When Mike Schablaske, the executive director at Transform Rockford, saw my recent posts through Twitter, he put me in touch with the group which had written the Shared Value statements. The team, Jay Sandine, David Sidney and Blake Musser, were very accommodating and willing to discuss my concerns. Although Jay was unable to make it, I met with David and Blake last week to talk about the questions I had raised. Before I get into the details, I just want to make a disclaimer. Although David and Blake are involved with Transform Rockford, not all the opinions they expressed represent the views of the entire organization. I think their values are a good indicator of what others probably hold to, but this is not necessarily the case.
One of the first topics we discussed was the “Unity” value statement, which says we will “place the greater good of all parts of our region and its transformation ahead of self or organizational interests.” David and Blake said this was a statement which had gone through several stages. They originally used the word “consensus,” but since this word had some politically charged connotations, they went with “unity.” I explained my libertarian background and said that this word is usually quite troubling to those with an individualistic or libertarian perspective. After sharing what this word means to me, I asked them to elaborate on why they chose the word. They spoke about how there have been failed efforts to revitalize Rockford, and these projects come to a halt primarily through division and disagreement. If someone doesn’t like a single aspect of a project, they often withdraw all support—and in some cases they create a parallel organization that does the same thing a little differently. This situation was something Transform Rockford wanted to avoid. They want people to stay involved even if they don’t agree 100% with everything being done within the group. They likened it to a family, where different members might argue about what restaurant to eat at, but they will all eventually compromise and choose one place—instead of each person going off to eat alone at their preferred restaurant. This reminded me of how we all make choices all the time about what is most important to us. We ask ourselves questions like, “is it more important to me that I not compromise on this issue, or is it more important that I maintain a good relationship with this person?” Being part of society does require some give and take…but I think it is important to remember that each of us choose how much to give and how much to take. We each have our own levels of compromise, we value our beliefs and interpersonal relationships differently, so our choices will be unique. We can say that yes, we will place the interests of our community over our own interests, but each person will interpret that differently. It can range from not interfering with community projects to full-fledged socialism. If no one is trying to interpret and enforce this for each individual, then I can understand the reasoning for such a value statement.
After I made a comment about how I did not see anything in the Shared Values to balance out this statement which focused on the individual’s responsibility to the community, David and Blake pointed out that they saw the flip side of unity in the statement about inclusion. This statement says we will “cultivate and support an environment that fully engages our community’s differences and diversity to ensure that individuals and organizations are heard, valued and supported.” As a libertarian, I think this statement could be much stronger—it lacks a full commitment to individual rights—but it is at least an attempt to counter the community emphasis found in other value statements.
We also talked about the “how” of Transform Rockford’s vision; I wanted to know how they thought that the vision statements might be carried out. This is primarily because I am concerned about the use of government to enforce decisions made by Transform Rockford. In Walter Block fashion, I brought up the hypothetical situation of a stubborn Rockford resident who, for apparently irrational reasons, hates the idea of Transform Rockford and does everything they can to stop the organization from moving forward. Blake and David said they would do, essentially, nothing. They emphasized that Transform Rockford is not about enforcing an agenda, but its goal is to “change the way we have conversations.” So in this case, Transform Rockford might try to understand why this person is opposed to the projects suggested, and if there are ways to accommodate this person’s preferences, they would do so. We discussed private property rights, and the situation of someone along the Riverfront refusing to cooperate with plans to rebuild that area. If they have specific reasons for their opposition (such as the resulting higher tax rates), then Transform Rockford would try to work through those issues and give the person motivation to participate. But if that was not possible, then they would revamp their plans to avoid using this person’s property. Blake and David suggested that the use of eminent domain would be highly unlikely and only considered in the most extreme circumstances.
I brought up the question of why Transform Rockford held so many visioning sessions to come to a conclusion that seemed obvious from the start. There were a couple responses to this. Firstly, Blake confirmed what I suspected—that the act of discovering and saying what we want the future to look like is a powerful tool for motivation. While some people might intuitively know what our ideal city would be, vocalizing these dreams is an important step towards realizing the goals. Secondly, this is a bottom-up approach which is consistent with the values of Transform Rockford. Rather than bringing in some “experts” to determine what Rockford needs to be, they went to the people of the city. Also, I asked about the problem of causation—how are we going to change Rockford if we don’t know how we got here in the first place. Blake and David said that this was, for the most part, encapsulated in the act of asking people what they want. For example, maybe there is someone who can’t get a job and they want a future Rockford with employment opportunity. When asked why they’re unable to find employment, you will find what caused their current situation. This goes back to a theme I heard through the entire conversation—Transform Rockford is about listening to individuals and helping them achieve their goals. Some people may have no idea where to start in improving their lives, but Transform Rockford wants to give them the support and tools they need. It is not about telling people what to do, but rather about listening to what people want to do and then helping them achieve their ends.
The last issue we discussed was the recent WTVO Channel 17 segment on the book, Toxic Charity, which was placed on the Transform Rockford reading list. This book criticizes faith-based charities for creating dependency. WTVO applied this to the recent controversy over the Rockford Rescue Mission’s proposed expansion. There were a few points of interest that came out in my conversation with Blake about this. Firstly, there is no official “reading list” from Transform Rockford. Different members have passed around titles of various books that are relevant to what they’re discussing, but there is no set reading list for anyone in Transform Rockford. I think the WTVO report was misleading in its wording in the report. Secondly, this book was recommended simply because of the subject—not because it is the final word. Blake said that Transform Rockford is trying to encourage conversations and discussions about charity and poverty in the community. This book wasn’t touted as the answer to everything, but simply, “here’s a different take, maybe we can learn something from it.” Blake brought up the question of how to handle the chronically poor—those who will always be homeless and going from charity to charity for a handout. He mentioned the city of Boston and how they’ve responded to this situation by providing homes for these folks so that they are not on the streets. This approach allows some charities to focus on feeding those who are only homeless for the short-term, and others then focus on providing for the chronically poor who have been taken off the streets. There is no anti-faith based charity agenda, but simply the acknowledgement that each organization can do better and that perhaps we can be more effective by having better coordination between charities. And thirdly, it is undeniable that Transform Rockford has welcomed religious leaders into the group. In fact, in each of the leader teams for the vision statements there will be a representative from the private business sector, someone from the public sector, and a leader from a non-profit or religious organization. There have been suggestions that Transform Rockford has an agenda to subvert religion in the Rockford area, but from what has happened so far, there is no reason to think this. My guess is that the report from WTVO is far more charged and controversial than anything said by members of Transform Rockford. If that is the case, the issue should be taken up with WTVO and not with Transform Rockford.
Near the end of the conversation with Blake and David, I admitted that I am quite skeptical as to if the grand mission of Transform Rockford will stay this way. I find it hard to believe that the organization will not revert to old top-down methods of change using government force. I find it hard to believe that the idealistic shared values will actually impact the way our community interacts. How long will it be before Transform Rockford stops listening to the people and starts dictating what we are to do? But then I was reminded that that is precisely the reason why there are people like me. Considering that I have continued to question Transform Rockford, I doubt that I would stop doing so if they began veering in the wrong direction. So while I am not sure of the overall success of Transform Rockford, it would be foolish to simply ignore the group because of my skepticism. I assured David and Blake that I will be ever vigilant in my watchfulness over Transform Rockford. And to the Rockford community, if we are carefully guarding our rights, it will be much more difficult for any organization to take away our liberties. Let’s not stop here—we should all be watching, thinking, and speaking out in defense of liberty.