Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paved with good intentions

The most extraordinary local news topic lately has been the situation at the Amherst Survival Center. The newspapers are full of inflammatory allegations and supposed “human rights violations.” Reports have been issued by Town agents. “Recommendations” have been made with written response required. Concerned citizens are banding together to restructure the place. The Select Board is being called upon to appoint a new Board of Directors.

Crisis! Chaos! Drama!

Excuse me?

I served on the Survival Center’s Board for almost five years, from 1998 – 2002, the last two as Board President, and remained on various committees into 2003. During that time, I and others worked hard to improve its financial, organizational and procedural structure. Some of our efforts were effective, others never were.

I was focused on what I saw as the place’s enormous untapped potential. Operations could run more efficiently, services could be provided in better ways, the population served could be expanded, more money could be raised, if only...

If only. There were myriad “if onlys,” and they frustrated me beyond belief.

After five years of trying and failing to persuade the necessary majority of the Board (whose membership changed much over that time, as terms expired and new people joined) to embrace my views of progress and improvement, I eventually resigned, burned out and glad to be leaving, and disappointed by what I couldn’t accomplish.

And you know what? That is exactly how that should work. I would have preferred a different result, but I have no complaints about the process. As a Board Member seeking change, the burden of convincing others to support my ideas was on me, and I was unable to do that. The majority won, and the minority lost and I was in the minority. Done deal, fair and square.

Eventually I realized that I was trying to make the place be something it was not. There was no obligation for it to conform to my ideal. And just because it had the opportunity to be something different, did not mean it had the responsibility to do so.

So then this brouhaha started a few weeks ago. Some (but not all) of the “recommendations” being bandied about are things I agree would improve the place, or are issues I supported strongly when I was on the Board. So you’d think I’d be happy about all this, happy to see the changes I’d sought way back finally seeming possible. But I’m not. Because the process is so wrong.

It is wrong because the place’s reputation and 30-year history of vital service to the community are being dragged through the mud by the unfounded allegations of a few angry people, which have spun out of control and devolved into an excuse to complain, criticize and disrespect anything at all about the Center. That is a disgrace, and the place, its staff, consumers and supporters deserve better.

It is wrong because regardless of “good intentions,” no outside individual or entity has any right whatsoever to impose its views on the place. The Survival Center is a private non-profit organization. It can be anything it wants to be. It can run any way it wants to run. Its Board of Directors has the only say here. Anyone who doesn’t like the place is free to not contribute money, goods, etc., but that is where that power ends.

It is wrong because, in my opinion, the Town and its agents are way out of bounds with their inappropriate behavior and statements in so many facets of this: misusing their power and their processes, distorting “facts,” blowing small details out of all proportion and invoking “confidentiality” to avoid accountability.

It is wrong because the newspapers are letting wild accusations go unchallenged, ignoring all question of possible agendas, axes to grind and conflicts of interest.

It is wrong because so much of what is being written and discussed indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency. I can’t begin to clarify all that here. But suffice it to say, the place is not about being everything to everybody. It is not about the people who don’t go there, or the services it doesn’t provide. It’s about the people who do go there, and the services it does provide, and there is much good in that.

The Survival Center, like any entity, could surely benefit from some changes. But not like this. If we start embracing the philosophy of “the ends justifying the means,” we will not like where we end up.


Carol said...

Hi Stephanie,

As a person who has commented about this on one of the list-serves, I'm interested to read your comments, and would only questions one part.

You said: "It is wrong because regardless of “good intentions,” no outside individual or entity has any right whatsoever to impose its views on the place. The Survival Center is a private non-profit organization. It can be anything it wants to be. It can run any way it wants to run. Its Board of Directors has the only say here. Anyone who doesn’t like the place is free to not contribute money, goods, etc., but that is where that power ends. "

In my opinion, because Town Meeting provides tax payer money to the Survival Center, which surely helps with it's operating budget, I think we have a right to ask them to run a tight ship. I personally voted against the higher amount for community services, in part, because I don't believe there is any accountability by the organizations. But since the majority approved it, and our local taxes support it, I think we have a right to a look inside, and comment on what we see as sub-par.

I agree that they do good work, and have great intentions, but sometimes when you are in up to your neck in something, as the director seems to be, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. It does sometimes take an outside view.

Just my $.02

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Hi Carol –

So who’s definition do we use of “tight ship?”

I absolutely agree that the Town has a responsibility to spend its money wisely. And I believe that if the Town finds the situation at the Center “sub-par,” then it has the right to comment and to withhold funding.

But commenting on the situation and this heavy-handed squeeze are not the same thing.

According to the paper, this all started with four individuals’ allegations of human rights violations, (another can of worms entirely, but I don't want to get side-tracked.) How did the investigation of those allegations become a wholesale management critique of Center operations?

As far as accountability, the Center is required to submit written reports to the Town as part of the contract for receiving the Town’s funds. I don’t recall their frequency – quarterly, perhaps. So if the reports have always been satisfactory, then what to make of this? Are the various complaints about how the place is managed outside the scope of those reports, but still within the purview of the Town? If so, then is it the responsibility of the individual to whom the Center reports to monitor that? In that case – what has changed recently such that funding the place is no longer acceptable? The Center has been at the same location, with the same Director essentially forever, and has been reporting to the same Town official for many years, as far as I know. Why this sudden outrage?

I’m not trying to be contrary – I’m trying to find some rationale in a situation that strikes me as dangerously irrational. As I said, I agree with many of the “recommendations” about how the Center might be improved. But what’s happening to them now seems terribly unfair and unnecessarily mean-spirited.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie,

This is Ronald Meck. I went to the hearing tuesday and I have to agree that the town is coming in way too strong waving the flag of "human rights". Many of these staff members who are being accused are one step removed from the clients if that. None of them got involved to take advantage of the situation, they are simply in over their heads trying to respond to the immense needs and emotional distress of persons with substantial mental health issues in many cases. I don't contest that there is much truth to the contentions that some pretty rough interactions have taken place. I'm not so sure about the "abuse" claims, especially when many of the accusers openly acknowledged their own history of abuse and neglect and are likely hypersensitized to those issues. These staff members in my mind have likely responded in a less than favorable light feeling overwhelmed by the inteactions and not having the kind of objectivity a trained professional might have to respond from a more neutral place. They apparently had little if any supervision or training. How could they be expected to perform at peak level in such stressful circumstances?
I'm thinking of writing a guest column for the bulletin and I would like to know more about the structure of the center, specifically the town's formal relationship and degree of authority therein. Could I email or call you for this purpose? My email is bigsigmund@aol.com


Anonymous said...

In your August 22 posting, , you referred to “the unfounded allegations of a few angry people.”

I have not been involved with the Survival Center other than to drop off clothing, but when I watched the proceedings on ACTV, what I saw were people coming forward at great risk to themselves, in the form of denial of food and clothing, to tell their personal experiences. Several of these people said they had witnessed people being turned away, being denied food because they didn’t speak English.

What will change those “unfounded allegations” into “substantiated” allegations?

How many people have to come forward with the same or similar stories?

When are people allowed to be angry? Are only those who are not in need or pain allowed to be angry? Are only those in power, like directors and board members allowed to get angry?

Several people spoke of others being banned from the Survival center, simply because they complained, and yet these folks risked the same fate by coming forward with their stories.

I don’t know how this alternative “hearing” was set up, but it became clear, from the people speaking, that there were/are some huge problems that weren’t being addressed by going through the “proper” channels and procedures.

We’re talking basic survival here, food and clothing.

You said you have no complaints about the process. Of course not. You are not going hungry or lacking warm clean clothes.

The process may have been working for the idea or institution of the Survival Center, but it clearly wasn’t working for the people who were being denied food.. They don’t have the months - or years-that going through “proper channels” would take.

As Bill Elsasser said, they need the Survival Center to be open and running, so those in need can eat and get clothing when they need it. We need to make sure that everyone in need can get those needs met.

I don’t know what the overall solution is, but it is clear that there need to be immediate changes at the bottom, person-to person, serving food, giving out clothing level.

Rather than bash the messengers over protocol, (especially since protocol was apparently going nowhere,) I hope that the priority can be the intended mission of the Survival Center, which is to help everyone who is in need of food, clothing, and/or shelter.

Stephanie Gelfan

Anonymous said...

The way to "change those 'unfounded allegations' into 'substantiated' allegations" is to do an investigation.

Before there is an investigation, we don’t know the facts.


a. Judgment should not be made before knowing the facts. Clearly that has happened in this case. You just have to read the paper to see that.

b. Whatever investigation takes place is unbiased and hears all sides of the story. Ronald Meck's letter to the Bulletin says this was not the case, which is what prompted my first email. You may feel that the meeting was fine. I can't say because I haven't seen the video of the meeting yet.

I am also not sure it is wise to make such an investigation so public. If it were me, I would have an investigative board look into it, inviting just the complainants and people from the center. With just a small public/press gallery to keep it honest. Public investigations tend to make shy people not come forward, and the not-so-shy people dramatize to the crowd.

I hope we all continue to "bash the messengers over protocol", if the protocol is in fact wrong. "Protocol" is what our whole legal system is based on and is very important. The priority should always be to respect everyone's rights, accused and accuser, not just the rights of one or the other.

If it turns out that the investigation being done is/was reasonably fair and unbiased, including the September 12 meeting, then I certainly applaud whoever is doing the investigation, thank them for their work on it, and hope they publish some kind of documentation of the facts they found out.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Hi Stephanie –

Thanks for your comments. You raise a lot of interesting points.

I have no ability to refute or support any of the allegations against the Center.

But I do know a few things:

No one is denied the food or clothing that they need. I knew that to be true back when I was on the Board, and Charlene Scott’s report on WFCR on 9/12 suggests that is still the case. (Listen to it at wfcr.org: click on News, then click on WFCR local, and find the story on the list.) Someone who has been trespassed from the Center – an act that results from dangerous or extremely disruptive behavior – can arrange for someone else to pick up their items.

The Human Rights Director received a number of complaints. These complaints are, until proven otherwise, unfounded allegations. Her investigation is now complete. What did she find? We have no idea. I have heard that the only human rights violation that she found was the lack of a satisfactory appeals process for those who get trespassed. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. What about all the complaints raised at the September 12th “hearing?” Did she investigate those allegations? If so, what did she find? If she didn’t, why not? We know so little about that investigation and what she found, and yet that is really an important element here. Claims that the details are confidential seem kind of moot when you think about all the folks at the “hearing” identifying themselves and their complaints quite publicly. All we really know from the Human Rights Director is that she thinks the now-former Director seemed overwhelmed and had a lax management style, and that the Board of Directors provided ineffective leadership, etc. These are not human rights violations.

The Survival Center provides food and clothing and household goods to those in need. It also provides informal referrals to professionals who can assist with shelter, mental health, WIC, and countless other needs and resources. Does every person have all of his or her needs met there? Of course not. Is that a rational standard to hold the place to? I don’t think so. The place is (or apparently was, as all this seems to have disrupted their service significantly) doing the best it can to help as many people as it can in the best way it knows how. While a bunch of people who aren’t satisfied with the place are getting plenty of attention, all those who were satisfied – those to whom the Center is a vital and beloved place – are getting no attention at all, and currently, little or no service.

No place can meet every need of every person. Life isn’t that simple and people aren’t that similar. Why not appreciate the Center for all the good it does do and all those it does serve, AND find another way to fill in some of the inevitable gaps? The folks behind this “public hearing” and “Ad Hoc committee” clearly have passion, talent, determination and organization. Why not channel all that into something more positive? Perhaps because it is easier to destroy than to create.

When I think about the situation the Center finds itself in now, I keep coming back to that expression – "No good deed goes unpunished."


Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Rick –

Thanks for your good insights.

The process really has been a mess here, partially because two separate processes are happening, with significant overlap. And because Hwei-Ling Greeney is involved in both (helping to initiate the Human Rights Director’s investigation, as she details in her Bulletin commentary of 9/1; and apparently encouraging the work of the Ad Hoc committee, such as her 9/16 promotion of the “public hearing” ACTV broadcast on the Town Meeting Listserv, and her observation of the “protest march’ as described in the 9/8 Springfield Republican article) further confuses the issue. Because she is a Select Board Member, does that mean the Ad Hoc committee has some official standing? Did the “Public Hearing” have any kind of official standing? I believe that answer to both questions is “no,” but no wonder people might think otherwise.

The Select Board, the Planning Board, the ZBA and other official entities hold “Public Hearings” where, as you say, all sides are heard from in an orderly and impartial attempt to collect information in order to render an official decision. The so-called Public Hearing of September 12th (which I did not attend nor have I seen the video) was none of those things. I don’t need to have been there to know that. It was organized and run by the Ad Hoc committee. They are not an impartial body. Its goal was not to hear all sides of the story – its goal was to provide a forum for those who don’t like the Center or have had bad experiences there. And by its very nature – an unofficial citizens group – it had no ability to render a binding judgment or decision.

It was a gripe session, and I don’t begrudge it that. I have engaged in some pretty lively gripe sessions about the Center myself. But this group’s presumption of authority or power is what I see as wrong.

Also wrong is the Town’s failure to distinguish and clarify their official process (the investigation by the Human Rights Director) from everything that has followed. As I said, Hwei-Ling’s involvement confuses the two, as does the continued citation by the Ad Hoc committee of complaints made to the Town, the Human Right’s Director’s investigation and report, etc. Where does the official part end and the entirely unofficial part start? Who can blame people for being confused?

And how much power does or should the “official” part even have? All good questions.