On a recent Saturday evening, I joined my boardmember spouse and several hundred others at The Arc’s annual shindig at the Hotel Eleganté.
The evening unfolded predictably enough: sign in, table assignments, cocktails, networking, silent auction, proceed to tables, videos, food, introductions, fiery keynote speech from longtime activist, awards, more awards, yet more awards, frequent applause, the ask and the rush for the exits.
I chatted for a while with Dr. David Greenberg, who with his spouse, Paulette, has been a constant presence on the city’s charity circuit. David and Paulette have been generous donors to nonprofits for decades and even created one in 2003, the Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance.
“How many times have we seen each other at these kinds of events? ” I asked David. “Twenty-five? Fifty? We’ve gone to a lot of them.”
“More than that,” he replied. “At least five or six a year, so that makes about 200.”
The number seemed dismaying and disheartening. Had I really listened to (and sometimes given!) so many long, earnest speeches? How many chickens had died to provide me with bland institutional food? How many ties had I tied, suits had I worn, shoes had I polished, yawns had I stifled and glasses of wine had I sipped? In retrospect, why didn’t I just mail them all a small check and skip the events?
But then I talked to Stan VanderWerf, who was elected to the Board of El Paso County Commissioners in 2016.
“It has really been amazing and wonderful to go to events like this in the last year and a half and learn about the nonprofit community,” he said. “This is a region with so many good and generous people, and it’s such a privilege to represent them on the commission and do what I can to make things better.”
I understood. When I first dove into the boiling cauldron of Colorado Springs politics almost 40 years ago, I had a lot to learn. It took me years to realize that organizations such as Care and Share, The Arc, Springs Rescue Mission, Goodwill, the El Pomar Foundation and the Humane Society anchor and define the city’s true character. That’s also true of arts, educational and cultural nonprofits such as the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College, the Philharmonic, the Pioneers Museum, the Old Colorado City History Center, Theatreworks and the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Arts.
“I’ve been so impressed with everybody on the commission,” VanderWerf continued. “I think that we all want the best for the county, and we’re working together to achieve that.”
That may sound like a feel-good cliché, but it’s true. Local governments in small jurisdictions work well because they have to deliver defined services every day. Partisan preening doesn’t fix potholes, put out fires, reduce crime, manage jails, collect taxes, assess properties, turn on streetlights, keep records and issue building permits. Local elected officials have no choice; They have to deliver.
Paradoxically, the best local elected officials rarely get elected to Congress. Mayors Bob Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace are examples, as are former El Paso County commissioners Sallie Clark and Jim Bensberg. To be moderate, thoughtful, competent and nonpartisan is essential for success in local government, but often a disqualifier in high-stakes partisan primaries.
There’s a vast oak that shades our neighbor’s cottage, one that was likely planted in 1898 when the house was built. Oaks aren’t native to Colorado’s high prairie, so homeowners during the last 120 years have watered, cared for and treasured the tree.
Like the oak, cities must be cared for, treasured and handed down to the next generation. That’s our job, and that’s why we should give to nonprofits, serve on boards and go to events. It’s not enough to be a decent person, a success in business and persistent for-profit networker. We may not be able to change Washington, D.C., but we can join with others to make a tangible difference in our home.
And if, like me, you feel sorry for the chickens and the speeches make you restless and impatient — get over it! Order a vegetarian dish, sit next to an interesting person you don’t know, bid in the silent auction and write a check.
And remember to water your trees.