Creating a Model For Civic Action

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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the February 6, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

How a Community Works

It was a powerhouse of a meeting. Nearly 300 of the

most influential movers and shakers in Central Jersey gathered to

meet and greet, hear an inspiring keynote speech, participate in some

of the 30 workshops, and go home ready to claw their way past

competitors

and make their next million.

Forget that last part, about the clawing and the money, because the

purpose of this event, Community Works, was to develop volunteers

and staff members for nonprofits, and as you might guess, nonprofits

aren’t rolling in dough.

You might also guess that Community Works was run by and attended

by, mostly, women. In the years before two-income families, women

dominated the volunteer field. Even now, as the Bush administration

tries to rally the for-free workers, women make up the bulk of the

volunteer community. The very large and energetic committee that put

this together was virtually all female, and males were a distinct

minority in attendance.

They are Princeton’s power women. Among them: Two former YWCA

executive

directors, the president of the Delaware-Raritan Girl Scout Council,

the superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools, two directors of

Family and Children’s Service organizations, the directors of the

Arts Council of Princeton, the Princeton Public Library, and the

Historical

Society of Princeton — and the international president of the

Junior League. To name a few.

Patty Byers, Mimi Ballard, Barbara Abramson, Janine Honstein plus

two dozen more women — and one man — were on the committee

for the fifth annual event, begun by Marge Smith five years ago "

to empower individuals, paid or volunteer, to gain skills, find out

what other organizations are doing, and to expand our awareness of

the multiple community needs nonprofits meet." Smith designed

and teaches the certificate program in nonprofit management at Mercer

County Community College, but before that she was executive director

of the Princeton YWCA.

"I think the event is unique," says Susan Hoskins, director

of the Chandler Hall Health Services Program at the Quaker Settlement

at Stony Brook in Princeton. "I think Marge Smith is unique. She

has vision. She has connections. And she is good at keeping things

rolling. She has a phenomenal way of sweeping people up as she moves

forward."

Community Works is always held at Princeton University (which donates

the space) and always at the end of January (between semesters). This

year, it took place at the Frist Student Center on Monday, January

28, from 5 to 9:15 p.m. It started with power networking, a paper

and pencil parlor game-like networking exercise, designed to rev up

everyone to meet new people. The din was deafening.

Deborah Brittain, the keynoter, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, which says,

"If you do not give something to the community, then you are a

thief." She is a Princeton Township resident who is president

of the Association of Junior Leagues International and has been active

in the National Council of Negro Women, the Legal Defense and

Education

Fund, and the National Urban League.

Maximum use of time with minimum folderol was the mood. Box dinners

were handed out to be consumed during in the first workshop, and

coffee

and cookies were served in the break before the second workshop.

Hoskins offered insights on the "Men are from Mars, Women from

Venus" question. A birthright Quaker, trained in conflict

mediation,

she taught the "Managing Conflict" workshop. "Women and

men often approach problem solving and organizations differently,"

said Hoskins. "Men tend to solve problems hierarchically —

with the boss dictating the solution — and women tend to think

collaboratively."

"That’s one of the ways why conflict resolution makes sense to

me as a female — it is collaborative problem solving," Hoskins

said. "It also makes sense to use conflict resolution in

nonprofits

because many of the people in the workforce — volunteer or paid

— are women. Creative conflict resolution is a natural fit in

the nonprofit."

Diversity of sex can be as great a challenge as

diversity

of race and ethnic origin, according to three women on the panel

entitled "Attracting

and Retaining a Diverse Board, Staff, and Volunteer Corps." The

three — two African-American women and a woman with a Hispanic

background — are often asked to fill the "race" slots

on boards, yet they advocate a broader application of diversity.

Sasa Olessi Montano, former executive director of the YWCA of Trenton,

now director of Princeton University’s Center for Community Service,

suggested that it might also be important for board members to

represent

different ages, sexual orientation, economic backgrounds and work

histories. "Diversity must be a value," she said. "You

must be intentional. You must be committed. Take half of a meeting

to discuss what it means — how it will enhance your mission. Put

a diversity provision in your bylaws."

"Have a plan," said Brittain, president of the Association

of Junior Leagues International. "Decide where you are and where

you want to go, then use a competency-based process."

"Create partnerships with organizations that work with the

population

that you want to have represented on your board," said Michele

Tuck-Ponder, former mayor of Princeton Township and current president

of the D&R Girl Scout Council. "One person can light a fire. I

have found that there is always someone in the room who believes there

needs to be a change."

But differences can bring friction. Tuck-Ponder remembered presiding

over a women’s organization board when the "diversity

representative,"

a male, referred to the women’s complaining as bitching. "I did

manage to get him out of there alive," she said.

"I learned how to empower volunteers," said Mary Singleton

of United Progress in Trenton, "how to allow each one to choose

what they like to do best."

"I learned how to speak so others listen," said Yomi Odumosu

of the Lighthouse African Resource Center, a new organization to help

immigrants from Africa. "I learned you don’t focus on yourself

but on what you want them to hear. That little things make a

difference,

that you should speak with your whole body."

The summing up was done the best by Brittain, the keynoter.

"From the abolitionist movement to `Ban the Bomb’ and volunteer

firefighters . . . from organized labor to Mothers Against Drunk

Drivers

. . . from the NAACP to Farm Aid — America has changed, grown,

and become a beacon to the world through the non-paid work of

volunteers,"

said Brittain. She cited statistics that 44 percent of adults (83.9

million people) volunteer an average of 24 hours a month, the

equivalent

of $239 billion in labor.

She challenged nonprofit leaders to compete for credibility by

building

their brand. "Americans are looking for meaning and community

in their lives. People, at their core, are more interested in living

`a’ good life than living `the’ good life. We must build our `brand’

by asking volunteers what the words and concepts of `meaning’ and

`community’ mean to them. We must inquire and collect from volunteers

what motivates them and what will retain them. And we must illustrate

and illuminate the way in which volunteering provides the much sought

after ingredients of `a’ good life.’

"These past months have held vivid reminders of our need to be

part of a collective purpose and our will to respond to the needs

of others. Volunteerism has been equated to courage, and that is as

it should be."

"However, in many ways, it is simply the courage to know our own

heart, and act on what our heart is saying, that distinguishes us

as volunteers. It is empowering and encouraging to know that so many

hearts here tonight are Courageous Hearts that perform that simple

act of `giving to others’ in a community that works `together.’"

— Barbara Fox

Top Of Page
Creating a Model For Civic Action

The cartoon shows a small group of our founding fathers,

appointment books out, quill pens in hand. Three of the men sit around

a table, two stand. All wear the pensive expressions of those trying

to fit an engagement into an already crammed calendar. Ben Franklin,

pen poised, says "O.K., the third of July is out. How about the

fourth?"

Not every event is as important to the course of human events as the

signing of the Declaration of Independence, but every event is a major

undertaking, important to its organizers and to their constituents.

So many details need to be taken into consideration. Choosing a date

is just one.

For five years in a row, a group of area citizens has joined together

to stage Community Works, a conference described in the article above.

So well has the growing event worked, drawing ever-larger numbers

of participants, that there was sentiment in the steering committee

to stage similar events for other communities. Barbara Abramson, a

member of Community Works’ steering committee for all five years,

recalls organizer Marge Smith saying, "`We can’t do that, but

we can write a book.’" To be more specific, Smith, former director

of the YWCA, instructor at Mercer County Community College, and

consultant

to non-profits, decided on the spot that Abramson should write a book

detailing how to stage a conference like Community Works.

Abramson set out to create a step-by-step blueprint for organizing,

staging — and even cleaning up after — a meeting designed

to bring together all those in a community interested in helping to

make it a better place through volunteer activity.

With the project nearly complete, Abramson says she has come to

realize

that the book is not limited to replicating Community Works. With

its detailed instructions, it could be used to rally a community for

any purpose. "It could be used for the Millstone Bypass or the

deer kill problem or a neighborhood issue," she says.

The how-to book is called "Beyond Howling: How to Hold a

Conference

that Builds Community." The name came from another New Yorker

cartoon. A group of wolves stand around the edge of a rock

outcropping.

Most have thrown back their heads and are focused on howling at a

full moon. But one wolf, obviously an introspective fellow, says to

a friend: "My question is: Are we making an impact?"

This new instruction manual on how to have an impact through pooling

knowledge and experience at an annual conference is full of serious

details — how much to spend on postage? Does it pay to advertise

an event?. But it is given a delightful lightness by the wonderful

cartoons, one better than the next, and each right on target. There

are a dozen or so, all purchased from the New Yorker’s Cartoonbank.

This is Abramson’s first book. A graduate of Yale, Class of 1973,

the first class that included women, she worked as a copy editor for

Fairchild Publishing after graduation, and worked as a freelance

writer

after that. The only work experience she can compare to writing the

book was a project doing research for an oral history of the Mobil

corportion.

Born in Manhattan, Abramson began volunteering before she was out

of high school, spending weekends at the Workshop for the Blind,

taking

children bowling and teaching them tap dancing. She tutored during

college and volunteered at a mental hospital. Among the benefits of

volunteering, she says, is that "if you’re not asking to get paid,

you get `entree.’" Once in, she says, volunteers have the

opportunity

to learn a great deal, and often come away with "a different view

of the world."

Volunteering also changed Abramson’s career direction. "I’m a

good speller, a natural speller," she says. So, when she

volunteered

to work for the Fortune Society, a group that works with individuals

who have been in trouble with the law, she was assigned to help a

young man with major spelling problems. It turns out, she says, that

his problems "went way beyond spelling." He had serious

language

problems. In helping the young man work through them, Abramson became

so interested in language disorders that she enrolled in CUNY-Hunter

and earned a master’s degree in speech language pathology.

After working as a speech pathologist, Abramson left the full-time

workforce to raise her children, Galia, a seventh grader at the John

Witherspoon School, and Louis, a ninth grader at Princeton High

School.

Her husband, Bernard Abramson, is a Merck executive, working mostly

in West Point, Pennsylvania.

Abramson works part-time at the Jewish Center of

Princeton

tutoring students for their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, but beyond

that 10-hour-a-week job, her life revolves around her family and

volunteering.

In addition to her work for Community Works, she volunteers at her

children’s schools and the Princeton Education Foundation.

Collaborating and forming friendships are high on Abramson’s list

of the benefits of volunteering. "I’m a relationship-oriented

person," she says. The new book is very much a product of

collaboration.

Abramson gives lavish praise to Jaclyn Boone, a freelance book

designer

who helped her every step of the way. The original plan was to obtain

a grant, in large part so that Boone could be paid. But when a grant

didn’t materialize, Boone went ahead and did the work anyway, and

Abramson credits her with making the book so attractive and —

more important — so easy to use.

Writing and designing a how-to book is not nearly as easy as it looks,

says Abramson. "With a novel you just add pages. You just keep

on going," she says. But a how-to requires organizational tricks.

Cartoons need to be placed next to the text they comment on without

running the text onto another page. Financial worksheets have to be

on facing pages, with no room left over. There needs to be an

easy-to-follow

scheme throughout that differentiates between different types of

content.

Most challenging of all, some vital pieces of information don’t fit

easily into the scheme, but have to be worked in nevertheless. In

accomplishing all of this, Boone was invaluable, Abramson says.

It was Abramson herself, though, who came up with the book’s main

organizing mechanism. Racking her brain for a way to present the

thousands

of details that go into creating an effective conference, she came

up with the idea of going meeting by meeting. So, right after the

introduction — with the howling wolf illustration — comes

Meeting 1. For that, and every subsequent chapter, Abramson presents

an agenda (using a clipboard graphic that was Boone’s idea), a list

of every single material needed for that meeting (staples to toilet

paper), and things to do "Before You Adjourn."

She found, however, that not everything fit neatly into the Meeting

1, Meeting 2 scheme. Not all the action occurs at the meetings. Rather

than scrap the Meeting chapter heads, she added more sections.

Entitled

"Between Meetings," these sections include activities such

as field trips to evaluate meeting sites, and calls to newspapers

to determine which editor might cover the upcoming event. There is

also a section on what to do on the day of the conference, and one

on how to evaluate how well it accomplished its goals.

The book is intended as a turnkey how-to. "We’ve done this for

five years. Five years," Abrams emphasizes. "It works. We

know it works." However, she says she wrote the book in such a

way that worksheets, sample letters, and agendas could easily be

tinkered

with. A challenge, she says, was to walk the line between detailing

absolutely everything any group would need to replicate Princeton’s

Community Works, and appearing to condescend by providing too much

information.

"Obviously," she says, "if you find you didn’t make enough

copies of the registration form, you go out and make more. I didn’t

have to say that." At the same time, she provides a diagram

illustrating

in great detail just exactly how the post office likes those

registration

forms to look when they go out in the bulk mail.

Howling is nearly complete. Final edits are being made, and Community

Works is weighing publishing options. "We might still try for

a grant," says Abramson. That route would provide her with some

remuneration for the time she has spent, and, more far important,

she says, would compensate Boone. The alternative is to find a

publisher.

That avenue would carry the advantage of taking care of distribution.

In any case, Abramson expects that the book will be available for

purchase well before the spring.

Here is an advance peek at some of Abramson’s suggestions for

organizing

a conference, particularly one to address community needs.

Meeting 1. This is the meeting that gets things going.

The agenda includes signing in and refreshments (15 minutes),

networking

(30 minutes), developing the purpose and framework (25 minutes),

brainstorming

possible workshop topics (25 minutes), and conference title and site

(15 minutes).

Specific instructions under "signing in" include, "have

a pad at the door where committee members can sign in with their name,

address, and telephone numbers. If they have fax numbers or E-mail

addresses, get them as well." While this sounds simple, canvassing

the room for people who have come equipped with pens and paper takes

time, and forgetting to collect E-mails addresses cuts off one of

the most effective means of communication.

During this first meeting, Abramson suggests topics

for the upcoming conference be considered. She offers a list of

possible

topics, including community needs, marketing, volunteers, technology,

conflict resolution, diversity, and personnel issues. She also

provides

a mechanism for deciding which topics will be included. "For this

process you will first split up into groups of four or five, each

with a facilitator. Hand out index cards and have people jot down

ideas for workshops, one per index card. Then, share your ideas. The

facilitator consolidates the topics within the group, preferably

listed

for display on an easel pad or poster, and, after 20 minutes or so

when the groups reassemble, reports them to the entire committee."

Before the first meeting adjourns, Abramson suggests volunteers be

assigned to scout a conference site, draw up a registration form for

the conference, and invite other organizations to join the planning

group.

Meeting 3. The agenda includes signing in and refreshments

(5 minutes), networking (10 minutes), status report on preparations

and setting the registration fee (30 minutes), and assigning jobs

(30 minutes).

Jobs include handling registration, serving as treasurer, publicizing

the event, recruiting workshop leaders, enlisting a keynote speaker,

writing brief bios of the speakers, devising a get-acquainted

activity,

photocopying all documents to be distributed at the conference,

serving

as liaison with site management to arrange for audiovisual or

computer-related

needs.

In the "Before You Adjourn" section for this meeting, tasks

include making sure everyone is clear on how to proceed with his task,

assigning a volunteer to consult the post office for rules governing

bulk mail, agreeing on the next meeting date, procuring address

labels,

making arrangements for publicity photos.

Post-Conference Evaluation. This is another meeting, and

an important one. Here committe members talk about what went well

— and what didn’t. Workshop evaluations are reviewed, but the

post mortem doesn’t stop there. Abramson’s list of conference aspects

to be evaluated includes how well parking went, whether the food was

too messy, how the computer equipment worked, whether attendance lived

up to expectations, and was there enough room to hang coats.

The most important aspect element of the conference, Abramson

says, is the mood. "In Hebrew we say ruach," she says.

"It’s

a spirit, a feeling. When everything comes together, it’s just

thrilling."

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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