Sunday, May 05, 2013

Signs of our times

Banner honoring Martin Richard's words hanging over Route 93 in Boston. Designed by Liz Carney of Dot Art and created by neighborhood children and volunteers in Savin Hill area.

It's been an eventful few weeks in Boston.

The Boston Marathon, typically a celebratory event, was met with terror and tragedy. Just days later, people in the city and surrounding municipalities were voluntarily "sheltering in place" as law enforcement worked to find the men suspected of placing and detonating the bombs that killed and maimed.

Soon after the identities of the three people killed by the bomb blast were made known, photos of Martin Richard, the young boy from my part of Boston who died in one of the blasts, were shown with him holding a sign with the words, "No more hurting people" and "Peace."

An artist who runs a children's arts program in our community came up with the idea to have neighborhood children work on a banner featuring Martin's words. The plan was to paint the 85-foot banner on recycled acrylic wallpaper and then hang it from a bridge overlooking a highway that leads into Boston. Hundreds of kids showed up to paint on the Saturday after police caught the suspect. Adults showed up to help.

Early on Sunday morning, the artist emailed me to ask if she could give me a call. She told me she was concerned because she had not obtained a permit from the city of Boston to hang the banner. I reassured her that it was unlikely anyone would question the spirit of the banner or request that it be taken down for lack of a permit, but I suggested she call our district city councilor.

To ask him to secure a permit for us? she asked.

No, I responded, to ask him to come help us.

I figured that if our city councilor were involved in hanging the sign, the chances of the city taking it down were less likely.

Given that we still had no permit to hang the sign, was this the right thing to do?

If we had been asked to take the sign down, I certainly would have assisted in doing so (we didn't actually know if we needed a permit, although Boston being Boston, we assumed we did), but in this case, it seemed wise to heed the advice I first heard spoken years ago by Adm. Grace Hopper: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

As our artist friend stayed and painted with the children, a 12-year-old boy from the neighborhood, our city councilor and my wife and I walked up to the bridge to start attaching the unwieldy banner. As we struggled to keep it in place by attaching it to the bridge by using zip ties, other neighbors began stopping to help hold it in place. Soon, there were more than a couple dozen people attaching the sign.

Photos of the effort, including our city councilor affixing the banner to the bridge, were posted to Facebook. People shared images of the sign itself more than 3,800 times, often with messages of appreciation after having seen it while driving into the city.

No one asked where the permit was to hang the banner. No one asked that it be taken down. The response was just appreciation from people for seeing the words from a little boy asking people to do the right thing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


Awesome project to be involved with regardless of the ethical issues... Yes, the right thing to do would have been to seek a permit to hang the work and I'm surprised the artist didn't secure one upfront. The entire effort could have been dashed at the 11th hour without it. And yes it was not right to have your city councilor's presence in order to evade the permit requirement. One wonders if you informed him how you were using him first... Surely he would have been your route to securing the permit in the first place.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...


The city councilor knew that there was no official permit for the banner, just as there have been no "official" permits for many of the memorial tributes that have blossomed all over town, particularly near the site of the Marathon finish line.