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On the morning of Dec. 2, James Watkins, a 40-year-old Northeast resident, issued a desperate plea to his community’s e-mail discussion group. “[A] person can go to [community] meetings everyday of the week….I don’t know about you but I have to work at least 40 hours a week plus do household management, and if I were a parent with young kids, good lord, I guess I would be going non stop,” he wrote. “Can we please do something about consolidating meetings?”
Watkins isn’t just any community-meeting aficionado, but the Michigan Park Citizens Association’s (MPCA) community herald—an elected official charged with reporting the community’s goings-on in a monthly neighborhood newsletter called MPCA Notes. To do that job, he spends much of his free time attending meetings—the number of which seems to be rampantly increasing. “Somebody’s always having a meeting to do something in the community,” he explained on a December afternoon, later adding that he had been trying to take a nap before that evening’s meeting—a support group for African-American young men.
A few days later, as he rushed around catching up on his Christmas shopping, Watkins detailed the events leading up to his Dec. 2 cry for help. The previous evening, Watkins, a land surveyor, was on deadline putting together the eight-page MPCA Notes. In addition to finishing the newsletter, he was also supposed to help organize a meeting of the Northeast Historical Society. In the meantime, he was missing out on two of that evening’s meetings—those of the local advisory neighborhood commission and the Metropolitan Police Department’s 5th District Neighborhood Advisory Commission.
The previous month had been equally challenging. Watkins had attended meetings of the African-American-youth support group and worked on the community garden but had missed a meeting of Save the D.C. Parks and one of an organization fighting for inclusionary zoning in the city. He had recently become webmaster of the under-construction MPCA Web site. The morning after he finished his newsletter, as he tried to organize his calendar for the next month, Watkins buckled under the pressure of civic duty and begged his community to consolidate its frequent meetings.
Watkins can thank Gwendolyn Means for his hefty workload. Means, a 48-year resident of Michigan Park, heralded for the MPCA beginning sometime in the mid-’90s. She inherited the position from Mary Ellen Arendes, who had held down the fort for “15 to 20” years. As for the origin of “heralding,” that goes back some time further. “It’s a legitimate parliamentary position,” Means says, citing Robert’s Rules of Order.
As herald, Means took the job to a whole new level. Over her six or so years, she transformed the position’s scope from that of merely posting minutes in a mailing to writing a newsletter that included comprehensive neighborhood reporting. “I’m a community-minded person, and I thought I’d add a dimension to it,” she says. Although she enjoyed the job, she concedes that it “consumed a lot of time.” Which was, at least at one point, therapeutic: On the night her husband died, Means says, finishing the newsletter helped provide focus under trying circumstances.
Means, now 74, can still tick off the names of the organizations whose meetings she attended. Her list is as long as, if not longer than, Watkins’. Still, Means thinks that there may be even more community concern now than there was when she was reporting. And with more citizens interested in the health of the community, Means suggests there are more organizations. Which, of course, means more meetings. “If they are doing something for the community, you want to be supportive,” she says.
Cleopatra Jones knows Means’ and Watkins’ pain. For the past five years, she’s served as the Bloomingdale Civic Association’s herald. (Of 13 neighborhood civic organizations contacted, only Bloomingdale and Michigan Park elect heralds.) Though Jones was already president of her association, she had to take on the extra duties after the person who held that position “just stopped going.” “They said, ‘Oh, it’s too many meetings,’” she says.
Jones’ account of the swelling numbers of community meetings jibes with her fellow heralds’. Over the past three years, she says, the volume of community meetings has increased by “40 to 50 percent.” “So many groups are having meetings,” she says, “you can go [to] meetings from Monday to Friday.” She echoes Watkins’ call for order. “If, collectively, they all got together and had a forum…it would be much better,” says Jones.
At least one community leader is receptive to the idea. Cheryl Cort, executive director of the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities, the group responsible for the inclusionary-zoning meeting that Watkins missed, says that a larger forum is an acceptable option. “We want to do a lot of outreach,” she says. Cort is sympathetic to Watkins’ overload. “I go to a lot of meetings, too….It’s very tiring,” she says, hinting that Watkins might check out her organization’s Web site in lieu of attending so many meetings.
A month after the fact, Watkins hasn’t received any online responses to his posting. But he has reconciled himself to the demands of his position. “I must admit that I was a little frustrated but life goes on and I survived,” he writes in an e-mail. “I believe in community and that…is the most important thing to me.” Even, apparently, if promoting it is a pain in the ass. “I don’t want to do all this stuff,” he says, “[but] it’s important for people to know what’s going on.”CP