Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Lareese Hall is a student in the Civic Entrepreneurship in Public Institutions course that I teach at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Graduate School of Library Information and Sciences. While the rest of the class was on campus for a full-day session (this is a distance ed class that meets in person for one day during the semester) Lareese was off to a three-day Community Problem-Solving workshop designed and taught by faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

When she was selected for this prestigious program that teaches teams of civic leaders the skills they need to effect deep change, how could I refuse her request to be excused from the on-campus session? But in my classes, everyone is expected (and does so enthusiastically!) to share what they are learning so Lareese has agreed to guest blog here and share her learning with Texas Forums and the students in LIS 590 CEL.

We look forward to hearing more from Lareese. In the meantime, here’s her bio:

Lareese HallLareese Hall is the Eco.Experience Project Manager at Carnegie Science Center, where she is working to develop new visitor experiences and educational programs related to ecology and the environment. Hall has worked in non-profit, community-based programs for more than 15 years, including as Design Manager with the Riverlife Task Force here in Pittsburgh. A native of Philadelphia, she has lived in a number of urban areas including Boston, Albuquerque, Charlottesville, and Florence, Italy, and has a diverse work background in areas related to urban planning and design, conservation, and education. She holds an undergraduate degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio and an MFA in Writing and Literature from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. She is currently a part-time student in the Library and Information Science graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh. She also has studied architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. She currently serves as a member of the City of Pittsburgh Arts Commission. In her spare time she writes fiction, paints, and is restoring an old house.

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From BlogTalk Radio Lightning Strikes…

Rod Amis, a well-known blogger, social media pundit and Christina Shideler talk with Silona Bonewald of the League of Technical Voters and Taylor Willingham of Texas Forums (an initiative of the LBJ Library) about building an online transparent federal budget. Former Senator and Presidential candidate Bill Bradley who promotes this idea in his book, The New American Story, is involved, and we’ll find out why.

Listen Here! 

Learn more about Silona and Taylor here.

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On Thursday, October 18th, about 60 teachers, administrators, parents, government officials, and youth  gathered at Reagan High School in Austin, TX for a series of three forums on “Too Many Children Left Behind: Closing the Achievement Gap in Central Texas.” The diverse group is gathering on behalf of a diverse Austin Independent School District. Other area districts are involved in the same types of forums, which are sponsored by many groups including Texas Forums, E3 Alliance, Austin Voices for Education and Youth, the United Way, Univision, and KEYE TV42.

The welcome spelled out the reason for being there. It was said that “Despite advances, we know that it is not enough–it’s unnacceptable. You see great stories in some schools, but not districts. It’s a regional problem. We need everyone’s thinking in the region on this issue.  We’ve got to work smarter, work together. Tonight is the first of three sessions. Give us your best thinking with an AISD perspective.”

It was also said that “If we don’t solve this problem, it affects the market in this state–whether kids are college ready–in a globally competititve economy. The problem is not enough graduate and not enough go to college or get a post-secondary degree.  This leads to less salary, less access to healthcare, and more of a chance of going to jail. The loss will be $40 billion in earnings by 2030 if gaps are not closed.”

Tonight’s dialogue and other related forums will culminate in a regional forums and a regional blueprint. Everyone’s experiences are the lens to look at possible options and opportunities. Next blog posts will include participants’ comments made during their small group sessions such as the youth who shared that “Some kids have an attitude. They’re wasting my time and the teacher’s time. I’m here to learn. Teachers have motivated me to do my best.”

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[cross-posted from Scattered Leaves.]

I get The Note, a daily digest of what’s happening in Washington, along with political alerts throughout the day from the ABC News Political Unit. Today’s story is about Clinton’s new healthcare plan and how it has at least given Dems and Reps something to agree on — they don’t like it.

But that isn’t what struck me.

It was the box at the bottom of the page where the Audience Favorites (the popular stories of the day) are listed. The top story is about whether or not Britney will lose custody of her sons, two stories about the O.J. ‘Sting’, a story about a mother dousing her girls in gasoline, and a story about a student being tasered at a pol event.

Everyone wants change in the health care system. People who have it are worried they’ll lose it. I’ve got several very smart, capable friends who are out of work.Yesterday I spoke with a friend who has a Ph.D. and has just accepted a 30 hour/week job driving a school bus just to get health care. I’ve got several other friends who choose to work for themselves. Few of them have adequate coverage. Last week my own health insurance costs went up – again! Even colleagues who have coverage through their employer know that it is a tenuous compact. This is an issue that is uniting unusual characters because our deteriorating system has had such an adverse affect on us all.

As the NY Times week in review article noted last Sunday, “while this is clearly a moment of political opportunity” we’ve been here before. It was inconceivable that health care reform would collapse in 1993 when nearly three-fourths of Americans said they supported the Clinton plan. The Times proposes that we can’t have health care reform until “those who have theirs” are assured that coverage for everyone will not require them to make sacrifices. Allaying these fears seems to be the priority for our current slate of candidates. And perhaps the fact that we can no longer sing the mantra about the virtues of the American health system- that we might cost too much, have a lot of people uninsured, but “by golly it’s the best health care in the world” – will inspire us to make changes.

That assumes, of course that people are paying attention to what matters. Which brings me back to my “audience favorites”. In the overall scheme of things, who raises Britney’s kids will have less impact on the American people than what Congress and the future President do about our health care crisis. But it is hard to imagine policy-makers feeling any pressure to do the hard work necessary to solve this mess when we aren’t even paying attention. They can make pronouncements about their intent knowing they’ll never have to deliver because we are so easily distracted. I’d love to believe that we will finally get some relief from the burden of our bloated, inefficient, inequitable health care system, but the skeptic in me worries that policy-makers will still be promising reform while the American people are riveted on the exploits of Britney’s grown sons.

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Today Amy Averett (Austin Voices) and I conducted our first workshop for the Achievement Gap forums at the Round Rock High School. We had fifteen people – about half students. Yeah! I can’t believe how much material we covered in five hours, AND they got a chance to practice. In fact, the role playing received the highest marks on the evaluation. I think the reason we managed to cover so much territory is that we modeled parts of the dialog, stopped for a debrief and then broke them into small groups of five where they continued the dialogs themselves taking turns practicing moderating and recording. Of course we worked them through lunch, too!
Some of the insights that the participants shared:

  • It’s hard to stay neutral especially on a topic that you care about so much.
  • A school administrator acknowledged that it will be easy for him to get sucked into being the expert when questions come up, but he was committed to staying out of the expert role.
  • Participating in the forum highlighted just how complex the issue is.
  • When one recent high school graduate talked about how hard school had been for him and how he almost dropped out, the group realized that it is important not to make assumptions about who is in the room based on what they look like.
  • It’s all well and good to be part of the 10%, but what about the other 90%? Who’s looking out for them?

But three stories that I will take from today’s training that impacted me.

A mother described how difficult it was for her daughter get into college because she wasn’t in the top 10% of her class. She had to go out of state to a private (expensive, I’m sure) college.

A young woman who described how she had a deeper appreciation for how complicated the issue is. When I pressed her for a specific example of when she felt her thinking shift, she said that it was when she realized that she was guilty labeling other students and that it was wrong. As an Advanced Placement student, she had looked down on the students in regular classes and made assumptions about why they were not AP material. I was touched by her honest admission.

On a similar note, another young woman said that she wants to use the discussion guide on her campus and invite students from outside of the 10% to participate in an on-campus session. As an AP student, herself, she realized that she didn’t really know anything about the experiences of other students. She plans to reach out beyond her clique.

As I reflect on these stories, I realize that they are all about how divided our schools are. I remember cliques and clubs. I even scorned one club populated by the popular girls until I realized I was being unfair. (I attended their membership drive, was invited to join and had a blast!) Even with the cliques, there was always cross-over. You might only socialize with people in your group, but we were still thrown together with people from other groups on class assignments or school-wide projects. We had to learn to work with people outside of our own tribe. And we did.

I just don’t remember our class being so deeply divided based on academic achievement. Listening to these students talk, it sounds like there are two parallel worlds operating on their campus and the two never cross. When they talked about the students who were not part of their track, it was like the “others” were so far removed that there was no interaction between them.

Perhaps I don’t remember such an academic division because my school didn’t have AP-material students. But I doubt that!  I do remember being aware that my high school boyfriend who went to a private school was getting a much better education with advanced classes. I also know that everyone in his school was college-bound, after all the phrase “college preparatory” was in the name of the school. I also knew that the kids in the rich school district – the line literally was my back fence – were getting a better education.

That was frustrating, but it wasn’t “in your face” every day right on our own campus. We were all pretty much in the same boat. Our education wasn’t bad. But we didn’t have the perks, the materials, the equipment that other students had. That lot was shared across the campus.

Working on this project has exposed me to so many stories of students on our campuses living in a divided world and I wonder about the impact on these young people. I wonder what messages they are receiving and how that will affect their future.

But I am also thrilled by the students who made a pledge today to stop labeling and to reach out to other students and try to understand their high school experience. Ah, it’s a good start and I wish them well.

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[cross-posted from the personal blog of Taylor Willingham]

I’ve been in a writer’s funk for over two weeks now, which is causing great headaches since I’m responsible for rewriting the Achievement Gap discussion guide here in Central Texas. I’m basing the framework on the National Issues Forums guide, but incorporating Texas data from E3 Alliance. I’m using Study Circles Resource Center guides as the stylistic model. Nance Bell did the hard work of wading through the data and put language around it for me and Rick Olmos helped outline the big chunks so it should be easy to do, right?

Read more… 

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August in National Win With Civility Month. I got this information from the same place I get a lot of my news…Reader’s Digest. Actually, it was part of their August Word Power page (page 45) where you get a list of words and four possible definitions to test your word power.

A month devoted to civility seemed like a good idea to me. I mean, if we can’t have civility ALL the time, at least we could aim for it for one month. I also like that it falls on my birth month.

So I googled it to see what, if anything, others are doing to celebrate. (National Civility Month, that is. Not my birthday!)

So far all I can find is list after list of all of the holidays and designations for August, but not a darn thing about what folks are going to do to observe civility. To be fair, we are competing with Elvis Week, Psychic Week, National Sneak a Zucchini on to your Neighbor’s Porch Night, National Underwear Day, Peach Month, Sea Serpent Day and International Lefthanders Day. I know this because the only listings for National Civility Month are on sites that list…well, infamous holidays.

It is listed on prestigious sites like Dull Men’s Club right under National Napping Month. (That’s another month I’d like to celebrate. In fact, I could easily make the case that there’s a connection between civility and napping.) This site even had an address and a link for more information, but the address was in Las Vegas (that seems an unlikely headquarters for a national civility holiday) and the link http://www.americanforcivility.com was a dead end.

Brownielocks and the three bears has it listed as one of those “Bizarre, crazy, silly and unknown holidays…we do not make these up” holidays.

The Cantonrep.com (as in Canton, OH) mentioned it in an article along with a host of lesser known and more silly holidays. Who knew there was so much to celebrate between 4th of July and Labor Day!

But no celebrations listed so far.

But back to building our word power in the Reader’s Digest. The words for this month are: procure, dexterous, disparage, malice, revile, culpable, discourse, kindred, digression, obstinate, sublime, countenance and doleful. You may disagree with my assessment – if so, I hope you do so civilly – but by my count, four words are neutral (their impact depends on how you use them) seven words represent the opposite of what is necessary for civility and civil discourse and two are pseudo-positive.

hmm, sure would like to increase my word power with words that actually have to do with being civil!

So, maybe we don’t need a win with civility month event. Maybe we just observe in our every day interactions. Maybe we are just supposed to be a little less of those seven negative words and a little more…polite, communal, social, tolerant, understanding, empathetic, and civil.

Nah, I’d still like to see a celebration!

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[Robyn Emerson, long-time Texas Forums member, social activist, organizer of the Tavis Smiley Presidential Forum Watch Parties we are hosting at the LBJ Library recently launched a blog, “A World that Works: Where the Possibility is Brought to Life.” The following is her second post on her brand new venture. I am posting it in full here with her permission because it is such a lovely “bird to bird” tribute – Robyn to Lady Bird – and to introduce you to Robyn.]

This past week the nation and central Texas, myself included, paid tribute to the life of Lady Bird Johnson.

When my parents relocated our family to Austin from Lexington, Ky I can only imagine their feelings being similar to George and Weesie, that they were movin’ on up. It was the mid 70’s and the world was an oyster for my parents. My father and several other African Americans across this country were taking advantage of opportunities previously closed off to them.

Family members from Kentucky would come down to visit us from time to time. Just like my father, the quintessential showman and travel & culture enthusiast that he is, he would take each and every one of our guests around the “must sees” in Texas. That would take us, in 300 degree Texas summer weather no doubt, in our brown station wagon with no air conditioning on a trek across the state and on international trips to Mexico, the Alamo and all things “Johnson” – the Johnson Space Center, LBJ Library & Museum and LBJ National Historic Park.

I learned at a very early age about this man with a funny name to me – Lyndon. I mean I really learned about this man, his wife with a funny name also, his daughter with the same name as Charlie Brown’s friend and on and on. Family member after family member would come and we’d plan out the excursion. Where should we go first? How long will they be here? What is the must see? Always, never got cut from the list, was a visit to the Library & Museum.

I took on a sense of pride for this place. From my grandparents, to Aunts & Uncles and our many cousins that have come we were their access to the displays about his life, his influence and his legacy. I can remember one time telling my parents let’s not get a docent this time, I’ll do it. And I did, but not only there. I also took great pride in sharing with my family the man that died before I was born’s childhood stories. I joked about it as I got older that I was beginning to think I was a JohnSON instead of an EmerSON. I mean my non-paid co-tour guiding was more than the innocent people that came for the experience bargained for. It got to the point that just about the time I knew the paid tour guide was going to tell us about his favorite song I’d start singing it in advance, “I’m singing in the rain, Just singing in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I’m happy again…” Just about then my mother would say, “Zip It!”.

Today, I have the honor of working with the LBJ Library & Museum through one of their initiatives, Texas Forums. Through the use of and the introduction to various tools or resources we work to engage people in dialogue about issues that affect their lives. I still walk through those doors with great pride and an inside chuckle comes over me as I pass the docent’s desk every time.

The LBJ Library & Museum under the remarkable leadership of Dr Betty Sue Flowers is creative in the support of programs that keep the spirit and legacy of LBJ & Lady Bird expressed.

I am, however, a little perplexed by the dismal demonstration of gratitude or respect recently in regards to Lady Bird’s passing from the African American community. Now I can understand some slight confusion we may have on the impact this woman had on our community given the story being told over and over was that she was an ecologist, an environmentalist. That hasn’t ever been “our issue” although the grim reality is that it is “our issue”. This may be acceptable as an explanation for people of my generation or younger but not so for my elders.

Out of sheer respect a greater representation by blacks & browns was due in my opinion. It could not have been, by any means, a small feat to be LBJ’s wife during his presidency. We were reminded at Lady Bird’s funeral of them being thought of as nigger lovers. That didn’t make the obits as a positve attribute but if signing the Civil Rights Act and instituting the Great Society meant that, then they were every bit ones. And I thank them.

The Civil Rights Act is the same act that was recently up for renewal. In all of the showboating to demonstrate who was the greatest champion for it we forgot who made the “RE”newal part a consideration. Two main goals of the Great Society social reforms were the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period.


The law of attraction states that you attract whatever you put your attention to. I am wondering where is our attention directed? Is it on things beautiful? Is it on what’s possible?

I urge us to come together and hone our attention toward loving ourselves! Toward families! Toward eductating ourselves in all ways! The Jamestown Project urges us also in their Appeal to the American Imagination.

Just as LBJ recognized that we could have continued speeding down a road that led toward the increased coarsening and degradation of our culture, or we could seize upon that moment of national soul-searching to change course and turn onto a path that leads to renewal. He chose the road to healing and transformation. By his side was Lady Bird.

I was taught please and thank are the magic words, so PLEASE let’s not let this moment pass us by and THANK YOU, Lady Bird, for your attention to all things beautiful, your steadfastness and your service.

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Mrs. Johnson

When Mrs. Johnson passed away, a well-choreographed team of experts in black suits and comfortable shoes, equipped with earplugs, blue tooth enabled phones, walkie-talkies, and laminated badges sprang into action orchestrating every last detail of the “Final Tribute” to a woman who was greatly loved.

That was as it should be.

Nothing should be left to chance.

Every detail must be considered.

Protocol is paramount.

But dozens of people, spontaneously joined together by grief, came forward to offer service or to simply join with others to honor her with their presence.

They lined up outside of the LBJ Library & Museum all day Friday, throughout the evening and into the next day to pay tribute to her – 12, 252 in all. (Keeping count = A detail the “suits” didn’t leave to chance!)

A member of Future Forum, the Texas Forums sister organization at the LBJ Library stopped me on the plaza at 8:30 p.m. asking how he could help. Others sent e-mails offering their services and notes of condolences in honor of a great woman they admired. Families with young children were lined up outside of the library even at midnight. The line she faced at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning surprised even a Texas Forums colleague.

Although I have worked with the LBJ Library since 2003, I am a very part-time coordinator of Texas Forums, an initiative funded by the LBJ Foundation. I’m on the periphery – primarily working from home or meeting in other people’s offices, or (in the Austin tradition) working out of wireless-enabled coffee shops. But like those who hovered outside of the library, I was anxious to be helpful and gratefully accepted telephone duty.

Cramped into a small cubicle shoulder to shoulder with the LBJ Library’s New Media Specialist, I hovered over the last available phone with a list of names and phone numbers and script inviting them to the Saturday funeral service. As we split the list, my colleague flipped through her own stack of names reading aloud the dignitaries she would be calling. None of the names on my list looked familiar. I wondered who they were and what relationship they had with the family that warranted an invitation to be one of 1,800 people who would gather at the Riverbend Center to say good-bye. I did not know who they were, but I knew that they were important to the Johnson family and I did my best to recite my script with the perfect balance of compassion and professionalism.

As I made my way through the list of unrecognizable names, it did not take long to realize that I had the good fortune to draw the names of those who had served their beloved Mrs. Johnson (none of her staff ever refer to her in the familiar “Lady Bird”) in large and small ways – her ophthalmologist, a former neighbor, her nutritionist, the woman who supervised her physical therapy, a manicurist from a decade ago, the children of a former neighbor, a hairdresser, a dear old friend unable to leave his rest home, but comforted by the invitation.

This only made me more conscientious about my duty. I wanted to be as professional as the walkie-talkie toting experts, but mostly, I wanted to do right by the woman whose recorded voice describing the White House often greets as I exit the 10th floor elevator at the LBJ Library.

Even the most demanding stage director would have been pleased by the way I worked through my script as I contacted the people on my list. But there was no script to prepare me for their responses.

They responded with disbelief.

“I can’t believe the family would think of me at a time like this.”
“Are you serious? Oh but of course I will be there.”
“I am in New York for my grandson’s baptism. Otherwise nothing would keep me from attending.”
“Oh, it is such an honor. I never expected I would be invited.”
“I loved her and miss her so much. I would never miss it.”
“I start a new job that day, but I will not miss this honor.”

These people not only served her. They were part of an army of people who loved her throughout her long and rich life. They poured out their hearts to me. They gave me messages to convey to the family. They told me their favorite Mrs. Johnson story. They described how they knew her. Many of them cried. All were deeply honored and humbled by the invitation.

I often ventured off script!

When I got home and heard the phone message from another volunteer inviting me to attend the funeral, I knew exactly how they felt. I may be on the periphery of the LBJ Library, like a distant cousin, but I am part of a family – a family of people who cherish the values that guided Mrs. Johnson. That’s a family we can all join.

The service was full of praise for Mrs. Johnson from those who knew her best. Eldest daughter Lynda Robb lamented following the likes of Bill Moyers (whose homily focusing on Lady Bird’s courage was printed in the Austin-American Statesman on July 15, 2007) and the grandchildren’s loving tribute to their Nini. Indeed every tribute was the perfect balance of affection, humor, love, sorrow and celebration.

I was grateful to Luci for recognizing those who served Mrs. Johnson over the years. Over 50 current and former Secret Service personnel attended her funeral. I lost count of the doctors and caregivers who stood at Luci Johnson’s urging, but I know that I talked with many of them! (And I know that seeing them there meant more to me than witnessing the gathering of those dignitaries, including one presidential candidate, whose photos were prominently featured in the newspapers.)

We all enjoy the clean, beautiful highways, and the uproarious colors of springtime in Central Texas. And we are more conscientious about our responsibility to the earth because of Mrs. Johnson’s love of nature. But “wildflower lady” is just a metaphor for an even greater legacy that was articulated by Catherine Robb’s remembrance of how her Nini planted love and Bill Moyers’ reminder that she cultivated beauty in democracy. We ought also to consciously emulate the love and courage that served her at a time when our democracy was under fire from those whose actions were governed by hate over tolerance, prejudice over justice, discrimination over dignity, and violence over peace.

Her courage in the face of pure hate carried her along the 1964 campaign trail just after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – what Bill Moyers rightly called “the greatest single sword of justice raised for equality since the Emancipation Proclamation.”

And it was her great compassion, warmth, and love – the way she embraced “even the least of these” as her extended family – that would eventually lead to the hushed whispers “we love you Lady Bird” from fellow diners as she and her granddaughter Catherine made their way out of the restaurant after their weekly Tuesday dinners.

I have thought about Catherine’s challenge to us all to emulate the woman who planted as many “I love yous” as she did wildflowers. Few of us will ever live our lives on such a large stage, but in simple ways, we can still act in love from the wings. And love propagates more rapidly than wildflowers and thrives in soil that would challenge the hearties bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes.

Liz Carpenter wrote that Lady Bird took reporters along on her War on Poverty trips “to help the public look, see, and hopefully act.” In dozens of small ways, I hope that Texas Forums and our colleagues promoting civil discourse are helping the public to “look, see, and hopefully act” in ways that consider the common good…that we are providing the opportunity for people to look upon their adversaries with love…that we are creating safe spaces where people can suspend their assumptions, put aside ideological battles, and see the beauty we each posses…that we can cherish our many viewpoints and act together…and mostly, that we can love our democracy and cultivate all that is beautiful about it even when it challenges our courage.

In this then, we all have a role, because unlike formal “Final Tributes”, democracy is fraught with chance, we have to live with ambiguous murky details, and the protocols for deliberating with love and high ideals are not paramount or widely practiced.

To borrow from Mrs. Johnson’s words and that great piece of literature, Blazing Saddles, “amateurs with no official role, uniforms, high tech communication devices or ‘stinkin’ badges’, can be the ‘mirror of ourselves’ and a ‘focusing lens on what we can become’.”

Would this not be the final tribute that has no end?

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We mourn the passing of our beloved former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, and we treasure her legacy of grace, dignity, strength, warmth, and deep passion for the earth. She, herself was a lens on what we can become.



Mrs. Johnson


“The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”


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