Economic Development Series – A Different Way to Thrive

Downtown_Davis1By Tia Will

Along with many others, I was asked to share my thoughts about how best to proceed in dealing with our city’s economic problems. At first, I thought that I would write about the limitations and potential pitfalls of rapid growth and development since so many are already extolling the need for “more”. But then, I realized that this is not the crux of the issue for me. This issue is not less or more, it is not an issue of scarcity vs plenty. For me the central issue is collaboration and optimization, not just of money, but of all of our resources.

I am a baby boomer born in the 50’s. My parents were working poor and they were proud of the home that they managed to provide for their daughters, and they wanted what they perceived as a “better life” for us. It was clear to me that their concept of “ a better life” included more money, and more material goods.

However, in my life, what has mattered the most to me is not how much money I have. Rather the measure of my life, in my own eyes, is the value of my personal relationships with my children, my partner, my friends, and my colleagues. My value is in my personal accomplishments, my education and how I have used my knowledge and skills not just to better my own life, but to better the lives of others. What makes me happy is not my bank account, but my contribution to the world around me whether in my home, my neighborhood, my work place or my community.

For me, money is nothing more or less than the ability to acquire more material goods and services. It is true that it is objective in amount. But that is all that is objective about it. There is no set amount that equates to happiness, or security, or accomplishment or morality. It is nothing more than a numeric placeholder for what we want which is based on those highly subjective states called feelings and desires. I know that this will sound like heresy to those who believe that our well being can be reduced to economic success. I disagree.

Some will ask, “what about “the American Dream” ?  The dream that our children will be better off than were their parents. To this, I would respond, which American Dream ?  That of our founders ?

What they said in our Declaration of Independence was “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” which gives three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says has been given to all human beings. Not a word about individual wealth accumulation.

What they said in the preamble to our constitution was :

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Not a single word devoted to getting rich or having our children be richer than their parents.

So why do we cling so tenaciously to a precept that is not spelled out in our founding documents, not supported by our major religious faiths, nor universally agreed upon by all human cultures ?  I do not know the answer. But I do know that our culture has become infatuated with the concept of the accumulation of material goods and services as synonymous with success and that we have uncritically accepted competition as the best way to win the accumulation wars. I also know that I believe that there is an alternative and better way forward. I believe that in economic matters as in interpersonal matters, collaboration is better than competition. And I believe that this different path could have profound implications for our local economy and the well being of our city.

This belief is not founded on some utopian dream. I have seen the power of collaboration over competition in the 30 years that I have worked within the Kaiser Permanente system of health care delivery. Initially felt to be a “utopian dream” or a “communist plot” depending of the views of the speaker, the model has proven enormously successful, both medically and economically. The basis for the model is that doctors provide the best care when they collaborate rather than compete with each other. A secondary principle of our model is that everyone has a vital role in our success from the neurosurgeons to the environmental services staff. It is these basic principles that have, in part, allowed Kaiser to thrive.

Another example of collaboration rather than competition was my daughter’s private high school, St. Francis. St. Francis declared itself as more than just a high school. From the day of my daughter’s acceptance it was made clear to us that this was a community. As such, it was expected that all parents would make a contribution. We had a choice. We could make the contribution by volunteering our time or by donating money. The choice was ours, but everyone had to contribute. Everyone had “skin in the game”. And all of our daughters benefitted.

So what does any of this have to do our local economy ?  I believe that there is for the city, as for medical practice, a better way forward. I believe that while money is critical for our overall sustainability, it is not the most important factor. I believe that what is most critical to the well being of our community is individual contribution.  I am not talking about sitting in a circle holding hands and singing Kumbaya. I am taking about either financial contribution or contribution of time, knowledge, expertise, goods and /or services for which individuals could be held accountable.  There is precedent for direct citizen contribution to our community. The construction of Rainbow City approximately two decades ago was a collaborative effort between the city and private citizens. We make extensive use of the time and expertise of private citizens on our various councils and commissions.

So why do we not choose to leverage this desire to contribute in a more formal, organized way ?

I am going to make some very concrete suggestions.

  1. The city and school board currently solicit volunteers, but in a relatively disorganized manner without full time coordination. I recommend that the city establish a new volunteer position to be called something like “City Contribution Coordinator”.
  2. I recommend that this individual be responsible for the compilation of current identified city and school district needs and assessment of which would be amenable to being addressed by either private funds or private time contributions.
  3. I recommend that this individual be responsible for assessing which needs are already being addressed fully and which have ongoing unmet needs.
  4. I recommend that this individual reach out to private businesses, business organizations, faith based organizations, school based organizations, neighborhood associations, university groups and private citizens to see just what resources we have available and how we could best mobilize them to meet very specific goals.
  5. This individual could be responsible for maintaining and matching needs with volunteers and/or donors.
  6. The individual could be responsible for fundraising for specific projects important to those who prefer to contribute money rather than their time.

While I do not pretend that such an effort would serve as a panacea, or “fix” all of our city’s economic problems, I do anticipate the following benefits.

  1. Some projects currently low on the city’s list of priorities might be financed by private donations or a combination of monetary and non- monetary contributions.
  2. Some people who feel that their voices are not heard would have a means to not only have their concerns addressed, but would have the assurance that they would be connected with others with similar concerns and perhaps a creative solution could be found rather than simply relying on already over burdened city staff. This might serve as a first step for building trust in the city leadership.
  3. One simple benefit might be a feeling of greater connectedness to the community.
  4. This could offer yet another venue for community service for those needing to complete a requirement, or desiring to gain experience in a specific area, or wanting to build a resume, or just try out something new.
  5. Working on the premise that all citizens are capable of making a significant contribution, this would allow for everyone to participate and for everyone to feel that they too, whether long term resident or newly arrived student have “skin in the game” and are an important part of our community.

I look forward to your comments on my alternative perspective.

Editor’s note: following the decision by Mace Ranch Innovation Center to put its pending project on hold, the Vanguard decided to re-start a community discussion on the future of economic development in Davis.  As such, we are reaching out to a very diverse group of people and starting May 1 we are hoping to publish one op-ed a day on this subject.  We are pleased to announce that so far we have over 40 commitments and counting. Beginning today, we will publish one article per day for the month of May into June.  If you would like to add your voice – please submit your piece on the future of economic development in Davis (800 to 1000 words).

May 1: Robb Davis

May 2: Elaine Roberts Musser

May 3: Dan Carson

May 4: Matt Williams

May 6: Peter Bell

May 7: Bob Fung

May 9: Rob White

May 16: Alan Humason

May 17: Mike Hart

May 18: Judy Corbett

May 19: Mark Braly

May 20: Susan Rainier

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Barack Palin

    Would the author please tell us how we’re going to pay for our roads, retirement benefits and all other unfunded costs with her suggestions she has put forward?

    1. Tia Will


      The author has stated on a number of occasions her opinion on these questions. I believe that we are going to have to take the three pronged approach that many others as well as I have stated many times 1) cut back on expenses where possible 2) raises taxes as needed 3) support the development of businesses that fit within the goals and values of small city which values more than just monetary goals. I have also stated my preference for paying for our own bills rather than foisting the bill off on someone else, whether future residents, future businesses or our children.

      What I was hoping to do with this article was to present a forth “prong” to that of the above three. I would like to have people consider the value of their individual contribution to the community as being of as much value as the money they are taxed or choose to spend. For me, time is much more valuable than money and is a resource that is greatly undervalued in our society.


  2. Topcat

    Would the author please tell us how we’re going to pay for our roads, retirement benefits and all other unfunded costs with her suggestions she has put forward?

    And what about providing police and fire department services?  What about parks and greenbelt maintenance?  What about maintenance of street lighting and traffic signals? Would we use all volunteers to provide those services?

  3. Biddlin

    In 25 years of service to the City of Sacramento, I have NEVER, EVER seen “volunteers” successfully take over a park or street median maintenance from the city or its contracted workers.(I’ve also never seen a contractor that wasn’t shorting the city on its services and materials.) The best of intentions, perhaps on the part of most, but they have neither the skills nor commitment necessary for the long haul.

    Just observing the virulent contentiousness on an internet forum, one can scarcely imagine a Davisite placing any “need” ahead of their own to be right.

  4. The Pugilist

    I like the fact that Tia is thinking outside the box.  Remember during the fire debate, the suggestion was more volunteers.  But volunteers might cut some costs for service, they are not going to bring us core infrastructure.

    1. Tia Will


      Would we use all volunteers to provide those services?”

      Two thoughts about this. I think that the key is your insertion of the word “all” which is certainly not my intent.

      1. It is not unusual in small communities for these services to be provided in part by volunteers.

      2. While I do not see these services being provided by volunteers in Davis, I do see the possibility for volunteers to provide more of the non technical background duties thus freeing up the experts to do the portions of the job requiring special expertise.

    2. Topcat

      I do see the possibility for volunteers to provide more of the non technical background duties thus freeing up the experts to do the portions of the job requiring special expertise.

      I do volunteer work with several organizations, so I am familiar with the possibilities and limitations of using volunteers.  I do think there is a place for volunteerism in some areas and some functions.

      It would be interesting to see what specific job functions that are now performed by paid workers that Tia believes could be replaced with volunteers?  If this shift from paid employees to volunteers were to occur, what percentage of the paid City workforce could be eliminated?  How would we get the unions to agree to doing this?

      1. Tia Will


        It would be interesting to see what specific job functions that are now performed by paid workers that Tia believes could be replaced with volunteers? “

        That is a great question for which I do not have an answer. That is why I specified that one of the coordinator’s roles would be to look into the issue  of cataloging what duties could be off loaded onto volunteers and to set up a system for matching volunteer with position.

        It was not so long ago, for example, that we were lowering our number of staff through attrition. What if instead of attrition, we had been able to assign some of those duties to volunteers. I don’t know if this is even a possibility, but it is has not been considered, perhaps it should be.

  5. Tia Will

    It is interesting to me so far that all of the comments have centered around what we of course would not expect volunteers to do, namely highly technical jobs with need for special expertise and training. No where in my article did I express the believe that high level skilled positions could be filled by volunteers and yet this is the focus.

    What no one has chosen to emphasize is what volunteers do every day such as tutoring in our classrooms, sorting books at the library, helping with food distribution to those in need, serving on our commissions in area of their expertise and how we might be able to optimize and leverage these contributions.


    1. hpierce

      OK… places where volunteer COULD work:

      For schools:  tutors, mentors, routine clerical assistance, answering phones, maintaining website.  

      Caveat: any volunteers having contact with students should have the same background, fingerprint, etc. vetting as a teacher would… they even do that for volunteers for ‘leaders’ in the “childrens Nutcracker” productions…

      For the City:  routine clerical assistance, answering phones, special research tasks, maintaining website.

      Caveat:  volunteers are subject to workers comp, drug/alcohol testing, etc.

      Unlike when I was a volunteer intern in my field, for a public agency in the mid-70’s, the “rules” that public agencies must follow have grown exponentially… had the current system been in place, by the time I was “vetted”, I would have had to return to college.

      Concept sound, good, and I strongly support… but in current environment (not just City of Davis, but public agencies in general), [and somebody has to supervise the volunteers], hard to make practicable.  It is what it is.

      When I was in Jr high, tutored a 3rd grader for a summer (for the princely sum of $2.00/hour, which was basically, ‘volunteering’… got him from a high “D” student to a solid “B”… 10 weeks… today, even though we knew the family, that probably could not have happened.  I’d have to be fingerprinted, interviewed, etc.

      More is the pity…


      1. Tia Will


        Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        I agree that all those conditions have to be met. It is not all that onerous. I know because I have had to do it. It is just part of the process.  The boy I am currently tutoring is making large strides, I don’t know his grade level advancement yet, but I do know that he has moved up to much more advanced books over the course of a year.

        Small nuisance for a big pay off. I was grumbling while driving to get my fingerprints taken…..but I am a happy camper now.

  6. Tia Will

    Hi Biddlin

    Your comment addresses two of my revised 4 pronged approach to addressing our goals. With regard to street medians as an example, perhaps we would be willing to accept a little less perfection in maintenance combined with some less cost in terms of skilled paid maintenance crews.

    As for commitment, I agree that it is highly variable from volunteer to volunteer and would require a change in mindset. But I happen to believe in the power and potential for change. And mindsets are no exception.

    1. Biddlin

      “With regard to street medians as an example, perhaps we would be willing to accept a little less perfection in maintenance”

      That’s pretty much where you’re at, now.

  7. nameless

    The problem I see with volunteerism is consistency and time commitment.  Many people love to volunteer – for a single event that is done and over with quickly.  In my experience with a non-profit and as a volunteer for various committees/projects/causes, volunteers on a regular and consistent basis are difficult to find, especially if they have the commitment of a family to raise or a loved one to care for.

  8. Tia Will


    As a frequent volunteer, I agree with every limitation that you and others have stated. Although I wrote this piece for the local level, my ambition would be much greater. I feel that there would be great benefits to our society if every child were raised knowing that contribution to the society was not just a “feel good” activity, but rather an essential part of citizenship. I believe that we should, as do some countries have a mandatory service time. This should not be only military, but in the area of the individual’s choice…. military, teaching, health care, environmental restoration, care taking ……

    We all  know that there is much that needs doing as you noted with your reference to care for a loved one which is frequently one of the most stressful times in one’s life and currently goes completely uncompensated as though it were not in and of itself often a full time “job”. I feel that if we were to institute such a program of years of service nationally, we would not only build more more compassionate individuals, but also a stronger, more cohesive nation.


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