31. Join a non-profit board
32. Find and commit to one public issue for 5 years
33. Serve on a committee of the town
When I first landed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) for graduate school in the middle of my professional life, I entered with an interest in connecting my contemporary studies to the idea of ‘the commons’ – that area of a town in early America shared and cared for by citizens for the collective good of communal grazing. What are the 21st century ‘commons’ we as a community or nation hold, and what are the ways in which we work to sustain their bounty – or not? Having served on the board of the local Habitat for Humanity (since it was on my list, when I was invited to join I was ready!) I had initially conceived of the commons as those areas where citizens come together to solve community problems – in some cases through the non-profit world.
With the Boston Commons just across the Charles River from Cambridge, I found fodder to reflect more on this idea through early morning runs at the start of the HKS program and incorporated them into an essay application to join the study group Charlie Gibson, from ABC’s Good Morning America, was teaching as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard. For the next 10 Monday evenings, our small group of students representing diverse political perspectives met in his living room to investigate the causes of increasing polarization in the American Congress – and those whom they represent – with an eye on the role the media played.
Soon my interest in and perspectives on ‘the commons’ evolved as I began to connect lessons from my public finance course to our Monday night discussions and realized that one public issue I found incredibly compelling was, well …. taxes. Though a hot (and incredibly contentious) topic, taxes indeed are the ultimate manifestation of the commons. We each contribute financially to make the care of that which we hold in common easier; less expensive; less of an individual burden.
With Charlie Gibson on the first Tuesday in November 2010, I watched the culmination of a 30 year campaign against this commons unfold in the victory of the newly coined Tea Party during the midterm election on an ‘anti-tax’ and ‘small government’ platform. While certainly government waste must be addressed and government efficiency can be improved, the national conversation seemed to have turned to vilifying anything taxes provide for the sake of ameliorating our tax ‘burdens.’ Burdens, however, come in many forms. I would much rather pool my resources with my neighbors’ so that our streets will be plowed before we wake, our children will receive an education, and our way of life as a community be protected with the services, safety, and security our collective governments provide – in a much more efficient manner than my having to do these myself.
In 1804 at the founding of Bowdoin College, Joseph McKeen – the first President – declared that, “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.” In 1980, as a high school junior when I wanted to become a truck driver or ride the rodeo circuit, Kay Philips – my mom – declared (in her very gentle way), “You need to work to make the world a better place.” Both declarations have been equally influential in my life at different times. And while driving a 16 wheeler and riding rodeo certainly present chances to do good in the world – as any activities do – for me, education, non-profit work and public policy provided more direct routes.
Will I remain committed to this interest in public finance for 5 years? I don’t know, just as I don’t know if I will ever serve on a committee of the town. But just having written these goals down on that list 5 years ago has influenced not only my thinking, but my actions and the resulting directions my life has taken personally and professionally. For these I am both grateful and better equipped for a lifetime of ’tilling the commons’ in some form or another, for the benefit of the greater good.