time to read this lengthy essay. This issue is very complex and touches on many other facets of local and national issues. We need to cease promoting contention and division in our community and engage in kind acts to our friends and neighbors and step back from the constant focus on everything that is wrong. There is already too much division in our lives. I hope this will inform those who voted for me to serve as Town Meeting Member for Precinct 1 why and how I will vote to remove the proposed position from Town financial expenditures.

Bernard Horn, Precinct 1

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