Archives for the month of: October, 2009
JUDGE BEST by Flickr user meormeor

"JUDGE BEST" by Flickr user meormeor

The meaning of “professional” has changed drastically over time. It used to solely designate someone who had completed specialized training and been accepted into an organized group of others who pursue the same calling. These days, it often just means “someone who gets paid for what they do,” or “someone who works in an office.”

But even the “old” definition actually misses the mark, because it’s focused on the individual and not on society. So even using a strict designation, we can have “profession creep” so that all manner of occupations can become professions simply by adding a tough training course and a sanctioning body. For instance, there’s actually a group of “communications professionals.” I don’t dispute their skill, but I question the label.

Because, if you look at the role professionals play in society, a different definition comes to light:

A profession is someone to whom society grants special powers in return for special service that requires special skill.

This is a public definition of the word.

For instance, we give the police the power to carry weapons, use force, and detain us in return for their vital service protecting the peace. We allow medical doctors to wield almost God-like power over our well-being, in return for their service in healing the sick. We give judges power to remove our freedoms in return for their service in deciding disputes according to the law. All these uses of “professional” are rooted in the needs and perspective of the public, as opposed to the individual.

Using this litmus test, many occupations lose their “professional” status because they either lack the special powers or the special service aspect.

I have been interested lately in this as it relates to Journalism. I have written before about the differences between Journalism and news gathering. Lately I have thought about it more, as I have been involved in developing a new “citizen journalist” project that I’ll be writing about more in upcoming article.

There are professional Journalists, by the public definition: we grant them special powers (secrecy and protection of sources) in return for their specialized skill in illuminating the truth. But in a world where Journalism is being replaced by newsgathering, the perceived need for Journalism is waning. People can get their news from nonprofessionals, and don’t focus as individuals on whether they want Journalism or not.

This seems to me to be a problem that we need to address on a public, societal level. Though individuals may not perceive a personal need for it, a free society demands that Journalism be present and be robust.

People these days pooh-pooh professional training for Journalists, because so many amateurs are getting into the act — or what looks like the act. (I am one of them.)

But there come times when we need more than news (what happened) and need Journalism (deeper truth, investigated and uncovered). If there is no profession, I fear that there won’t be this Journalism around when we need it.

Tar Broom by Flickr user erix!

"Tar Broom" by Flickr user erix!

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about some things that were troubling me. I was unhappy with the behavior of others. As we discussed the situation, it became clear that the behavior may well have been driven by others’ reactions to my own behavior.

“You can’t control what they do,” said my friend, “but you can control what you do.” In retrospect, this is very straightforward advice — yet, in the moment, it’s often hard to see.

What’s even more difficult, is to know what it is I can control. My friend gave me a list that has proven to be very, very helpful. I thought you might find it useful.

These are the things that I can control:

  • Attitude: What do I bring to the situation? What are my expectations?
  • Effort: Am I just coasting along at half steam, or am I all in?
  • Tone: Do I say the correct things, yet clothe them in sarcasm or smugness?
  • Motives: Do I have hidden motives, such as vanity or pride?
  • Thoughts: Am I harboring negative thoughts about others?
  • Actions: Regardless of my intentions, are my actions helpful?
  • Reactions: How do I react to what others do? Is it helpful?

If I can keep these elements in check, I can know that if others behave in ways I don’t like, or that cause me problems, it’s not my own fault but something else. I can know that my own side of the street is clean.

Now, I just need to keep this front and center for when I really need it!

Scales of Justice by Flickr user srqpix

"Scales of Justice" by Flickr user srqpix

In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, I talk about the balance that needs to be struck between freedom and responsibility.

For people who run online communities this can be especially troubling, as the relative anonymity of the online world makes it easy to go too far and say things that infringe on the sense of safety of others. That is, we can have almost perfect freedom of speech online, but at what cost?

In online spaces, the premium is often on freedom of expression. But I would argue that at least as much attention must be paid to ensuring that people are acting with responsibility.

Otherwise, public life becomes Hobbesian and people who ought to be there are driven out.

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I have been working on a project with a number of collaborators to create an issue guide for communities to deliberate on the issue of childhood drinking. Our framework is in an early-draft state, but it is gettting better with each iteration. (By “better,” I mean that it will stimulate dialogue.)

In preparation for a recent review meeting, and as a bit of a lark, I used the amazing tool Xtranormal to create a video introducing the framework. The results may be of interest:

(Please remember that this is an initial draft that I am sharing just because I thought you might find it interesting. I will make the finished framework more widely available.)

Among 15 year olds who drink, one study shows that on average they binge drink twice a month. By age 15, half of the nation’s children and adolescents will have had a whole drink.

There is an emerging understanding that the negative effects of drinking on a child’s development may be greater than once thought.

Children today have to navigate many high risk situations. With respect to drinking, what may have been seen as harmless experimentation decades ago is no longer considered without risk. People who drink at a young age are at higher risk for alcoholism down the line.

The issue of childhood drinking does not have a single solution. It must be addressed by many different kinds of people, all through the community.

To make decisions, we need to look at our main concerns and examine possible solutions. Every option has advantages as well as drawbacks. How do we help young people grow up in an environment in which alcohol is widely available?

Option One: If we are going to make it so our children don’t drink, we will need to change their environment. This includes not only children’s surroundings, but also stronger enforcement of the laws.

This first option says that we should change structures throughout society to better keep children away from alcohol. We would increase school and community activities so there are fewer “idle spaces” in children’s days. We would also enforce laws against serving alcohol to children in the home, cracking down on adults who host parties where children drink.

But if we do this, it will involve tighter control over children’s day-to-day activities as well as more restrictions on adults’ behavior. Children will become even more scheduled than they already are. And parents may begin to face more legal consequences too.

childhood_drinking_imgOption Two: We need to help children through a difficult time in their development. Elementary and middle school can be difficult years for children. We need to provide resources, support, and information so all children can develop without turning to negative influences.

This second option says that we should create a better support system that focuses on wellness and healthy development for all children. We should help parents improve their parenting skills so they can provide the right balance of nurture and discipline. And we should teach children ways to avoid drinking and make other healthy decisions through substance abuse prevention programs and other ways.

But if we pursue this option, responsibility and decisions about healthy development will shift from parents to professionals and possibly conflict with parents’ values. Some parents will have to change their parenting styles. And, there are many programs and initiatives designed to provide life skills to children and their effectiveness is questionable.

Option Three: Some children have problems when it comes to alcohol and other issues. We need to find them as early as possible and help them. We should provide vulnerable children and their families with the support they need in order to recognize and deal with such problems.

If we’re serious about this option, then we’ll make sure there are early warning systems and effective intervention plans. We’d educate parents and families to look for signs of alcohol use and we would significantly increase the availability of treatment programs designed for adolescents.

But if we do all this, professionals will intrude in more families’ lives and more children will be identified as having problems. Many families will turn a blind eye towards childhood drinking because it is an uncomfortable topic. What’s more, Twelve Step alcohol treatment programs are already widespread and free. Special programs might just duplicate effort.

Thanks for reading!

American Democracy by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

"American Democracy" by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been going through my old folders and documents. At various times in my life I’ve toyed with the idea of establishing an institute or center devoted to improving civic life. I’m glad to be able to say that just about all my work over the last decade has been in the pursuit of that overall purpose, even though I have not established that particular nonprofit. (Especially work with The Harwood Institute and the Kettering Foundation.)

This morning I came across some of the foundational documents for this “Center For Civic Life,” written at a time when I was doing a great deal of due diligence and was on the cusp of actually creating it.  At a time like that, one thing you do is begin to develop your mission and vision.

The vision for the aborning Center For Civic Life caught me up short:

A nation in which every citizen sees a place for her or himself in the institutions of democracy.

I think that vision still holds strong. We live at a time when people feel shut out of politics and government — spectators at best. At the same time, there are structural reasons (social and economic) that some people don’t have a place in the institutions of democracy.

There are beginnings of change, but they are nascent. I think we need to keep pushing for this vision.

I was glad to run across this vision, and am glad to reaffirm it today.