Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hope for "Civil" Politics?

By Pilar Oberwetter

Politics these days seems to be heading towards a dangerous cliff of permanent divisiveness, never to return to the amicable party system that is the underbelly of our democracy. And don't get me wrong--both sides are to blame for the teeth gnashing, name-calling, and practically welter-weight verbal blows that capture the headlines every morning.

With this in mind, I read Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times today and followed his link to Although the site is clearly a work in progress, and although the movement is new and still growing, I was entirely sold. Please, readers, please-- follow the link, sign the pledge, and bring civility back to political participation and engagement.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shame on California

Democratic systems are designed such that the views of the majority prevail. I suppose the argument is that the majority will often make collectively sane and reasonable decisions. However what happens when the opposite holds true?

Enter the check and balance system ...

In US history, the independent judicial system has often served as moderator when the public seem on the path of insane and unreasonable. When the majority decides to oppress the minority, the court has stepped in to regulate.

The US Supreme Court under the leadership of Earl Warren was a great example. In 1954, the courageous men on the court held that "separate but equal" was at its core not equal, even unjust. At a time when racist laws were sanctioned by popular vote, the Warren Court held that African Americans had every right to receive the same education (and other human rights) as their white counterparts.

Say what you will about "judicial activism" but these brave justices were ahead of their time. Their rulings made "restricted" water fountains accessible to Black children; they made "restricted" medical schools accessible to Black students; they laid the groundwork for a Black president.

It is with the Warren Court in mind that yesterday's California Supreme Court decision is such a disappointment. The November vote by Californians to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples was an oppression of the minority. It was insane, unreasonable and unjust.

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court did not see their role as moderators of reason. Instead, in a spineless decision, they sanctioned the majority's decision to oppress and eliminate rights of their fellow citizens.

November's vote, coupled with yesterday's decision, makes California (the state and the citizens) the losers of the month!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama Nominates Latina Justice

From today's New York Times feature on Obama Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor:

"Judge Sotomayor has said her ethnicity and gender are important factors in serving on the bench, a point that could generate debate. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” she said in a 2002 lecture."

It will be interesting to see how the confirmation hearing plays out given her ethnicity, the large Democratic majority and her even judicial temperament. I argue she's a winner (and not only because she shares a name with one of the Regenerates)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sacrifice and Success in the Nonprofit Sector

A very interesting Give and Take item was highlighted in The Chronicle yesterday. Leave it to Dan Pallota of Harvard Business to outline the stark contrast between nonprofit and for-profit compensation. He breaks it down to the b-school (or b-school equivalent) crowd,

You must watch your classmates who chose the for-profit sector pass you by on the economic highway — buy homes in better neighborhoods, send their kids to better schools, drive safer cars, take better care of their aging parents, indeed serve on the boards of and direct the very charities that employ you — but you, because you have chosen to help the indigent, you must sacrifice — you can have none of this power, none of this security.
Individuals who choose work in the nonprofit sector cannot and should not expect to make an annual salary that is close to the private sector income earned in an equivalent position. Not even as a nonprofit CEO (ehem - see Food & Friends).

I think this crew of ReGenerates all support higher median wages for nonprofit workers as well as fair health and retirement benefits, especially for those who work on the front lines. And we must still demand better training, recruitment, and retention strategies for young nonprofiteers. 

But shouldn't we also recognize that working in the nonprofit sector: a) allows many of us to pursue our passions for a lifetime; b) often offers a healthier environment for work/life balance; c) centers on values such as giving back and assisting the underserved; and d) helps us sleep a little easier at night?

I realize that sounds ridiculous and self-inflated. But you know what? My salary is moderate enough to allow me a corner of a soapbox. And this is my reality and the reality of many others like me. These are the intangible "benefits" that rocketed me out of a Masters program into the sector and it is what will keep me here.  

Leave me to rest easy as my classmates "pass [me] by on the economic highway." I'll be driving my Civic in the slow lane, enjoying the breeze. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What I Wanted To Be When I Grew Up

By Pilar Oberwetter

Today’s job market is tough, especially for recent graduates. However, in the flurry of press that has accompanied the graduation season, I have observed a disquieting number of articles, opinions, and commentary that point to ‘creative’ options for recent graduates still seeking next steps-- which include the Peace Corps, Teach for America or AmeriCorps among others. Oftentimes these published pieces of advice explain that such service-oriented programs are very helpful if you ‘are still trying to figure out what you want to do’. However, as someone who, when I was 22, made a very conscious and deliberate decision to do Peace Corps precisely because it was what I wanted to do, I object to this portrayal of service.

Service programs, and in fact the nonprofit sector as a whole, have cultivated a misleadingly soft and somewhat amorphous image by allowing mainstream media to use them as examples of a default career or a benevolent path when for many in the sector, it is precisely the opposite.

Quite frankly, if nonprofit or service-oriented work is not your original passion, you will not last very long. Admittedly, the three programs mentioned above, as well as many like them, are designed to guide their participants into a career of service, but that should not be interpreted as helping their participants find their dream job. Instead, for many of us, the programs helped us pursue the dream or the vision that we already held.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Light from the Shadows

by Oscar Perry Abello

Sometimes called the underground or the shadow economy, the informal economy is usually where a majority of firms and households operate in developing markets. Far from being underground, the rapidly growing slums, shantytowns and rural villages where informal economies thrive are the predominant way of life in developing markets. The reasons for informal and extralegal arrangements are not widely understood, but they are worldwide. They're not illegal arrangements, they're simply outside the existing legal structure. There are no laws addressing them as protected entities or criminal entities. They just are. NPR's All Things Considered recently painted a portrait of informality that hits very close to home here in Washington, DC:

Charitable donations have been declining, along with the economy. But one type of giving appears to be on the rise: giving circles. Many people are forming these groups where they pool their funds so they can have a greater impact on a charitable cause. Their growth comes at a time when donors say they want more control over how their charitable dollars are spent.

Aside from the First Amendment Right to Associate, a giving circle doesn't have the full legal structure of a private foundation or grant-making organization - and that's the whole point. Giving circles are flexible and they're based on small, local networks of people with shared interests; adding the lack of legal structure and the desire to avoid "the increasingly bureaucratic world" of fundraising, and you've got every characteristic of an informal enterprise.

The story is about more than informality, of course. It's also a wake-up call to nonprofits. Such informal arrangements are naturally more diligent about where and how they expend scarce resources (the featured giving circle expends volunteer labor, not just money). For organizations hoping to tap every mission-appropriate pool of money, the competitive forces of a growing informal market for giving can be a powerful incentive that shines a light on wasteful habits and missed opportunities to make an impact.

Obama and Gay Rights

How serious is he about following through on campaign promises?

Check out Andrew Sullivan's take.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lessons Not Learned

When I first moved to DC and was looking for a place to volunteer, I quickly came across Food & Friends, a nonprofit that, "Provides meals, groceries and nutrition counseling to people living with life-challenging illnesses such as AIDS and cancer."

I was impressed by the Food & Friends volunteer corps pounding the pavement in Dupont Circle, selling the mission, advertising the group's services, and recruiting volunteers. Within weeks of my first contact with Food & Friends, however, news broke in the Washington area that the group's executive director, Craig Shniderman, was making over $350,000 a year in salary and benefits.

I mean, I'm not qualified to say what could be considered "competitive" compensation for a person in his position, but I do know that compensation tends to follow budget size in the nonprofit sector. According to yesterday's piece in the Washington Examiner, that level of compensation accounted for nearly 4% of the organization's overall budget in 2007.

If these folks continue to successfully fundraise in order to pursue their mission, maybe this is not such a problem. Foundations and government organizations can easily access or solicit information on executive compensation and decide for themselves whether 4% is "too high."

Well, according to The Examiner, the Montgomery County Council has done just that.

The Council put their foot down on Shniderman and Food & Friends yesterday, with Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, rallying the troops to remove $55,000 in county funding that was earmarked for the coming year.

Councilman Leventhal put it simply, "“They can keep paying him, but we’re not going to contract with them.”

One could say it's a shame that this funding will not reach Food & Friends during a time when such services are needed more than ever or that the Council's decision was more about scoring political points than anything else.

But seriously, $350K?! Whether I worked at Food & Friends, was a recipient of their services, or a prospective funder, I think I'd still feel that number was tough to swallow.

How high is too high when it comes to executive compensation? Should Food & Friends have "learned their lesson" after initial bad press?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Calling all Pet Lovers

I was amazed yesterday listening to NPR. There was a short feature story on a new airline for pets. For $149, Pet Airways will fly your cats or dogs, not as cargo but as "pawsengers."

As far as I know, this is the first time pets will be able to fly as customers. Interesting. I suppose this qualifies as a niche market?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adding Insult to Injury

By Pilar Oberwetter

The obsolete practice of beauty pageantry just cemented its place in the mausoleum of history’s negatives with its recent validation of homophobic propaganda. Today, Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA pageant, officially permitted Carrie Prejean, otherwise known as Miss California, to speak out against same-sex marriage while in competition and still beat out 47 other competitors to claim the title of runner-up to Ms. USA.

Now, in addition to being an event that shamelessly objectifies women, the Miss USA pageant has just made it ok for these public personas to advocate divisive beliefs on national stage, under the guise of “carrying a message to young people”. What’s next? Anti-Semitism? Racial slurs? Using Trump’s logic, anything goes.

For shame. Here is hoping that the tides of progress drown both Mr. Trump and Ms. Prejean.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Do YOU have the swine flu?

Better find out fast.

Food for Thought

By Pilar Oberwetter

For those of us residing in urban communities, the new trend of farming chickens in such an environment takes "buying local" or "eating organic" to a whole new level. If anyone is motivated to take on a summer project, raising your own live food would provide more entertainment for you, your friends, and your family than simply planting an herb garden. For details, go to

Friday, May 8, 2009

Vigil for Johanna Justin-Jinich

A message from Wesleyan's President Michael Roth, sent to alumni last night:

Tomorrow at 1 p.m., two days after the shooting that took the life of Johanna Justin-Jinich, Wesleyan will hold a brief memorial vigil in the Huss Courtyard behind the Usdan Center. There will be time for Johanna's friends and family to plan other ceremonies at Wesleyan, and perhaps elsewhere. But tomorrow we will gather just to be with one another and remember. We will pay our respects to Johanna's all-too-brief life.

We will gather now because we need to, because it is right to do so, and because we feel it is safe enough to do so. There is now a much more robust police presence on the Wesleyan campus, and we will retain that presence as long as necessary.

We will come together tomorrow at 1 PM in compassionate solidarity with one another, and in remembrance of Johanna. As members of the Wesleyan family, you will be with us in spirit, no matter how far away you are from Middletown.

Yours truly,

Michael Roth '78

Since news broke last night that the shooter turned himself into Meriden police, the Wesleyan community and the family and friends of Johanna Justin-Jinich still mourn, and will continue to mourn, this terrible loss. I hope that with the shooter now in custody, those in Middletown and elsewhere can grieve without fear and with thoughts of Johanna's life - not those of her last moments - in their hearts and minds.

My thoughts and prayers are with them all today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tragedy at Wesleyan

More frightening news emerges on the shooting of a Wesleyan University junior, Johanna Justin-Jinich, yesterday afternoon.

While the community continues to wait indoors as the police seek suspect, Stephen Morgan, Professor Claire Potter offers reactions from campus.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bowling Blindfolded

Today, David Brooks invokes the Wild West and pleads with Republicans to recall the power of "community building" and "neighborhood life."

One wonders how he made it through this op-ed without once using the phrase "social capital" or referencing the work of Robert Putnam, whose "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" outlines precisely how "successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities."

I feel for Mr. Brooks, I really do, whose party was so quick to cheer Sarah Palin's mocking attack on President Obama's role as a community organizer. 

It'll be a long, hard road if Republicans want to reclaim this territory. I will, however, applaud any genuine efforts to do so. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Food for Thought....

"... I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

--David Foster Wallace, 2005

Friday, May 1, 2009

Following the Poor out of Poverty

by Oscar Perry Abello

If Hernando de Soto was overestimating how much wealth the world’s poor had accumulated by a factor of two, they would still hold twenty times the value of all foreign aid received since 1945. Unfortunately most if not all of those assets are held outside the formal legal structure for property in their respective countries. A legal structure does exist; but for lack of political will it has not adapted to suit contemporary needs.

All across sub-Saharan Africa, elected officials are taking advantage of the legal vacuum for property rights in their countries. Governments are selling off land to foreign investors looking to profit from increased biofuel demand and food shortages. While the investment will bring jobs and productive capacity, these governments are granting property rights to foreigners without regard or compensation for rural entrepreneurs that have lived and worked the land for generations.

Property rights are only the beginning of problems facing rural entrepreneurs, and nonprofits are on the front-lines of their struggles, giving rural entrepreneurs a larger presence as a political constituency. The Private Enterprise Foundation (PEF) is an umbrella group of business organizations that has several programs designed to bring rural entrepreneurs into the political process. You can find a detailed look at PEF's efforts here.

Business associations are not typically thought of as nonprofits, but they are community builders and political advocates like others. Their focus is simply the community of for-profit enterprises, which happens to include rural entpreneurs/farmers/three-quarters of the world's poor. Not to mention the fact that with a greater political voice for rural entrepreneurs, the people in poverty can lead the charge to eradicate poverty.

Pilar's Daily Musing

I am absolutely thrilled that government and the media are working in tandem to prevent the spread of swine flu from reaching pandemic proportions globally. But shouldn’t the same level of urgent attention and resources be applied to other emergencies in this country….such as public education….spread of AIDS….urban poverty….just to mention a few…?