By Andy Howe
Roughly 200,000 years ago the direct ancestor of modern man evolved in Africa when a small group of proto-humans adapted a genetic trait that previous forms of hominids only hinted at. This sub-species was capable of something never seen before—forward-thinking imagination. Our brains were changed to “fill in the gaps” on a conceptual level. It allowed us to invent complex tools and to plan for the future. Since then, we haven’t changed much.
Despite the belief that we are unique in the animal kingdom because we are lead not by our instincts but by our logic, the reality differs. The core of our nature is actually emotional and instinctual—our higher-order thinking skills only allow us to counter our more base reactions.
Studies have shown that people in groups tend to lose touch with their individual morals and principles. Biologically, part of our brain simply shuts down. We choose a side and don’t consider other perspectives, we defend that side wholeheartedly against our perceived opponents without recognition that we may actually be our own worst enemy. These insights are crucial in understanding human nature on both an individual and group level.
It is apparent that a growing number of people in Oak Ridge are falling into distrust with our leadership. Part of the reason for this is the way our system is set up—it’s a confusing system where no one person knows everything—but part of it is surely due to the aforementioned human traits. We are too quick to fill in the gaps and assume we have a full understanding when we actually do not, and these assumptions trigger an emotional and sometimes public response that may be unwarranted. And this is a problem.
I admit that I too have fallen prey to such problems. When I became interested in learning more about our city, I acted emotionally during a City Council meeting. I immediately apologized and checked myself in the future. Since then, I’ve done all I can to recognize the pitfalls of the mind and counter them. All other times I’ve felt compelled to approach the podium, I’ve attempted to do it with décor, to simply state my case and my opinions and to back them up with justification.
To create an enlightened city, we must first enlighten ourselves. Simply put, I feel I can lead by example in this area. For an example of both how I operate along these lines and how a board can operate along these lines, I need only look back a few months.
I’m on the Traffic Safety Advisory Board and one of our members had a problem with our board and made it known publicly. Since I did not see the problems that were brought up, my gut reaction was one of betrayal. However, I did not act upon those feelings. Instead I called the member up and let him know “I don’t see what you’re referring to, but if you can back up the claims I’ll back you up.” To the TSAB’s credit my approach seemed echoed by all. None of the members acted slighted by the situation; instead, we all seemed genuinely concerned about correcting the possible problems or perceptions that spawned it. Because of this there was zero fallout from the incident, and it actually may have made our working paradigm better.
This is the way I feel all our boards in town should behave. Accept the negative with grace, and forgive as quickly as possible. Take the meat of the situation to heart but work for change without holding grudges. And we should never take advantage of this paradigm of forgiveness to excuse continued poor behavior.
For all of this to work, trust of our colleagues’ intentions is required. Trust is crucial for all of Oak Ridge to collectively work as one to reach common goals. Sometimes that trust can be built by being forthright and outspoken, and sometimes it’s best to simply listen and not respond. The trick is to know when to take which course of action.
Our system is built upon a division of responsibility. City Council is elected to run our city, and the Board of Education is elected to run our schools. Our city manager is appointed to lead our city just as our superintendent is appointed to lead our school system. If our elected officials cannot trust each other, how are the citizens supposed to trust them?
That said, there are various kinds of trust. Our officials must meet the expectations placed upon them by the public and by other officials and employees. If they do not, it is understandable that trust will deteriorate and something must be done to correct the problem, either privately or at times publicly. Again, only the specifics of the situation can determine which route to take.
Because of the way I’ve handled myself over the past few years, I feel I have already earned the trust of those who have been watching. I’m writing this now so I can gain the trust of the rest of Oak Ridge.
Because I believe all the candidates for the BOE have our children and our schools’ best interests at heart, this race in many ways is the equivalent of a job interview. I hope this article will demonstrate a few of my qualities that will be essential for being on the BOE—my awareness, my ability to adapt, my ability to be forthright and even a bit self-righteous at times. More than anything though, I hope you recognize my ability to work smoothly and respectfully with others.
I value a great working school system over my own ego, so I want you all to research the candidates and vote. And then do all you can to support those who are elected, as best you can. You’ll know when to forgo a polite approach and raise a little hell, but let’s all think about the ramifications of such an approach and try less damaging methods first.
This era of negativity must end. I dearly want us all to work as a unified team. This is simply the beginning, the start of what I hope will be a new path forward, one we will take hand-in-hand, because we truly are all in this together whether we like it or not.
Howe is a candidate for the Oak Ridge Board of Education.