My work as a full-time journalist came following two years of service as news director at Lincoln’s community public radio station, KZUM. Having learned on the job how to cut tape, do live interviews, create longform radio documentaries, and everything else but fly the drivetime traffic chopper (which of course we didn’t have), I decided to make another improbable leap.
As I mentioned earlier, full-time professional journalists have an obligation to keep their opinions close to the vest and to refrain from public advocacy. This chafed, and eventually the seams of my vest burst. I no longer wanted to merely report on events but to steer them toward change for the better.
Somehow, I got it into my head that I could lead an organization. Even weirder, I somehow convinced a board made up of regional nonprofit executive directors to hire me to lead their statewide organization.
In 1998, I became executive director of Community Action of Nebraska and its political stepsister, the Association of Nebraska Community Action Agencies. Since I couldn’t abide the song stylings of Paul Anka, one of my first moves was to convince the regional leaders who were my board to make CAN, as in CAN do, our public brand. Despite a total lack of experience, I did pretty well in nearly all the facets of the job during my first year.
Nearly, but not all. I completely overlooked a hugely important one, namely maintaining good relations with the state officer who oversaw the millions of federal dollars that flowed through our nonprofit organizations to serve local community needs among the poor (everything from food stamps to medical transport to winter heat assistance).
During my first annual review I very nearly lost my job over that shortcoming. As it was, I had to endure a humiliating dressing-down before the said state officer, followed by a humble vow to do better. It hurt my pride, but I did do better, and in the following few years I mastered all the disparate tasks that make up the complex job of leading a nonprofit organization.
Much as I cared about ameliorating poverty, after four years of leading CAN, I yearned to advocate for a broader agenda: rational public policies based on the findings of science. I resigned my post at CAN, and with support from the Templeton Foundation, I started the Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions, or CARS. This name proved ill-chosen. I was flooded with publications and inquiries from the auto industry. A few years later, we changed it to ...
With help from several university scientists, especially geologist Norman Smith, physicist Edgar Pearlstein, and biochemist Les Lane, we raised the banner for science in a state where religious opposition threatened to degrade it.
I lobbied behind the scenes to help several state senators debate against a bill to stymie stem-cell research in our state. We held a Darwin Day evolution lecture in the rotunda of the State Capitol. And most enduringly, we created the Nebraska Citizens for Science Forum. For just shy of two decades, it convened twice a month to educate and engage citizens in discussions about science and religion and their respective roles in society.
Over time, the Forum evolved into more of a science cafe and thereafter a social club. Along with so many other activities, the Covid pandemic put an end to that. Though we took to holding Zoom meetings, the social fabric frayed, and with the deaths of Pearlstein and Smith (from other causes), the foundation collapsed.
Long before this, funding for NCFS had expired. For most of its long run, it was a voluntary civic organization. In the meantime, I had found my dream job.
MORE TO COME.