How I Spend My Wednesday Evenings

There are two main reasons why I love living in this “college town”:

  1. I get to tailgate and cheer on the BC Football team each fall (Go eagles!); and
  2. There are tons of free lectures, events, and opportunities for intellectual growth.

This past Wednesday evening, my roommate, Brooke, and I ventured to our first class at Northeastern University. We found our way to West Village F, descended the stairs into the lecture hall, and pulled out our notebooks. I felt a deep nostalgia for that “first day of school” energy. The thing is, we’re not actually matriculated in a program at Northeastern.

The Choice: Election 2016

Each semester, Northeastern University hosts the Myra Kraft Open Classroom Series. It’s free and open to the public, and was established in memory of Myra Kraft. The course this semester is titled “The Choice: Election 2016.” It’s held on Wednesday evenings from 6:00PM-8:00PM in West Village F, Room 20. It started last Wednesday, September 7, and runs through December 7. Even if you missed the first class, you can still come!

The lead faculty is really what sold me on the class. Once I heard it, I thought, “YES! This is exactly how I want to spend my Wednesday evenings.” Here it is:

  • The Honorable Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, former Governor of Massachusetts, 1988 Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and Brookline resident (For more info about Governor Dukakis, check out my recent post about the health policy forum in Brookline)
  • Christopher Bosso, professor of public policy and director of the Master of Public Policy at Northeastern University

Each week, there’s a panel of professors speaking on a different topic. The first hour of the first class was lecture. The second hour had a Q&A format.

What are the Choices?

As Professor Bosso explained last week,  the class is meant to be an exploration of the upcoming election. He introduced the course with a few guiding questions:

  • Where are we?
  • How did we get here?
  • What are the choices?
  • How do we look at the choices?

Clearly, this election season has been….different. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking what it all means and what my role is in promoting a healthy democracy. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I hope this class will provide an academic framework to think productively, rather than emotionally, about the political reality today. Through this class, we’ll get to hear from experts in the field, and we’ll all unpack it together.

Up until November 8th, the class will focus on the election, candidates, and issues. After November 8th, we’ll study President Obama’s legacy.

Paths to the Nomination

Each week, there will be a panel of experts. Last Wednesday, we heard from Dr. Rachael Cobb, Associate Professor and Chair of the Suffolk University Department of Government, Dr. William Mayer, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, and Governor Dukakis.

First, Dr. Cobb taught us about the Democratic Party’s nomination process and how Hillary Clinton was nominated. Next, Dr. Mayer spoke about the Republican Party’s nomination process and how Donald Trump was nominated. Lastly, Governor Dukakis offered some reflections and observations about the nomination processes and why he thinks Americans overall are unhappy.

Among other topics, we learned about: the history of primaries in the U.S., the value of endorsements, the “invisible primary” (prior to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary), the history of business people in politics, the consequences of unpopular party leadership, celebrities in politics, bias in press coverage, and candidate field size. Professor Cobb showed us some endorsement data from fivethirtyeight.com and Professor Mayer passed around a handout about, “Who Voted for Whom in the 2016 Republican Primaries.”

The Q&A session was interesting, too. Northeastern students and members of the broader public posed very insightful questions about third party candidates, political rhetoric, and unsuccessful candidates. It’s uplifting to witness other people, particularly young students, caring so much about the political process.

The Semester Ahead

As I’m writing this, I’m getting excited for class #2 tonight: The Economy, Jobs, and Opportunity. I wonder if political scientists are thinking differently about the economy than they were when I was in college a couple years ago. Next week will be about globalization and the age of migration. For a complete schedule and to read more about the topics and professors, check out this page.

I know that not all of my wonderful readers live in Brookline or Boston and can attend this lecture series. But, other colleges have classes that are open to the public as well. Visit your closest university’s course listing or calendar. There may be open lectures about the election. Moreover, there are a plethora of online free courses, through platforms like EdX. For one, Harvard has some free online classes about the election, which you can find here. If you find any good classes near you, let me know so I can share them with other readers.

This class seems very promising. I may be out of college, but I still get to spend my Wednesday evenings in class and my Saturdays watching football. Not too bad!

Running Towards the Emergency

Simply Civics Medical Reserve Corps

“It’s all about being prepared when your day doesn’t go as planned.”

A few weeks ago, I sat with Cheryl, the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Brookline Health Department. Cheryl runs the Brookline unit of the Medical Reserve Corps.

The MRC, according to their website, is a “community-based, civilian, volunteer program that helps build the public health infrastructure of communities nationwide.” There are 989 community-based units nationwide.

One of my friends in the League of Women Voters of Brookline had recommended I contact Cheryl to hear about the MRC, and I’m really glad I did. The MRC is a phenomenal community service opportunity for anyone, regardless of whether or not you have a medical license. I’m excited to share more info about it with you, and I highly recommend you consider volunteering for it.

MRC 101

This is how it works. You sign up as a volunteer, participate in training, and get added to a database of volunteers. At certain times, you would be contacted with a volunteer request. It’s a low-level commitment and volunteering in any given circumstance is up to you and your availability.

The types of situations vary. Volunteers respond to apartment fires, hail and ice storms, blizzards, and other natural disasters. They have tents at the Boston Marathon and provide public health education and outreach throughout the year. This fall, the MRC has 3 flu clinics planned.

As I was sitting there, I thought: wow, this would be so great, IF I were a medical professional. I can’t administer flu vaccines! I wouldn’t feel the least bit comfortable handling any medical equipment.

Helpers

But have no fear. Cheryl said that there’s work for everyone to do. Actually, there are always logistical tasks in emergency response. From what I’ve heard, the MRC is great at matching up volunteer’s qualifications and strengths with their roles in the Corps. For example, if a hailstorm were to shatter windows in an apartment building, MRC volunteers would help direct tenants to temporary shelter or the Red Cross. As the coordinator, Cheryl gets to know volunteers’ strengths and how each volunteer can best help.

In emergency situations, there tend to be “helpers,” or people who run towards the emergency. They’re spontaneous volunteers. Even with the best intentions, helpers can cause confusion. That’s what makes the MRC so important. It brings together helpers and gives them the pathway and training to serve in terms of crisis.

Training

The training sessions are fascinating. There’s typically one per month from September through May. Just to give you a small glimpse of the full scope of sessions you could attend, here are some previous topics:

  • Building Emotional Resilience
  • CPR/First Aid
  • Building Relationships for Effective Communication
  • Reducing the Fatal Overdose: Community Policing and Public Health
  • Emergency Preparedness for Parents of Children with Disabilities and Special Healthcare Needs
  • 2015 Nepal Earthquake: An on the Ground Perspective in Nepal

And they’re all FREE!

CERT

Often, the MRC collaborates with the Brookline Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). CERT programs are part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Similar to the MRC, CERT volunteers provide a crucial service to the community. They give “critical support to first responders, provide immediate assistance to victims, and organize spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site.” In Brookline, the MRC and CERT coordinators work closely together to optimize their services.

To see whether there’s a CERT program in your area, check out this link.

Buddy System

The MRC also serves the community in another capacity: through the Emergency Preparedness (EP) Buddies Program.

Tragically, in 1995, about 700 people died in Chicago during a heat wave. Many of those who passed away were elders living alone in social isolation. Without anyone checking in on them, they fell victim to heat-related health issues.

Since then, communities like Brookline have developed programs to look out for the safety and preparedness of elders. Through the EP Buddies Program, the MRC and CERT assess a Brookline elders’ individual level of preparedness, and match him or her up with a preparedness buddy.

As a preparedness buddy, a volunteer will identify his or her elder buddy’s needs, set up communication plans, and prepare supplies for potential evacuations. Often, buddies will prepare a bag with essential materials–medications, toiletries, clothing, etc–and leave it at the elder’s front door. That way, Heaven forbid, there’s an emergency, the elder will be ready to just grab the bag and head out as quickly as possible to get to a safe location.

Interested in becoming a buddy? Here’s the brochure. To become one, you first will sign up for the MRC and complete the training. As I previously mentioned, the trainings are fascinating.

National Preparedness Month

Moreover, signing up for the MRC couldn’t be any simpler. Seriously. Complete the online application and if you have any questions, email them at mrc@brooklinema.gov.

September is National Preparedness Month so don’t wait! This is a fantastic time of year to get started. In fact, there’s an information session for the Brookline MRC and CERT coming up. Here are the details, so you can add it to your calendar right now:

Date: Thursday, September 15th
Time: 6:15PM-7:30PM
Location: Community Room of the Public Safety Building, 350 Washington Street, Brookline, MA

By the way, there will also be light refreshments! Check out the Facebook page to RSVP for the session and learn more.

Resolutions

September often feels like the start to a new year. Friends are moving to new apartments, students are starting a new year of school, and we’re inching towards the beautiful, delightfully colorful season of fall.

Consider making a September Resolution to provide a critical service to your community, and sign up to volunteer for the MRC or CERT. They’re not just in Brookline — they’re nationwide.

And hey, if you’re moving into a new community and want to get to know your new surroundings, this is an especially great opportunity for you to get involved. Add it to your moving list and make it happen!

One last time, here’s the page where you can search for the MRC unit closest to you.

It never hurts to be prepared.

Simply Civics Ballot

What You Might Not Know About Ballots

I was eating dinner with my parents and one of my sisters, Alley, a couple weeks ago. Not surprisingly, our conversation shifted to the upcoming election.

My mom asked me about what determines ballot order. I didn’t have a clue.

Are candidates listed alphabetically, by candidate name or party? Is it random? What impact, if any, does the ballot order have on the election outcome?

Embrace your Individuality

As it turns out, it actually varies a lot state by state. In my Political Science classes at Boston College, I learned that in our system of federalism, oftentimes we see a plurality of policies at the state level. States get creative in how they approach various policy issues, such as school systems, tax structures, etc. On Election Day, too, states like to show off their own individuality.

Since the federal government doesn’t dictate how states organize election ballots, we see a plurality of ballot laws across the country. The University of Virginia Center for Politics released a super handy list in 2009. It’s fascinating to see the states’ different approaches to handling ballot order.

Lotteries & Incumbent Advantage

A lot of states seem to place value on the outcomes of previous elections. In Massachusetts, the incumbent is listed first, followed by the other candidates in alphabetical order by last name. Some states, like Connecticut, base the order on previous election results. For example, if the Democrats won the previous election, their candidate will appear first. Interesting, right? So in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, whichever party had the most success in the previous election will appear first.  The underdog is indeed the underdog.

Some states take a similar approach, with their own variations. For example, in Wisconsin, the party that won the most votes in the previous gubernatorial election will be listed first. Whereas, in West Virginia, the party that won the most votes in the last presidential election will be listed first.

In Maryland, the party with the most registered voters is listed first.

Some states leave it up to the official printing the ballots (Illinois) or the State Election Commission (South Carolina) to decide.

Still other states, like Virginia and Washington, have lotteries to determine party order. This sounds both exciting and stressful.

Unclear Bias

Thanks to Political Science academics, there are a ton of studies out there about ballot order.

As it turns out, the candidates listed first may have an advantage. Surprise, surprise! Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, calls this phenomenon the “first-listing bias.” Voters who are still on the fence might pick the candidate listed first. However, he says the bias produces fewer additional votes for offices at the top of the ballot, such as president or governor, than towards the bottom. The more highly visible the office, the less likely the order of the candidates matters. For more of Larry Sabato’s insights, check out his article, Who’s on First.

Things Aren’t Random

Academics have brainstormed solutions to this dilemma, too. In First Among Equals, Yuval Salant, assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Marc Meredith, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania propose one solution. If we could somehow randomize ballots, we might be able to improve the fairness of elections. For example, on Election Day, I might see one candidate listed first, and you might see the other candidate listed first. That could be cool….but extremely costly. Towns, cities, and states already spend a ton on each election, without randomizing ballots. Would the benefits outweigh the costs? It seems like for now, officials have decided it doesn’t.

When The Ballot’s In Your Hands

So, the jury is still out on ballot order. There is some evidence to suggest that ballot order matters. Each state has used its own approach to remedy the issue, but no state is perfect.

As always, the best solution is voter education. Make sure you do some research on the candidates before you get to the polls. That way, you’ll vote for the candidate you most identify with, regardless of where they appear on the ballot.

Women & Men in the Arena

League of Women Voters - Simply Civics

When I have a big decision to make or when I’m in need of a motivation, I look to history for perspective. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my role should be in the upcoming election. For example, should I canvass for a candidate, make phone calls, or stress a lot about the outcome?

This time, I thought back to one of my favorite political speeches in American history. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt made a speech in Paris, called “Citizen in a Republic.” This particular excerpt is often referred to as the “Man in the Arena” speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Each time I read it, my heart races. It conjures up images of Olympians, striving valiantly to represent their nations and reach for the gold. Especially relevant, I’m thinking of Katie Ledecky, shattering her own world record yesterday.

Just as the Olympians can compete, each of us can jump into the arena.

Personally, I found my worthy cause for this election: voter engagement. Today, I’m going to share a little bit about a phenomenal organization I stumbled upon: the League of Women Voters of Brookline.

League of Women Voters

To begin, the League of Women Voters is a national organization that strives to protect, educate, and engage voters in the United States. The League doesn’t endorse candidates; rather, it promotes education. Aside from voting, the umbrella organization has several key priorities, including campaign finance reform, environmental protection, immigration reform, and gun safety.

Closer to home, we have a Massachusetts chapter, and even more locally, a Brookline chapter. I am now officially a member of the LWV of Brookline!

Already, I’m finding it remarkably fulfilling. At its core, the League is an enthusiastic and supportive group of women and men collaborating for a valiant, common cause. Joining is easy. Just follow this link and fill out the form. Men can join, too.

As a member, I’ve learned a lot about the generations of women before me who have fought for political equality. In particular, it’s really humbling to consider the advancements America has made in voting rights. However, we are still far from perfection, especially when you think about states still attempting to restrict access to the ballot through so-called “voter identification” laws.

Brookline Primary Simply Civics

Voting Checklist

Because I’m a member of the League, I’ve spent some time researching election processes. So that you don’t have to, I’m sharing the highlights with you.

Now that we’re less than 100 days away from the general election (November 8th), I’m debuting the official Simply Civics Voting Checklist:

  • First, mark your calendar. Access your iCal, Google Calendar, or desk calendar. Add one event to Thursday, September 8th (for the Brookline primary) and one event to Tuesday, November 8th. Decide now which time you’ll go to the poll to vote. You can always move it to another time if your schedule shifts. Call the events “Civic Duty” or anything that will get you excited to vote. Brookline residents, I want to draw your attention to the fact that the primary is on Thursday, September 8th. It isn’t on a Tuesday this year, so make sure you add it to your calendar.
  • Confirm the poll times. The polls are open in Brookline on Election Day from 7:00AM to 8:00PM. Don’t be like Jerry on Parks and Recreation, forgetting to check the time and realizing after a full day of campaigning for Leslie Knope that the polls are closed and he hasn’t voted! Learn from his mistake.
  • Find a buddy. Ask a friend or family member to go to the polls with you. Voting itself is an individual activity, but getting there doesn’t have to be! Make sure your buddy reviews this checklist too so you are both prepared to vote.
  • Check your voter status. Here’s the link for Massachusetts. You don’t want to show up the day of and find out you’re not in the book. I can’t stress this enough. I was heart-broken last year to overhear someone at the polls who wanted to vote for the first time and learned she wasn’t registered.
  • If applicable, register to vote. Here’s the link for Massachusetts. The last date to register for the September 8th primary in Massachusetts is Friday, August 19th. The last day to register for the November 8th general election in Massachusetts is Wednesday, October 19th. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has a handy tool to access information about each state’s elections.
  • Confirm your voting location. WhereDoIVoteMA.com makes it easy.
  • If applicable, request an absentee ballot. Check out the Brookline process or the Boston process. Make sure you plan ahead and request it in time.
  • Next, familiarize yourself with the ballot. For the Massachusetts primary, you’ll receive the ballot for whichever party you ask for, because we have an open primary system. Here are the primary candidates for the Thursday, September 8th primary. I would share a link for the November 8th ballot information, only that hasn’t been decided yet! That’s what the primary is for. In additional to candidates for president, there will also be ballot questions and candidates for state-wide office.
  • Consider working at the polls. I signed up and you can, too! Contact your local clerk’s office if you’re interested. Here is the contact information for the Brookline Clerk’s office. There are four ways to apply to be a worker at the polls in Boston. Some towns and cities even pay you a stipend.
  • Between now and the election, research the candidates and (if applicable) the ballot questions. To jump-start your research, here are some pre-election activities I’ve found helpful (and fun!):
    • Start off each morning reading the news
    • Listen to the NPR Politics podcast while you’re cooking, commuting, or cleaning
    • Visit candidates’ websites for their platforms
    • Follow a variety of news sources on Twitter
    • Engage friends and family members in informed political conversations
  • If you have any questions about the election process, seek out the answers as soon as you can. Do you need a form of ID? Can you vote early? The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts website answers many questions.
  • On Election Day Eve, get excited. You get to vote tomorrow! Review the ballot and make up your mind so that you walk in tomorrow confidently.
  • Vote on November 8th! Your vote counts. If you have children, bring them to the polls with you. As a kid, I loved going to the polls with my mom. It goes a long way in instilling civic values. Thanks, Mom!
  • Lastly, wear your “I Voted!” sticker to remind others to vote.

Voting is Not a Spectator Sport

Generally speaking, follow the checklist and you’ll be ready to go. And, to get involved in voter engagement, check out the League of Women Voters website. Moreover, please reach out to me if you have any questions about the League or want to participate in our work.

Ultimately, if you’re going to take one thing away from this post, let it be this: if you can vote, you should.

In essence, unless you’re one of the lucky ones to qualify, Olympic Swimming is a spectator sport. Voting is not.

So, as you pick up your ballot this September and November, take a second and thank the many people who have fought in the arena to make your vote possible.

Something Old, Something New

Simply Civics Brookline Bell

Like many Brookline and Boston apartments, our building is kind of old. We may complain that the heater doesn’t always work in the winter. But that’s part of the charm of living in a historic town– especially in New England.

Some buildings in Brookline are actually located in historic districts, a designation that comes with many implications for residents.

I went to my first Brookline Preservation Commission hearing on Monday night.

Luckily for me, it began with an overview of the hearing process and the task of the Commission. In brief, here’s his overview in a nutshell: The Commission is charged with enforcing both the Demolition Bylaw and the Historic District Bylaw. As I learned throughout the hearing, it’s no walk in the park.

Historical Significance

To start, if a homeowners applies for a demolition permit (or partial demolition), the Commission has to determine whether the building or garage is historically significant. According to the By-Laws, section 5.3.5, a building is historically significant if it’s:

  1. Located within any Local Historic District;
  2. Listed on or is within a area listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places; is eligible for listing on the National or State Registers of historic places; or is a building for which a preliminary determination of eligibility has been made by the Massachusetts Historical Commission;
  3. Associated with one or more significant historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the Town or Commonwealth; or
  4. Historically or architecturally significant in terms of its period, style, method of building construction, or its association with a significant architect or building, either by itself or as part of a group of buildings.

If a building meets any of the four criteria, it’s considered historically significant and therefore the owner can’t demolish it. The Commission isn’t supposed to take into account any plans for after demolition, so they aren’t really supposed to ask what the property owners intend to build.

Permits Up for Debate

The Commission took up seven demolition cases at the hearing, ranging from garage demolition permits to full home demolition permits. Each time, we watched a powerpoint with pictures of the houses from different vantage points, including aerial views. We heard a lot about the history of each property and the original architects. I absolutely fell in love with one of the houses and I would move into it in a heartbeat if I could.

The Commission members discussed the architects’ legacies, the architectural styles, the materials and foundation of each house, the surrounding neighborhoods, and what a passersby could see from the street. They debated the very meaning of historical significance, and the extent of their power as a Commission.

As I listened to the homeowners, their reasons for demolition surprised me. A lot of their testimony was very personal and moving, involving aging parents, or houses sitting on the market without buyers.

As you may imagine, since the houses are historic, some of them are, well…very old. Therefore, architects did not build them to support today’s lifestyle.

For example, a Commission member described one house as “gorgeous but not livable.” Because this particular house had electrical heating, the homeowner pays about $1000 per month for heating in the winter. Similarly, in another case, engineers had deemed a garage unsafe because the roof was caving in. Under these circumstances, the family can’t park cars inside it because it’s too risky. They don’t want their daughter anywhere near it.

Preservation or Demolition?

Ultimately, the Commission approved some of the demolition permits. It’s sad. For one thing, some of the most endeared New England architects designed those houses. Each home tells its own unique story. As I learned, it’s not easy to parse out the most “historically significant” few homes from the many. Indeed, each house or neighborhood contributes its own character to the Brookline community.

I’ll surprise my family with these words…But sometimes change can be good. Especially when a little change can make a home much safer, environmentally-friendly, and livable.

The Commission and residents approached each case with such respectful dialogue. Throughout the hearing, they walked a careful line, to preserve our history yet be open to change when necessary.

As they walked out of Town Hall on Monday night, some of the residents had a go-ahead to pursue demolition. Others will be back next month or next year to apply for a permit again. In essence, this is the local democratic process–slow and steady.

To hear about future Brookline Preservation Commission meetings or hearings, subscribe to alerts here.

To end, I’ll share some wisdom from William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

Sometimes a little change goes a long way.

Augmented Reality, Nextdoor

Simply Civics Nextdoor

As you’ve probably heard, Pokemon Go went viral this week. A quick Google search will show you all about the phenomenon. The game uses augmented reality technology and GPS tracking to superimpose Pokemon in the real world. As a result, players tend to congregate in public places (parks, beaches, etc.) to find and capture more Pokemon.

In the spirit of getting out in the community, I’m going to share an app I’ve used for the past couple weeks. It’s called Nextdoor: the free private social media for your neighborhood. This isn’t just for Bostonians. Actually, it’s all over the country.

Couches & Public Hearings

Nextdoor is like a local version of Facebook. I’ve seen people post for a variety of reasons. To illustrate, my neighbors recently posted about these topics and more:

  • Upcoming Town Hall meetings and public hearings
  • Does the cat that stops by to eat have a home?
  • A free couch
  • Babysitters and nannies

Actually, my roommate and I went to check out the aforementioned couch. We would’ve gladly taken it. However, we couldn’t figure out how to get it into our apartment before the date our neighbor moved away.

Each day, there’s a lot of activity on the feed, with neighbors posting and commenting. In fact, just yesterday, another neighbor posted to ask for input on research she and a friend are conducting.

Plus, Nextdoor is user-friendly and has some pretty cool features. For instance, my favorite feature is an option to “thank” your neighbor for their post. A little gratitude goes a long way!

Signing up for Nextdoor

It takes a minute to sign up. First, you can either access it on your favorite web browser or download the app. When joining the network, you just have to enter your address and then verify it. Then, it will tell you which neighborhood you belong to. Believe it or not, I didn’t know my neighborhood had a name until I signed up. It’s a lot easier to become an active member of my neighborhood now that I know what it’s called!

So, check it out and see what your neighbors are talking about. You wouldn’t want to miss out on some important community conversations.

Nextdoor transcends the digital world to bring community members together. Maybe it’s another type of augmented reality…one that doesn’t use up quite as much phone data.

July 4th Reflections

Simply Civics July 4th

I look forward to July 4th weekend each year. This year, I spent a lot of the weekend outside on the South Shore with friends: breathing in the fresh air, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, seeing the American flag fly boldly in the breeze, and at the end of each day, watching in awe as the sun set on the water. I loved spending quality time with my friends and enjoying what makes summertime so magical.

Monday Night

Back in Brookline on Monday evening, I paused to reflect on my weekend. I perused through my Facebook feed and Twitter, and I was deeply moved by how many people had taken the time to post excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.

One of my friends in particular took a creative approach. He wrote the first line of the Declaration of Independence as his status, and then invited his friends to add each consecutive line of the document as comments. Together, they were rebuilding the document. I read each comment, allowing each revolutionary line to ruminate in my mind.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…”

At 10:15PM, after reading through these posts, I left my apartment and walked towards Corey Hill on Summit Ave. I had read in the Brookline TAB that the Boston Esplanade fireworks were visible from Corey Hill Park and Larz Anderson Park, and decided to see how Brookline celebrates the 4th.

Fireworks

I expected to see a small crowd at Corey Hill Park.

Instead, the hill was packed with community members of all ages. I couldn’t quite tell where to stand. I stumbled through the grass in the darkness, trying to avoid tripping on tree roots. A few minutes after 10:30, I noticed everyone shifting to the left side of the park, and I thought maybe they were packing up to leave. In effect, I resigned to the idea that perhaps I had missed the whole show. Next year, I’ll leave my apartment a little earlier and maybe even picnic on the grass.

But I walked towards the crowd and turned towards the Boston city skyline. As my eyes rested on the bright sky, I smiled. Through the trees, we could indeed see the whole show. It was breathtaking.

I stood there, captivated by the energy of the community around me. It was amazing. Many Brookliners ventured up a hill to a park on Monday night to watch the Boston fireworks in between trees. July 4th truly is a special tradition.

240th Birthday

July 4th fireworks carry so much meaning. Two hundred and forty years since the Declaration of Independence, we continue to celebrate. Each year, we gather with our friends, family, and community to reflect on what unites us. Through our celebrations, we renew our dedication to democracy.

“It’s the finale!” I heard a woman nearby say. People were clapping, amazed by the incredible show.

I looked around Corey Hill Park, thankful for the tradition that brings us together as a community. There has been a lot of troubling news around the world, near and far. To pave the way for our brighter future, I think we should reflect on the vision that first brought us together as a country.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thank you to the many diverse communities of Americans who have carried the torch of liberty and pursued these truths through challenging times. Thank you in advance to those who will carry the torch into the future.

Happy Independence Day to you and your loved ones.

Happy birthday, America, and I hope this next year is one of freedom, peace, and unity.

Jane Jacobs & River Road

Simply Civics

25 Washington Street, Brookline

Boston Urban Analysis was one of my favorite undergraduate classes at Boston College. It was an elective offered through PULSE, the academic service-learning program at BC. David Manzo, the course instructor, taught us about what makes an urban community, particularly Boston, thrive. We spent the second half of the semester downtown, walking the sidewalks of Boston and seeing for ourselves how residential, commercial, and public spaces interplay in a city.

Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a pillar of the Urban Analysis curriculum. I highly recommend that you add it to your summer civic reading list. If you read it, or have read it, let me know because I’d love to hear your thoughts!

To begin with, Jacobs’ book was a reaction to rationalist urban planning policies in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those implemented by Robert Moses in New York City. She was a leader of community-based urban planning. Here’s a link to the 1961 New York Times book review.

To break it down, Jacobs wrote about the 4 generators of diversity in an urban neighborhood:

  • Mixed primary uses;
  • Short blocks;
  • Buildings of various ages; and
  • Density of people.

Two years after first reading the book, Jacobs’ ideas still resonate with me. I’ve been thinking about what they would mean for an urban community like Brookline, which is not very diverse but which I believe should aspire to be in the future.

With these four generators in mind, I walked into the River Road Study Committee Public Hearing on Monday night in Brookline Town Hall.

Planning Parcels

River Road is next to where Route 9 and Brookline Ave meet. With the Emerald Necklace and Jamaicaway to the east and Brookline Village to the west, River Road is an awkwardly shaped, narrow “island” with a few commercial properties. Here’s a map so you can visualize the area. I find its odd shape really fascinating.

To put it simply, Brookline is considering rezoning the area for redevelopment. Claremont Corporation purchased a parcel of the district, 25 Washington Street, with the intention of building a hotel on the corner of Brookline Ave and Washington Street. Currently, the Zoning By-Law doesn’t permit a hotel on the parcel, so the town is looking at options for a zoning overlay. Basically, a zoning overlay is a special zoning district, where a town can adopt specific provisions in the zoning for a specified area.http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/pulse.html

Constraints & Opportunities

As Brookline considers redevelopment, the ommittee and the Planning Department are facing a few constraints. First, there just so happens to be existing stores and businesses on the parcel. Next, there is a storm water easement in the middle of the “island.” Third, the land happens to be in a FEMA flood zone. Fourth, the building height is capped at 40 feet. Furthermore, planning for parking ramps has proven to be immensely challenging. All this being said, there are enormous opportunities to redevelop the property.

Picture this: enhanced pedestrian amenities, storefronts, and new residential properties, landscaped with sidewalk trees and grass inspired by the nearby Emerald Necklace.

Massing Models & Schemes

Developing it will be a challenge, but the committee and interested town residents seem committed to the project’s success.

Throughout the meeting, I listened to members of the committee and representatives from Claremont cover a lot of ground in their presentations. They talked about current market conditions and other financial feasibility factors, the capitalization rates on the parcel, draft overlay zoning, the landscape plans and massing models, architectural schemes, and next steps to the plan. The massing models looked pretty neat!

I had never before seen people so consumed by parking plans. Parking is a hot issue in Brookline. By statute, every residential unit must have two parking spaces. (Quick note: at two of the three community events I’ve attended, people have brought up the idea of revisiting this statute at the next Town Meeting. We’ll see!)  Since there is an easement in the middle of the “island,” the committee has had to think strategically and creatively. Therefore, they’re plotting out where to position parking ramps, how many floors of parking there should be, whether a hotel  could share parking with other commercial properties on the parcel, etc. It sounds like they’ve come up with a solution that works with the space. I’ll trust the experts on this one!

To conclude the presentation, representatives from Claremont presented schemes of the proposed hotel. I personally liked a scheme where the height of the building drops off towards the Emerald Necklace. The tallest part of the hotel would be at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Washington Street. That’s just my preference!

What would Jacobs think?

After the presentation, the committee opened the hearing up to public comment. It was really heartwarming to hear from residents about their priorities in the area. This is where Jane Jacobs comes in.

To recap, Jane Jacobs wrote about 4 generators of diversity: mixed primary use, short blocks, buildings of various ages, and density of people.

From what I gathered during public comment, Brookline residents want to see mixed uses along River Road. They want a mix of residential and commercial properties, and possibly a hotel with an outdoor cafe. Also, they want a high density of people, diverse businesses, and green space.

Next, the streets in Brookline aren’t laid out in a grid, so the short blocks idea doesn’t really apply in this case. However, Jacobs wrote a lot about wide sidewalks. That was certainly a focus of the meeting. To the extent possible, the sidewalks will be wide and lined with trees. One resident proposed having a gelato café on the parcel. That would be lovely!

I would venture to guess that Jacobs would probably have some concerns with the redevelopment, though. She would ask what will happen to the businesses already there. Will they be included in the project? This committee has thus far proven to be very collaborative, both in tone and in gathering public input, so I hope this will continue to be the case.

Key Tenets

Not only has the committee been collaborative, but so have the residents. The residents have expressed a genuine interest in seeing the project succeed and fit the character of Brookline. The public comments on Monday were very thoughtful. Again and again, I heard residents thank the committee for all the work they’ve done so far.

The types of questions residents posed were really productive and rigorous, too. In other words, they put the committee and Claremont to the test. How can the plan enhance the nearby cycling path? Also, will the café be a spot that local residents will want to go to, or just guests of the hotel? What will happen to the existing users on the property? Will there be more traffic? How will we support Brookline’s portion of the Emerald Necklace through this project?

Actually, cherishing the Emerald Necklace was a major theme. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks through Boston and Brookline. The thinnest part of the Necklace happens to be in Brookline, right next to the River Road parcel.

Throughout their productive comments, the residents taught me some pretty valuable tenets of civic engagement. Briefly, I learned that in order to effect policy locally:

  1. Get to know the character of your town,
  2. Show up to meetings,
  3. Voice your perspective, and
  4. Collaborate with others to build a vision.

next Steps

If you’re interested in learning more about the River Road project, here’s the committee site. Once the minutes from Monday’s meeting are approved, those and the presentations will be posted on the site.

I’ll share a tip I learned the other day, too, for getting and staying involved in Brookline. To hear about future meetings, subscribe to the committee alerts here. You can choose which committees and boards to subscribe to. I may have subscribed to many committees already….

Someday in the near future, I could be one of those active residents who contributes meaningfully at a public hearing through public comment. You can also in your own community!

The River Road Study Committee has accomplished a lot the past 5 months. It’ll be interesting to see how the project progresses. Soon there could be a hotel, businesses, apartments, and who knows, maybe a gelato café!

Unpacking Health Care Policy

Simply Civics

The Honorable Michael Dukakis

The third floor of the Brookline Senior Center was packed last Wednesday night. Brookliners gathered for the 20th Annual Public Health Policy Forum, presented by the Friends of Brookline Public Health and Brookline Adult & Community Education. The theme was: “Celebrating 20 Years of Advocating for Health Care Reform: Looking Back, Looking Forward.”

I barely found a seat!

The event began with welcoming remarks from the co-founders of Friends of Brookline Public Health: Alan Balsam, PhD, MPH, the Director of Brookline Public Health & Human Services; and J. Jacques Carter, MD.

Dr. Carter introduced the night’s moderator, the Honorable Michael Dukakis.

You may not know that former Governor Dukakis is a Brookline native. He started his public service career as a Brookline Town Meeting Member and was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1962. He served three terms as Governor of Massachusetts, first from 1975-1979 and then again from 1983-1991. During that time, he was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in the 1988 elections. And he’s from Brookline!

The panelists

I sat in awe as former Governor Dukakis introduced the panelists.  Each of the panelists has contributed so much to the field of public health through their respective careers.

  • Dr. Judy Ann Bigby served as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2007 to 2013. She was responsible for implementing many aspects of the 2006 health care reform law. She is currently a Senior Fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, located in Cambridge.
  • Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is the Executive Director of Health Care for All in Massachusetts. Health Care for All is a “nonprofit advocacy organization working to create a health care system that provides comprehensive, affordable, accessible, and culturally competent care to everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.” (HCFA website).
  • Dolores Mitchell recently retired as Executive Director of the Group Insurance Commission after 29 years of service! The GIC provides health-related services to the Commonwealth’s employees, retirees and their dependents, municipalities, and other entities. Congratulations to Ms. Mitchell on her 29 years of service to the Commonwealth!
  • John McDonough is the Professor of Public Health Practice, Department of Health Policy & Management, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He served as the Senior Advisor on National Health Reform to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He worked on both the writing and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

As Governor Dukakis pointed out, three of the four panelists were women!

A brief health policy primer

Throughout the forum, the panelists discussed the dimensions of public health policy in recent years and the challenges that lie ahead.

In 2006, Massachusetts passed a health care reform bill guaranteeing coverage to most residents of the Commonwealth. As Dr. Bigby explained, 500,000 people gained insurance in 2006, many of whom had previously struggled the most to get health care.

Four years later, in 2010, President Obama and Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among other statutes, it mandated health insurance coverage for all Americans.

Where we are now

Today, many more Americans are insured. Consequently, fewer individuals find themselves financially bankrupted by medical crises. Plus, more Americans are receiving preventative medical care. Since 2010, Massachusetts has had the smallest increase in health care costs yet.

It’s not as simple as that, though. Mandated health insurance isn’t a one and done deal, and not everyone is in agreement about whether it’s the right solution.

The best way for us to develop informed opinions is through learning more about it. I’ll be the first to say my knowledge of the Affordable Care Act is just about a drop in the bucket of what the law entails. However, that’s one of the great aspects of attending an event like this. It exposed me to many aspects of health care reform, and then prompted me to do some more research on my own.

To learn more about the Affordable Care Act, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. It has the full text and a guide with key features of the law.

Costs

One of the pressing issues right now, the panelists explained, is figuring out how to reign in the costs of our complex health care system. Medication prices are going up, which means the cost of care is also increasing.

Rising health care costs affect everyone: consumers, families, health insurance companies, medical practices, and hospitals.

Leaders have proposed reform in this area, particularly at the state level. Massachusetts State Senator Mark Montigny (D) sponsored Senate Bill 1048, An Act to promote transparency and cost control of pharmaceutical drug prices. You can follow the bill’s progress here.

Participating in policy

Because we live in a democracy, we each have a say in the future of our health care system. In fact, we can participate in our national policy discussions.

It’s important for each of us to be informed and to communicate our views and ideas to our elected officials, both at the state and national level.

If you’re interested in following cost control initiatives at the state level, the legislature has a Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. You can track bills and attend hearings.

Lastly, be in touch with your elected officials! They want to hear from their constituents about where they stand. Massachusetts residents, you can find your state legislators here.

Looking ahead

We know that the health care system is complex. The participants, speakers, and panelists at the forum brought up issues that impact all of us, wherever we live across the city, country, or world.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sustainable and high-quality solutions out there. If we think boldly, we can both support the world-class medical system in America and bring down costs.

I wonder what updates the panelists will share this time next year at the 21st Annual Public Health Policy Forum.