JP Observer: On public issues, let’s not overlook the intangibles

“If donors had their way,” an out-of-state college administrator told me in confidence years ago, “this campus would be crowded with benches. Everywhere you look you would see benches, many with plaques with people’s names on them.” The crowd stared out the windows, apparently imagining the scene.

“So many people want the money they donate to go for something tangible like a bench or building,” he continued. “What we need is money for teaching and improving student life—for the general scholarship fund. We can get money easily for an actual chair. It is much harder to persuade people to help fund an endowed teaching chair.”

Like that college, Jamaica Plain certainly has to focus on physical reality sometimes. We are faced with issues from overpasses to housing developments to parks. But it is important that we not become so distracted by physical considerations that we forget the intangibles that determine the true value of the neighborhood.

Rearranging roads and bridges is about asking people to change their behavior, and change can be scary. The lives of the people who will live in new housing are key to how it’s developed. Parks have important ecological and psychological effects on their neighbors and users. Some problems can be better solved by changing behavior rather than terrain.

JP faces critical issues that are abstract. While we are so occupied with what we see, those “invisible” topics can get unintentionally ignored. Or we see them but assume someone else in some larger arena will take care of those problems for us.

One evening several years ago a community group in JP held a 90-minute discussion about the exact types of trees that should be planted on a slice of public land—pros and cons, ups and downs. A government consultant along with a lot of professional drawings helped with the decision.

Earlier that day in a public school classroom not far away, a teacher struggled to teach a “regular” class where two students were acting so troubled and emotional, little learning could transpire, despite the teacher’s caring and determination.

If we gave as much time, attention and money to our complex problems like those in that classroom, our community could be further improved in deep, long-lasting—if less physical—ways.

Education, civil rights, poverty, hunger, ecology, health (including mental health) care, employment, peace, cooperation and other invisible subjects need as much attention and advocacy as subjects we can photograph.

We need to be careful how we approach the abstract issues. Blaring buzzwords and sloganeering are tempting and convenient, but rhetoric can’t take the place of calm information-gathering, planning and taking constructive action.

Individuals and organizations that already articulate and work on intangible issues need our support. Those who point out the human aspects of our concrete concerns should be praised. The abstract issues we face are complex, difficult and know no geography. We will benefit if we remember to pay attention to them, as well as to our physical surroundings, here at the grassroots.


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