Day Six: Opportunity, or Landmine?

Groucho Marx didn’t want to be a part of any club that would have him as a member. Fancy. I seem to be drawn to clubs of which I am the only enthusiastic member. Borderline.

There is something about the lopsided, inefficient, styleless world of civil servants that I find intoxicating for some reason. Well, intoxicating might be stretching it. More like a bad smell that you feel compelled to sniff over and over again. And yet, I sniff.

I suppose there is some part of me that feels I can wipe my paintbrush over the whole dismal, greyscale scene and bring it to life. Zippy new logos! Flashy new flyers! Sexy e-blasts! Exciting events! Suddenly, everything glitters a little; people smile more, and the community comes together in an incandescent, unprecendented show of support. Look at that shine!

Well, tonight I went to my first board meeting of the Civic Association.This was the room the meeting was in.

It was the kind of space that inspires a deep catatonic depression. The curtains, rugs, chairs, walls, and ceiling all managed to be oil-stained. They didn’t even serve cold coffee.

Over the summer I joined the Civic Association as a  general member, and received a red window decal, a request to pay an extra $50 to secure street cleaning for the year, and a coupon for a local Realtor and a hotel down the block  – neither of which, as a new homeowner in the neighborhood, I will ever use.

Being me, I immediately emailed the Events Committee and met with the Chairwoman – a divorcée in her 50’s who just relocated from the Jersey Shore. She is warm and snarky. She annunciates clearly and has a thick Pennsylvania accent. She works in restaurant marketing. All of her friends are gay men and emphysemic women. She is a slow walker and a good planner. She gets things done without making a big deal about them – something I aspire to do. She has two grown sons and likes martinis. In short, she is wonderful.

Because she is wonderful – and because I loved the idea of joining a “club” of sorts again, since I’ve found it hard to do so in the big wide world, no longer being a student – I joined the Events Committee too. After suggesting we host an event around Halloween to support a local animal shelter – largely because I missed the Tompkins Square Dog Parade and the easiest way to get my crack-fix of pugs dressed up like ipods seemed to be to host our own (excuse me! Why don’t I have a guardian to stop me from doing things like this?) I somehow became solely in charge of running the damn thing, with help from the Chairwoman.

After much bitching, the event went off without a hitch. We raised over $600, children rejoiced, Kevin dressed up as Hanukkah, I ate a lot of brownies while hiding behind a tree pretending to talk on the phone, and dogs were festooned in the garb of inanimate objects. All in all, a success.

More than I thought, I guess.

Last week we had a meeting as an Events Committee to review the event, and as we were finishing up and gathering our coats, one of the committee members – who I discovered will be the next President of the Civic – asked me to be the Chairperson of the Marketing Committee. I’m not even a member of the Marketing Committee, but he said that they were all convinced, after my production of the Halloween event, that I would bring much-needed energy to the position (i.e. actually do stuff).  At first I was flattered, then slightly horrified, then stumped. Is this an opportunity or a landmine?

On the one hand, the board of the Civic makes me think Landmine.

They’re a bit of a rag-tag group. Platinum asymmetrical haircuts and wrinkles. Multiple piercings and comfortable shoes. Mom jeans on men. One woman was sporting the triangle hair of Bette Midler in Beaches, and suspenders. There were a lot of backpacks.

More importantly, the tone of the meeting was off – it was antagonistic. It was obvious that there were tensions between board members; the vice president turned beet purple and twisted his big fat pinky ring around and around and around whenever the zoning committee chair spoke, and there was a good deal of unkind interrupting for non-important reasons. The meeting dragged on for almost two hours. At the end, I was unsure what had happened in the middle, but I was sure that it started with the president giggling about leaving the agenda sitting on her printer at home, and it ended with the election of three new board members – none of whom bothered to show up to tonight’s meeting.

Twenty points for Landmine.

On the other hand, there are potential opportunities here, too. Part of me feels opportunistic.  This could be a great way to advance my Civicizaction. Chairperson is a step closer to Board Member, where I could connect more deeply with community leaders, and really be engaged on a higher level with creating change in the community. This could be a good first step.

I also read through the Strategic Plan (take a look if you’re curious!) and it’s not half bad. And of course, I have some ideas . . .

Some things I would likely do as Chair:

1. I could help to create a Young Friends group, to rally the energy of the young people who live in my neighborhood, and put it towards some common good – i.e. community service events.

2. By creating signage on our projects, I could build awareness of the good that the Civic does – planting trees, creating community gardens, installing street lights – and hopefully both garner support for the Civic, and also get folks feeling like they can ask for things from the organization, and they will get them.

3. I could meet with the owners of local businesses and survey current members within our area, and find out what they want and need from the Civic – and use this research to refocus our energies and projects as an organization.

4. I would also be in charge of the print and online newsletters, and could feature local businesses and community members, bringing further awareness to folks doing interesting and good things here.

On the other hand, there is also this reality . . .

So what do you think – Opportunity, or Landmine?

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14 thoughts on “Day Six: Opportunity, or Landmine?

    • Ha! Well thank you for the encouragement – I am curious to learn what the paths of Ed Rendell, John F Street, and Michael Nutter were to the mayoral seat, though I don’t think that’s in my future!

  1. I think this is the right place to post a reply, but I am an elderblogster, a bit like
    three generations–it feels–away from the young-uns, though truth to be told, Justine is
    more old than young because she, 1. writes good English. 2. writes witty stuff and
    3. well, because I love her. Nuff said.
    I like this view of the dreary world of the doing good, and there is an essay by P.J. O/Rourke, who used to be funny about all this, which I’ll try to find, in which he finds himself in London with some do-good types, and can only think, “Don’t these people EVER go to the dentist.”
    Right on to civics, and also with

  2. I think civic groups can always be opportunities for the energetic and engaged. Are there landmines? Yes, but they are often easily defused with a bit of logic and forethought. Share your sense of fun and your gift of intellect, and enjoy.

  3. I second Michelle. It’s an opportunity and a landmine. I work for a startup right now. Our temporary office looks a lot like that. It’s windowless and depressing and part of me feels like if I sit here too long I’ll either become glow in the dark or I’ll sprout like a potato. And it’s an uphill battle that feels totally landmine. Cue a Stevie re-write, “The landmine’ll take you down…”

    But that said, the responsibilities that you’ll have around design & signage can create major, major impact and visibility — literally on the streets. Look at what the Obama campaign did in 2008 with the power of design. It seems small, but something as visually impactful (gross, not a word) as signage and design could be the bait to get people to pay attention to this committee in a major way. You got the vision for that and it’s yours for the making/taking.

    (And you’ve got me to help bounce ideas off anytime you want. And my designer friends as a resource, depending on the budget!)

    • Ha, I love it! While I hope to never see you dayglo, I also kind of do want to see that. Very badly.

      So let me ask you this – what is it for you that makes the spud-ly incubator worth it? What makes you come out on the B side when doing a cost-benefit analysis?

      And what, as someone with the best eye for design that I know, would you do first if you were given the gayborhood of Philadelphia?

  4. Wow – am I the only Negative Nelly to go full “landmine” on this one?! And I think of my self as a pragmatic optimist to boot!

    We chatted a bit about this on FB, but hopefully my thoughts here are a little better fleshed out.

    1) I’m a big believer in starting hyperlocal. I think you have a much better chance of changing the world by learning to change your block than by, say, running headlong into starting a non-profit (of which there are probably four other under-funded non-profits already struggling to do the same thing) or running for an office you’re not ready for, or something like that. So the fact that this is a neighborhood association – I like that part.

    2) Curmudgeon-y boards – ugh. In Philadelphia – double ugh. Now don’t let me transfer my Philly trauma on to you, but I hated it here for my first four years, and then insulated myself in a group of people and organizations that were highly effective – working in city government and making appreciable change, seeking and winning elected office, making art and not being starving artists, and being nimble, passionate non-profits that got stuff done. They were the antidote to the miserable sad sacks that have the we’re-always-the-underdog chip on their shoulder to the extent that they don’t want to get better. These types of Philadelphians remind me of battered wives that won’t leave or alcoholics that haven’t hit rock bottom – sad, vampiric of your energy, and a waste of time until they’re ready and willing to change. So when I hear a board is catty and curmudgeony and has long standing tiffs or qualms or rivalries – I run for the hills. Nobody holds a grudge like somebody who has been in Philly for 30 or 50 or 80 years. NOBODY.

    3) All of that said, maybe you’re the organizational equivalent of dynamite, blasting through things, clearing it out, making room for new ideas and new energy. If you can see progress from one meeting to the next, then maybe this is an opportunity and a landmine.

    4) If it *is* a landmine – bail. There are LOTS of opportunities, landmines, and landmine-ish opportunities in Philly. TONS actually. Everyone is looking for committee members, board members, PAC chairs, etc. Eventually you stumble into the one(s) that is/are the right fit for your passion, skills, and temperament. (And once you find one, the next and next and next all tend to fall in line.) That will probably change and grow over the course of your Civicization – I’m glad to be a witness to and even be along for the journey.

  5. Pingback: Day Sixteen: New Month Resolutions | Civicization

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