Last year I was invited to the White House. I'm not an important person. I don't head an important agency or have a big budget. People don't need my approval to do things. I don't sit at the apex of a bureaucracy tied in with numerous other bureaucracies. I'm just a guy with ideas that I write about. When you invite me to a gathering at the White House, you're inviting my ideas to be part of the conversation. Ideas are what we have here at Strong Towns.
After a really successful meeting, I was feeling pretty proud of myself and the work we have done here. It's not everyone who gets a White House invitation and it was an affirmation, of sorts, that our ideas are important. Yet, when I returned home and shared the experience with readers here on the blog, I received this email from Cheryal Hills, the executive director of Region 5, my regional development commission:
I have spoken in that same room twice without all the fanfare. Wow...."there is no doubt in mg mind that they would screw it up"
The day you become part of the "they" is the day Ill refer you to the federal partners who call and ask me about you -
On a plane now, off to speak in WV, my 4th paid speaking event in 2 months, and when i get home I'll actually do the work to make change and not just talk about it.
When your ready to take on the same responsibility call me.
I've received a number of emails of similar inclination from this same person -- I've shared a couple on the blog but have not used her name until now -- and from a number of others in positions of power here locally. I wrote about some of these in the 2014 column Staying Strong. People in authority who fear ideas are the worst, and most dangerous, kind of leaders. They can make or, in the case of the Brainerd Lakes Area, break a community, regardless of the embarrassment of other riches.
Last week it was reported here locally that a routine appointment of volunteers to serve on committees turned into a vigorous debate and, ultimately, the rare 4-3 vote. There were five applicants for three open positions on the planning commission. Let me give you the first names of the candidates.
Approved: Robert, Jack and Kevin
Rejected: Staci and Amy
The process at work here is that applications are submitted to the city and then appointments are made by the council president, a guy named Gary Scheeler (who some of you might recognize from a recent podcast), subject to approval by the council. It's interesting to note the reasons each candidate gave for wanting to volunteer.
First the rejected candidates:
Staci: As a lifelong resident I have a genuine interest in the success of the city of Brainerd. I want to do my part to help make the area a place its residents are proud of and tourists want to travel to.
Amy: Having worked in community/downtown development for many years, I have seen the impact, both positive and negative, land use, zoning, planning and ordinancing have on the success of a community. I feel I have beneficial experience and a different perspective than others on the commission and would provide an important voice for local planning and zoning issues.
Now the candidates who were recommended and approved:
Robert: Has lived in and owned a business in Brainerd for 17 years and is interested in the present and future of the city. Is the owner and operator of the Front Street Cafe. Knows a lot of people in the community, possesses business skills and cares about the people and community of Brainerd.
Kevin: I was asked to serve by Gary S. I have a diverse experience.
Before you jump to the conclusion that this is entirely a matter of gender and age -- and I'm not suggesting those aren't a huge part of this -- Scheeler is quoted saying what I think is one of the clearest truths felt by many people who sit in a position of authority within a failing system.
Scheeler said his recommendations represented diversity, as the candidates have backgrounds in both downtown business and rental housing. He did admit to being guilty of keeping a social circle of people like himself, and not having a diverse friend group.
"It is a little bit easier to have dialogue with people your own age," Scheeler said.
There is no question, it is easier to have dialog with people your own age. When you make a habit of it, it's also easier to have a dialog with people of the same ethnicity. Or the same gender. Or the same religion. Or the same economic class.
When things are not going well, when the debt is overwhelming, the budget is broken and the city is sliding into disrepair, it is easier to surround yourself with people who interpret the problems the same way you do. Who see the same set of solutions. Who explain past failures and view future salvation in the same way.
It is easier, yes. There is hardly a clearer truth that could be spoken.
I am tempted to provide you a bunch of inspirational quotes from some real leaders. Stuff that talks about how doing the right thing is not always easy. Doing the easy thing is not always right. I won't do that; it's too obvious.
If you're reading this blog, you already understand that great leaders surround themselves with as many ideas as possible. They seek out conflicting views. They consider all sides of an issue, not superficially for appearances but because they fear not knowing more than they fear appearing to not know. Lincoln's team of rivals is put forth as the ideal for working through complex crises not because it built consensus -- it famously didn't -- but because it provided great clarity to our greatest leader during our nation's greatest struggle.
We all know that it is the sign of deep insecurity for a person of power and authority to send petulant emails to a blogger. We know it is the sign of failed leadership to ask for volunteers and then appoint only those who share your narrow worldview. I'm exposing the warts in my own community here today on an international stage because so many of you find yourselves in very similar positions. These human failings are not at all uncommon.
The entrenchment here locally of people with a mindset like Cheryal Hills of Region 5 or Gary Scheeler of the Brainerd city council has made these words by Max Planck one of my daily affirmations:
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
If you find yourself in the position I'm in here, don't waste your time trying to change the minds of those entrenched in power. Spend your energy building your own network of strong citizens. I guarantee you there are lots of people who care, many who are eager to have a thoughtful set of new ideas to rally around. Create a movement of change; good ideas will wash away the petulant and small minded in time. They always do.
Yes, those in power will fight back. Don't be afraid. Extend a hand and keep focusing on your ideas for change. We're not going to solve generation's worth of problems in one election cycle. Don't expect to. Share your ideas and build a network so that, when your community is ready for change, you have the foundation of a consensus for a Strong Towns approach.
And who knows...if your ideas are strong, you may someday even get an invitation to the White House just to share them. If that happens, don't be ashamed to feel proud of the moment.
(Top photo by Adam Brown Photography of Brainerd.)