By Frank Denton, Florida Times-Union
Photo of Caren Goldman
Before a journalist begins to report and write a story, an essential first decision is framing — that is, what’s the perspective or angle of view on this story?
If the story is about the city budget, for example, is the story about the taxing-and-spending, or is it about the service or facility that the budget will provide, or is it about the politics involved?
Parents learn that an important conversation with a child can be more or less difficult or effective depending on how the parent approaches the subject.
Mediators don’t begin at the critical issue, but rather with identifying, understanding and leveraging the interests of the opposing parties and finding common ground.
Maybe everything is about framing — particularly when the frame is constructed of shared values, focused on and grounded in who we are, what’s truly important to us and how we want to live. Somehow, that can change how we approach issues or problems, for the better.
St. Augustine, as a city, is trying to live up to that admirable standard, and Jacksonville soon may be asked whether it has the fiber to do the same.
Last September, St. Augustine became the first city in Florida, and the 20th in the world, to become an official Compassionate City. The City Commission voted to encourage “the city’s government, citizens and institutions to work together to embrace and apply compassionate solutions in all community sectors … such as education, health care, the arts, historic preservation, government, business and social service and justice agencies, to promote the ideas of justice, equality and respect for all peoples and to encourage community service in meeting the needs of families, friends, communities and neighbors.”
In short, the Charter for Compassion boils down to the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you.
That sounds awfully touchy-feely and obvious. Who could be against that?
“We find that some people, because of silos they find themselves in or some line in the sand, they find a reason not to go along with this,” said Caren Goldman, a writer and a leader of the grassroots movement in St. Augustine. “One of the churches in town said they saw no reason to affiliate with this because it’s what they already believe and because it’s not all about Jesus.
“When we take the opportunity to see ourselves in the other person’s shoes, the lens with which they experience their life, we have a degree of empathy, which leads to compassion. It changes the conversation and our response to the other person.”
The Compassion Action Network grew out of a 2008 TED talk by religious scholar and author Karen Armstrong, based on her one wish to change the world. Over the next year, she and “a Council of Conscience, a multi-faith, multi-national group of secular and religious thinkers and leaders” sorted through their scriptures and other thinking and developed the Charter for Compassion (http://charterforcompassion.org).
By the time it got to St. Augustine, more than 107,000 people had pledged their commitment, and more than 400 organizations had signed on as partners.
“Already it’s changed the conversations here,” Goldman said. “The word ‘compassion’ is used in the city commission. The mayor just really feels very strongly that this is a priority in the city, one of the things that have to be factored into a lot of the decision-making.”
All well and good, but what does it mean in practical terms on the street? Give me something to get a grip on.
John Regan, St. Augustine city manager, said the city noted that homeless people tend to use bicycles for transportation, and that could be a danger at night. “Our police department made a heavy push with the sheriff and DOT to go to homeless camps and elsewhere and distribute easy, inexpensive taillights — compassion because we don’t want you hit by cars. It might have happened anyway, but it’s all a subtle shift.”
Regan also cited compassion, in the form of tolerance, in two policy changes by the city: changing its fair-housing ordinance to cover gays and its pension program to recognize life partnerships, not just marriages.
“I really try to work with my staff to be compassionate in the work we do and not take it lightly,” Regan said. “It’s easy for someone in government to become pretty comfortable and lose perspective on what others are going through. We want to integrate it into our work ethic, how we work and why we work. Do your job with compassion, because it really matters. You start to see subtle differences.”
Goldman cites a more personal example. “There’s a woman who comes to every commission meeting with this terrible attitude. She has the whole agenda redlined and slams the city about everything they’re doing wrong. Right after Valentine’s Day, she came in and went through all the complaining she always does. She ended with, ‘You think you’re a compassionate city, but you’re not’ … She pulled us aside and said I want to show you this. Someone had left her a Valentine card on top of a box of excrement and all this awful stuff.
“A week or two later, John Regan called her and made an appointment to have breakfast and hear her story and understand her better.
“It changed things. The next time she came to the meeting, she went through some stuff, but it didn’t have the same edge it did before. And at the end, she wished everyone a happy Easter.
“It was compassion that moved the city manager to hear her out and moved her for the first time to end on a happy note. It was heartwarming.”
Regan remembered the experience. “I just showed her the basic respect you’d want bestowed on yourself. It’s easy for people to target people like her and be mean.
“I have seen a change in her attitude, to try to make the shift to being compassionate. If I make a real effort to demonstrate compassion, it helps her become more civil and friendly, not feel like she’s a target.
“I don’t know what caused her change,” Regan said, “but if you try to live by your core values and stick to them, good things happen.”
Don’t you imagine that compassion is contagious?
St. Augustine is moving ahead. Mayor Joe Boles has proposed a joint compassionate-cities relationship with Aviles, its sister city in Spain, and Regan said the idea “was met very warmly.” Goldman wants to get Gov. Rick Scott and his challenger Charlie Crist to debate in St. Augustine on a platform of compassion.
And she and her fellow organizers are eyeing the big city to the north as the next compassionate city and hope to persuade OneJax to take the lead.
Nancy Broner, executive director of OneJax, cottons to the idea. “I’m really supportive of their work. They have my absolute admiration. It’s something that would be really meaningful for Jacksonville, but we have a lot of infrastructure to build here to make it happen. We’d have to get all elected officials on board, and that would take a lot of communication with City Council and a lot of community-building. It took St. Augustine two years to earn the certification, so obviously there’s a lot of work to be done.
“Who could object to being more compassionate as a city?
“But it takes a mindset for a city to decide this is a priority for us to become a compassionate city. It’s a strong social statement, that this is a value of our city. It’s something we should strive for, something that would say something about the character of our city.”