Thanks For A Thankless Job

OblingerSpending hours at meetings to work through community issues isn’t something on most people’s favorite-things-to-do list. Balancing professional duties, family obligations, church and social functions and other time-eaters is hard enough. Finding time and energy to step into a community role that brings with it a whole new set of responsibilities requires another level of commitment.

We’re fortunate in the Grand Traverse region to have scores of residents willing to step up and take on these community responsibilities, making decisions that will shape our region for decades to come. Here at the Traverse City Area Chamber, we try to make a difference through our various leadership development initiatives including Leadership Grand Traverse, our flagship “training ground” that’s touched hundreds of residents over nearly four decades. Scores of these individuals have gone on to serve in local and state elected seats, appointed positions and for numerous nonprofit organizations. They don’t do it for money, power or prestige – but as a way to give back to the community they call home.

This kind of community commitment is more important than ever, but unfortunately getting more difficult to make. As communities grow, their challenges grow as well – dealing with traffic, housing, infrastructure, crime, economic development – the list goes on. These are daunting subjects without quick or convenient solutions. Citizen frustration can fester when progress is slow.

Also escalating is the scrutiny on decision-makers, both in volume and intensity. Strong communities have engaged citizens and ardent watchdogs, and the Grand Traverse region is blessed with both. There’s also been a feedback explosion in recent years created by social media, where any decision – even a comment – can instantly ignite a viral firestorm across Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Unfortunately, the line too often gets blurred between healthy community debate and flat-out hostility. No one expects a community to come together on everything, and people’s interests won’t always point the same way. But how we deal with those differences is a direct reflection on our community. And to be honest, the level of our community’s discourse on some recent issues leaves something to be desired.

The solution for many is to simply disengage – spend more time working, recreating, being with family. Who needs the hassle of public service? It’s a troubling trend, and there are tangible consequences to a community when its talent pool starts to contract because of apathy and indifference. At the Chamber, we’re concerned about the lack of business owners and entrepreneurs serving on our local boards and commissions. We’re advocating for more of their involvement – but given what we’ve witnessed during some public discussions, it’s not hard to understand their reluctance.

It’s time to take the “less” out of these thankless roles and be more respectful and appreciative of our neighbors who step up for these community responsibilities. That doesn’t mean blind faith or unquestioned support, and there’s plenty of room for robust community debate.

But more encouragement and less coarseness toward our decision-makers would go a long way in bringing more voices, ideas, experience and brainpower into our community decision-making. That alone will make those vexing issues of traffic, housing, etc. seem a lot more solvable.

Laura Oblinger is the Executive Director at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Send her an email at laura@tcchamber.org.

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