At the start of last week I attended a lecture in Madison by a woman who lives in a hut with no electricity in Afghanistan, where she helps to construct schools in that troubled nation. At the end of last week I spent some time at the State Capitol as the budget conference committee continued to attempt to muscle each other along in the process of completing their work for the people of Wisconsin. As I walked out of the Statehouse on Friday afternoon into the biting winds blowing off the lakes on the isthmus I asked myself, not for the first time, how could one better use their life to effect the most change for society. What is the best way to leverage one’s energy and time to promote the values one believes in?
For many decades I have held firm to the idea that government service is the best way to make a difference in society. I grew up with that idea instilled in me from a father who served 40 years in local town government in central Wisconsin. What seemed at times while I was a boy that my dad attended just one long meeting that consumed his time, changed for me as a teenager when I discovered the work he did for the public had a direct bearing on their lives. The politics of placing a culvert in the summer months made sense when the winter snows melted and the spring runoff did not flood farm fields. My dad taught me to respect government work, and to see it as a way to effect change, no matter how small it may seem.
Having been involved with both local and state politics in Wisconsin I know my dad’s understanding of how to make an impact is correct. And yet as I watch over the past weeks the often-infantile antics of both sides at the budget conference table in Madison I have to hope there is a better way to make change in our world. It is not that the goals of the conferees are not worth pursing, be they health care or a more robust economy, but the amount of posturing and gamesmanship at the expense of leadership and results on both sides can be frustrating to witness.
A lobbying friend who talked with me for a while on Friday spoke of the upcoming elections in 2008. One open Assembly seat in western Wisconsin will take at least $200,000 in order to compete effectively in both the primary and general election. What a daunting task for even the most energetic candidate. I had to wonder out loud if the candidate who can raise that amount of money may be the best one to win, but perhaps not the best one to govern. There is a stark difference between the two that often gets blurred in the media wars that take place in modern elections.
And after winning the seat what is the glory in sitting back and watching the leadership, on both sides of the political aisle, act in ways that garners no respect with the public. If a candidate runs to effect change how must it feel to be impotent and powerless in the face of the real bosses in the legislature?
So the work of Julia Bolz, the woman who builds schools in Afghanistan, continues to run through my mind. With a very limited budget this group of volunteers has no time to ponder the shape of their navel, for they are too busy at working for progress in the world. While hundreds of millions of dollars were spent fruitlessly in the 2006 congressional elections to alter the Iraq War, Bolz and her team are helping young minds be opened to new ideas in Afghan classrooms. While Congress dickers, folks like Bolz build.
I pondered all this while walking away from the Statehouse on Friday. While the sun will rise and set many times yet before a Wisconsin state budget is signed into law we all might take a moment to ask ourselves if the work we do makes a real effect on the world. And if not, how we might make it so.