Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the fifth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.
The suits were out to get me. I could see them, a gaggle of political appointees who ran various state agencies, conferring behind a glass wall at the other end of the floor.
It was August 1974 and we were in Montpelier putting together a massive application for federal revenue-sharing funds. My job was to coordinate the researchers and writers, pull together the available data, and provide enough boilerplate language to assure approval by the federal government. Their job, apparently, was to divide up the money without regard to what communities wanted or my staff discovered along the way.
When I pointed out the disconnect between the emerging analysis and their plans, the head of the new Office of Manpower services flatly ordered me to stop talking to the locals and asking questions. When I did not comply and started circulating critical memos, he and his agency buddies decided I would have to go.
A year earlier I had moved to the Champlain Valley and enrolled at the University of Vermont, entering the graduate program to study administration and planning in the College of Education and Social Services. I was simultaneously Research and Development director for Champlain Work and Training Programs, a statewide U.S. Labor Department contractor, with a staff and an office in the Waterman administration building on campus.
Exploiting some research, interviewing and writing skills I had developed as a reporter – many also helpful in writing grants – the head of CVWT frequently farmed out my services as a consultant to school systems and others he hoped to woo. I was frequently on the road, working with superintendents and state officials to mesh their pet projects and ideas with federal funding guidelines.
Along the way I had designed and launched a statewide para-professional jobs program in association with the state’s Social and Rehabilitative Services system. The concept was to identify needs, find qualified people, and subsidize their wages while providing tailored training and education that would help these new “Case Workers Aides” keep their jobs once the subsidies ended.
The Public Employment Program – New Careers Project, funded through DOL contract N1-3003-50 and sponsored by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, was specifically designed to promote the use of para-professionals in the Vermont human services, develop a core of competency-based performance criteria, collect data on personnel models and future job needs, and test a cooperative approach to training and staff development that stressed joint problem-solving, shared responsibility and dual authority relationships.
Throughout the Watergate era – from John Dean’s 1973 break with the president, through Nixon’s resignation and the eventual coverup trial in late 1974 – I worked and studied harder than at any time in my life. Courses in planning, research methods, counseling, and ethics led to the latest theories in management and human resource development. At night, for black comedy relief, we would watch reruns of the unfolding national scandal hearings on public television.
Beyond the required grad school workload I soaked up political science, philosophy and history, drawing inspiration from systems theory, Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, and Noam Chomsky’s linguistic radicalism. There was also John Lilly, Colin Wilson, E.F. Schumacher, Gregory Bateson, William Irwin Thompson, Luis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Wilhelm Reich, Thomas Szasz, Ervin Laszlo, Alfred North Whitehead and Buddhist philosophy.
A new perspective was gradually taking shape. The idea that managers, and leaders in general, can only succeed if they are ethically-neutral “objective professionals” who rely exclusively on “rational” tools looked antiquated and potentially destructive. I questioned some basic assumptions; for example, that managers must be predictors and controllers of behavior and that organizations are essentially machines.
Radical management (and a reality check)
For several hundred years humans assumed that nature was nothing more than a complex mechanism, a machine whose secrets we would eventually unlock. We considered ourselves the “lords of nature,” destined to control the cosmic factory. We extended our quest to the very heart of matter – and smashed it. But we were wrong. Atoms are not solid, nature is not a machine, and the universe cannot be divided and dissected without the gravest of consequences.
Domination of nature had led us to a dead end, just as domination of humanity brought misery, poverty and the devastation of billions of the world’s peoples. The legacy of our mistakes was insecurity and alienation, war and waste.
At the heart of the problem, I concluded, was the set of values underpinning life in the developed countries. A desire for endless material advancement, the basis of our addiction to growth, prevented us from setting limits or ending the domination of nature to suit our current fancy. Yet that is what it would take. In essence, we needed to transform our way of life, turning away from accumulation and toward sustainability.
As I argued in my master’s thesis: “Our old approaches – rationalism, competition, inventions and invasions – will leave us with nothing but a deadened, artificial world. If we want to save the planet, therefore, we must turn from the mechanical to the creative, from Apollo to Dionysus, from domination of nature and human beings to cooperation with both nature and one another.”
It was a radical premise – that groups, businesses and societies need not depend on predictability, hierarchy and control, that another way is possible. In reaching to command and shape natural forces, other living beings and humanity, so-called “rational managers” smothered their instincts in a machine-made blanket of so-called facts.
The alternative proposed in my thesis was a revolutionary approach called Dionysian leadership, a reference to the much-misunderstood archetype of inspiration. It was not a commercial choice.In a way, that was the point. Exaggerating the threat of chaos – the essence of the much-exploited fear doctrine – rationalists through the ages had hidden and denied humanity’s potential to produce inspiration, joy and blessing.
Artistic methods like metaphorical thinking and intuition can help to build and sustain more humane organizations, I argued. Metaphorical method relies on both sense experience and spontaneous creation. The first – observation by the senses – is a traditional scientific tool. When combined with abstract thought it leads to scientific theory. However, when used in concert with reflection – that is, purposeful concentration as a vehicle of spontaneity – it can also lead to discovery.
The idea was to use tools that emphasize metaphorical thinking to increase commitment, spark more creative activity, suspend routines when possible, and remain receptive.
It may sound utopian but we had made it work, at least on an experimental basis, in the para-professional training project. I had also collected some verifiable evidence using academic research tools. The concepts and approach developed in grad school influenced my work for the next four decades. The original manuscript became the basis for numerous articles. The core ideas have been refined over the years, most recently for an online edition called “Prisoners of the Real.”
When the original 300-page thesis was presented to the dean of the College of Education and other university officials in late 1974, the research and arguments were persuasive enough to merit their recommendation for publication. By then, however, my promising government career was finished.
It may sound utopian but we had made it work, at least on an experimental basis, in the para-professional training project. I had also collected some verifiable evidence using academic research tools. The concepts and approach developed in grad school influenced my work for the next four decades.
The political bureaucrats overseeing employment revenue-sharing funds had no intention of letting me work for the state, and threatened to withhold revenue-sharing money unless the chancellor of the state college system agreed to move ahead without me. Peter Smith, a colleague and president of Community College at the time, was forced to deliver the bad news.
“They compared you to John Froines,” he confided, a reference to the former Chicago Eight defendant who had become Vermont’s director of Occupational Health and Safety. At the time Froines was bringing attention to the potential health risks of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Vermont.
“They say you have a poison pen,” Smith explained, “and they don’t need another.” Since Froines was a classified state employee they couldn’t do much about him. I had no such protection.
Going grassroots at the Frayed Page
It was disappointing to realize that, despite the rhetoric about “empowering” communities, revenue sharing was basically a bureaucratic and political scam. But there were valuable lessons, especially a deepening critique of centralized power. I began to see that the real problem was authoritarian and absolutist thinking. The more people allowed themselves to be represented from outside, the less community life was left.
The answer was to count instead on community, the joint and active management of what we hold in common, to promote genuine freedom and spontaneous social action. Over the next decades there would be many chances to test that assertion.
In the short term, one of the colleges I had engaged to credential the para-profssional training program had a faculty opening. The Vermont Institute for Community Involvement – known then as VICI, later to become Burlington College – was a new school catering to “non-traditional” learners, many of them Vietnam War vets. It provided the chance to design their majors and take courses that traditional colleges were not offering at the time. Some of the faculty had been on my Department of Labor project team.
Through friends from my “bureaucrat” days I also made contact with local advocacy groups. The most effective locally was People Acting for Change Together, or PACT, a coalition of community and university-based activists that focused on a low-income neighborhood known as the Old North End. PACT combined attention to issues like welfare rights, food and housing with a class analysis. On the other side of downtown in the city’s South End, the more moderate King Street Area Youth Center emphasized services to neighborhood families.
Both groups were building bonds with local residents, focusing mainly on bread and butter issues while avoiding too strong an identification with the “counter-culture.” The goal was to establish roots in the community for the long haul, assimilating rather than rejecting some of its preferences and values. But few people were aware yet of some big plans being hatched in City Hall and how they would affect everything.
By then VICI had rented a small, second floor office suite on Main Street downtown, just half a block from City Hall. One day I noticed a sign on a door across the hall. Frayed Page Bookstore, it said. I tried to visit but the place was often closed.
It took several more attempts before my partner Jo and I finally got inside. There I found Anna Blackmer, a friend of the absentee owner, who explained that business was about two years old and not doing much business. The owner was not likely to return.
Looking around, we saw a thin selection of used books on makeshift shelves. But the space had a homey quality and the “business” had already established a presence. If the price was right it might provide the base on which to build a local movement. Jo liked the idea and we decided to make an offer. Another couple had also expressed interest. Although their vision was less political they were willing to partner up and share the work of improving the stock and keeping the doors consistently open.
In early 1975 the four of us became owners of the city’s only used bookstore.
Next: The Mayor and the Connector