The West Wing and House of Cards are two of the most well-known political dramas of our time. Many have remarked on the comparison between these two shows: that The West Wing is what we hope the federal government might be, while House of Cards is what we fear it truly is. While I love both of these shows, my favorite political TV series—and the one that I think may actually come closer to being true to life—is NBC’s Parks and Recreation.
I don’t think I’ve ever wished I could be someone on TV more than I wish I could be Leslie Knope—the enthusiastic and brilliant Deputy Director of Parks on the show. She’s smart, she’s motivated and she’s 100% dedicated to helping her town of Pawnee, IN be the best it can be. She’s a Strong Citizen if ever there was one.
Parks and Rec deals with many Strong Towns issues. (Spoilers up ahead.) Pawnee faces several challenges that real-life towns also experience: It’s a rural community with economic struggles, high obesity rates, and just one major employer (the Sweetums Candy Company). Plus there’s a neighboring wealthy town—Eagleton—to compete with.
I won’t claim that Parks and Rec is a truly accurate portrayal of small town government (it looks way too fun, for one thing), but I think Leslie Knope and her colleagues deal with some common issues in an honest (if sugar-coated) way. They handle budget cuts, negotiate a city merger, deal with small-town scandals, and of course—one of the ongoing plotlines throughout the show—wade through red tape just to get a large pit filled in.
One example of Leslie’s Strong Citizen spirit is that her approaches often involve low-cost, incremental, creative problem solving. When a national music act cancels their performance at a big event, she finds a local band to fill the slot. When her own budget maneuver to get more funding for parks results in cuts to the local animal shelter, her staff organizes a pet adoption day in a local park. In an attempt to raise money for the Parks Department, Leslie resurrects an old tradition, the annual “Harvest Festival,” and gathers hundreds of local vendors to put on an incredible event that brings the community together. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty—helping clean the river, jumping on local tv and radio shows, even working a garbage truck route. Whatever small task needs doing, she’s on it.
Leslie’s Strong Citizenship is also exemplified in her deep knowledge of Pawnee history, and her interest in learning from the past, while at the same time, helping to chart a new course for her town. For one thing, she’s a fan of historic preservation, even chaining herself to a fence to try to stop the destruction of a historic gazebo. In one episode, she spends an entire day wearing period clothes and living in a historic house just to prove a point. She’s also familiar with her town’s challenging and at times, violent history, depicted in colorful murals throughout city hall. Finally, she knows she’s one of the first female leaders in town’s history and she makes it a point to use her position to help improve the lives of other Pawnee women and girls.
Besides her incremental problem solving and her knowledge of the past, Leslie also exemplifies a key Strong Citizen characteristic: listening to the people in her community. In Leslie’s world, everyone deserves the chance to be heard. One of her favorite activities is hosting public forums, even though many Pawneeans seem to show up to forums just to complain or share bizarre ideas. In one episode, Leslie explains her devotion to open discussion, even when the townspeople get angry. She says: “These people are members of the community that care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”
Leslie’s love for Pawnee knows no end. When, at the end of six seasons, she is faced with the choice to take a prestigious job offer working for the national parks department or stay in her hometown of Pawnee, she finds it an incredibly hard decision and ultimately finds a compromise where she can take the job but remain in Indiana.
Of course, Leslie Knope is as unrealistic as any TV character: somehow finding time to stay up all night to create 200 page binders for every project, support her colleagues in their professional and personal goals, run for city council, manage the Parks Department and eventually raise triplets.
Yet, in spite of her larger than life character, I still think we can learn something from Leslie’s undying devotion toward making her town better. I find a lot to love about the Deputy Director of Parks and her little world of local government in Pawnee. Whether it's helping out a neighbor or dreaming up plans for a new community park, she's an inspiration to us all.