The poison of elections

The refrain I hear throughout my social media feeds is that the system is broken. Our electoral college system is rigged. Our two-party system is a joke. Trump’s candidacy makes a mockery of our democratic ideals. Having the spouse of a former president run for president makes a mockery of our democratic ideals. Why bother voting, the whole thing’s broken.

I’ve spent 36 hours at the SUNY Council of Library Directors meeting in Albany, and our main order of business is to evaluate the results of a consultation we hired Ithaka S+R to do for us, assessing our current structure, our needs, our goals, and our challenges, because we recognized that we had a leadership challenge. We didn’t have any consistency, we didn’t have a model for raising up our best and supporting them to lead, and we haven’t had a contested election in my memory — we just appoint somebody because we twisted their arm into volunteering. And so we hired Ithaka to study our challenges, and propose solutions. The main proposed solution is a radical restructuring of our current model. And the hesitation, fear, and pushback are intense.

I see some parallels to the general American state of mind. We look at our national government and observe that public opinion of Congress falls somewhere lower than public opinion on cockroaches and communism. We have an intensely divided presidential race in which neither candidate represents the ideals of the party faithful. Money has more influence over our candidates than our voters’ voices do. The most influential court in our government is missing a bench member because Congress is having a hissy fit. And we’re all bemoaning the state of affairs… but we all agree that there’s just nothing to be done. Besides, Obama’s gotten a lot done. Congress has made some important stands. Blah blah blah partisan blah.

SCLD has faced some major challenges, and we’ve succeeded and we’ve failed. We’ve created a strategic plan and small pieces of it have been followed through on. Other pieces have been abandoned or neglected. We’re literally sitting in a business meeting as I write this, arguing about whether or not we should vote, and if we vote, what percentage of majority is required for a vote to be binding. We’ve pushed through multimillion dollar negotiations, and we … well, we signed a contract, so we call it a success even though it sucks. We’re working hard to lead on OERs and OA for SUNY, but it’s a few people in a subcommittee. Ditto our ILS/LSP migration — a few people are making it happen as a sheer force of will.

There’s also a lot of discussion of trust. How do we build trust in a new organization? How do we trust our elected representatives to the new governing body? How do we guarantee we’ll be represented? Our failure to reform our national government is reflected so clearly in these questions. We don’t trust those we elect. We don’t feel represented by those we elect. We don’t believe our voices will be heard. And we take that general unease and it applies to all our governance structures. Even when those structures are made up of people we’ve known for years. Decades. Who we work side by side with. We assume that elections and power structures require distrust and engender unfair decisionmaking.

I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t believe that everyone who runs for an office does so to gain power. I don’t believe that being elected to an office means that you’ve stopped listening to those you represent. I don’t believe that elections must be a choice between the lesser of two evils.

I do believe that some people who run for offices want to serve. I believe that some people who are elected believe in representing the good of the whole. I believe that some people who are elected want to listen, want to know, want to understand, want to serve the greater good. And I believe that in a functional election, you have a choice between multiple good candidates.

And I believe all of those things about my library colleagues. I believe in us. I believe we can have useful, contested elections for leadership of SUNY libraries. I believe we can have leaders who listen, and serve the system and our strategic goals. I believe we can trust our community.

I don’t think that SCLD’s members are the GOP and DNC. I don’t think we need to be so afraid.

I think we need to acknowledge that we have problems. And that we cannot ignore those problems by searching for incremental changes that are easy to swallow. We need to try something new. Find the courage. Lets do that.


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