Turning around a rough downtown

“The heart of my city was being taken over by gang members,” says Marcia Moe, whose daily walk to work twenty years ago took her through a deteriorating downtown. She especially remembers a day when she found herself two feet away from a drug deal as she entered her office building. She writes:

I sat at my desk with a heavy heart. What could one person do to change the streets of our city?

I told my ALF class that I was going to start a farmers market in downtown Tacoma. This was many years before markets like these became popular. My goal was to fill the streets with people and positive activities and drive out gang members and drug dealers. The wife of an ALF classmate joined my journey.

Local business people were not exactly enthusiastic. “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” they told me. “Workers will not come out of their buildings during the day.” “Nobody will come into downtown Tacoma to shop.” “I won’t do anything to hurt your project, but I won’t do anything to help it either.” Those who owned businesses along the street that would be closed four hours each market day went to the city en masse to protest. “Business is hard enough,” they cried. “If you don’t allow people to park in front of our shops, we’ll go out of business!”

The day of the first farmers market dawned with blue skies and bright sunshine. As we stood on the corner at the entrance to the market, our hearts soared. A few people were actually coming out of their offices and heading for the market. Then the floodgates opened. Shoppers by the hundreds filled the streets and sidewalks heading for the market. A local baker brought forty loaves of bread for her booth; they were gone in ten minutes! Shoppers were delighted with the bargains and vendors were thrilled. Even the businesses without their parking spots were elated as their shops filled with customers.

That was over twenty years ago. Today Tacoma Farmers Market is one of the largest day markets in Washington state. With shoppers flocking to purchase beautiful fruit and vegetables, colorful bouquets and handmade crafts, Tacoma Farmers Market has contributed to the turnaround of downtown Tacoma.

Marcia Moe, a former ALF executive director, works with private foundations and lives in Tacoma, Washington.

What is the common good?

The defining phrase that ALF stamps on much of its written material is simple: Joining and strengthening leaders to better serve the public good (in practice, senior fellows more often use the phrase “common good”). Is “the common good” too amorphous or subjective to be a useful beacon for civic leadership? No. But it needs rigorous inquiry if it is to have enough meaning to guide the work. The comments of Oregon Chapter director Robin Teater offer useful context:

No one who works with the kind of range and diversity of leaders that ALF consciously incorporates into its program believes that all come into this space agreeing on what, precisely, the “common good” is. It is important to acknowledge that the common good is not simply “what the majority thinks is good.” An ordinary calculator can determine that. As majorities shift, whether in their political, social, demographic, or other dimensions, this simplistic definition of what constitutes the common good will shift in tandem.

The obvious question before us as leaders in rapidly changing, infinitely diverse, staggeringly complex yet increasingly interrelated communities is this: How do we agree on what matters to us? But more probing suggests that this might not be the most powerful question, because the most important goals and values among even a diverse population are remarkably similar. Do a values clarification exercise among twenty random people and it is a good bet there will be surprising consistency among the top three or four values; they will relate to family, health and well-being, peace and relative prosperity. The deeper question may well be the one that naturally follows: How do we agree on the best way to achieve those things that matter most to us?

The transcendent task of modern-day leadership is to develop the social capital that inspires people to expand their sense of self-interest to include their community. It requires a range of skills and attitudes that rarely make it to a list of top ten leadership traits in typical authority-based leadership models.

Far from arriving as a rescuer of communities or organizations, leaders must arrive as learners, healers, and facilitators of relationships. What they must bring are often considered the “soft” skills of leadership, sometimes dismissed as touchy-feely or just plain unnecessary. But we have discovered that before the hard or technical skills of leadership and problem solving can be effectively engaged, the soft skills must till the soil…. It serves the modern-day leader well to understand that the “soft” stuff of leadership is the hard stuff.

Creating Pride in Place

Connie Martinez relied on collaboration to help raise Silicon Valley’s cultural and aesthetic quality of life—the visible exterior of community—towards the same level as its intellectual and scientific accomplishments. She writes:

Although globally acclaimed for technology and innovation, Silicon Valley tends to “live in its head” without manifesting its creativity and innovation in the physical realm where we actually live, work, and raise our families. With that end in mind, a growing leadership network launched a series of initiatives, anchored in arts and urban design, as strategies for community building and place-making.

Over an eight-year period, the collaborative work of sixty-five ALF senior fellows, more than a hundred organizations, and four thousand local people has made a huge difference. Improvements to downtown San Jose and the San Jose airport have been completed and more are under way. A new urban plaza or “outdoor living room” for the arts is under construction. An urban market has opened. A first-ever regional marketing campaign for the arts, with a technology platform called LiveSV focused on cultural engagement, is in place. A failed cultural facility in east San Jose has transformed into the successful School of Arts and Culture and multicultural gathering space. A children’s creativity initiative serving tens of thousands of children and youth is in its incubation phase. The list of accomplishments is broad and deep and continues to grow.

None of this would have happened the way it happened, and as swiftly as it happened, without the ALF network. The network brought courage, comfort, and access to resources, all anchored in a culture of trust, respect, and possibility—the culture of ALF.

Connie Martinez is CEO of Silicon Valley Creates and lives in San Jose, California.

Changing the Tone of City Government

Wendy Mattson Thomas was determined to apply what she learned in the American Leadership Forum to her work on the Placerville, California, city council. She says that when she was elected, her community felt estranged from the political process:

The consensus of a small, vocal, well-organized, and contentious minority was that projects were being pushed on the community that did not reflect the will of the people. Their rhetoric led to a growing mistrust of local government, and their position was to take us to court or the ballot on any issue they didn’t agree with.

A light switched on for me when we read Peter Block’s work about the possibilities of transforming community through powerful conversations. Meeting with my ALF class monthly allowed me to hone this skill. Consequently I developed a series of Neighborhood Chats and Community Coffees that our city adopted as an ongoing program. It transformed the way we spoke to each other.

At our first chat, a casually-dressed council warmly greeted incoming citizens at a table laden with flowers and refreshments. The dais was gone, and in its place were chairs placed in the round. There was no “middleman” in the room, no out-of-town consultant telling us “how to be when we grew up.” There was the council and city staff (who had volunteered their time to be there) in the midst of community members having a conversation.

After a heartfelt welcome, I named the elephant in the room—all the ways that we had been stuck in our pattern of relating to each other—and emphasized that no topic was off the table. Then I laid out rules of Dialogue for the evening’s discussion, designed to welcome diverse thought in our search for positive solutions. Then, not knowing what I was opening us up to, we began.

We asked what they liked about our community and what they didn’t. We talked about the challenges we face as a city and what ideas they had for improvement. And the most amazing thing happened: the community responded. The Dialogue was warm and engaging. Even in discussing the challenges with our city, the conversation was respectful and proactive. The citizens that yelled and railed on us week after week showed up in a different manner. Citizens walked away with a new view of their local government as being responsive, approachable, and open, and we walked away encouraged and invigorated with renewed determination to lead according to our shared values.

Our council meetings now have a different tone and tenor, and the citizens who felt obliged to verbally attack us have either stopped attending or have completely changed the way they show up at our meetings. I would not have believed such a rapid and complete transformation was possible in a community had I not experienced it. I also believe that we, the elected leadership, are holding ourselves differently, more accurately reflecting the community as a whole, all because we dare to better understand each other.

Wendy Mattson Thomas is a member of the Placerville City Council and lives in Placerville, California.

Beyond Listening to Hearing

Almost by definition, a genuinely diverse community will have friction points as it grows and changes. Those who work in social services have particular need for tools to manage these rough patches. Though Pamela Jefsen was a seasoned professional when she entered the American Leadership Forum, she credits the program with attuning her senses to the needs of people who stood in opposition to a project important to her:

I am executive director of an organization that develops apartment communities for people who are disabled and formerly homeless. We planned a project in a diverse, eclectic, urban neighborhood, and the neighbors were not happy. We told them that we would keep having community meetings until everyone’s questions had been answered.

In a typical meeting I was answering questions for two or three hours at a time. Some of the questions held anger and were not based on facts. Drawing on my ALF work, I was able to stay focused on the perspectives of the people I was talking to. I tried to put myself in the place of the people in the neighborhood—to understand their fears, their concern for their homes and families. I considered my reality—knowing our residents, knowing them as people—different from the reality of the neighbors who may only have knowledge of the negative stereotypes. Most of the neighbors did come around and, judging from feedback I received, felt heard even if they disagreed with me.

There was a couple at one meeting who had a three-year-old daughter named Holly. Holly’s father was clearly agitated by the idea of having formerly homeless and disabled people (particularly men) nearby. At one point he asked me, “Why do you think it is a good idea to bring these people who have been homeless and are addicted to drugs into a facility across the street when they may hurt our children?”

I started my answer with, “What you need to know is …” and instantly realized that those words would likely offend and further rile him up. So I stopped, took a deep breath, apologized, and started again with, “What I have learned as a result of my experience is …” Later on in the meeting the same man leaned forward, pushed his finger toward my face, and said, “If something happens to my Holly it will be all your fault and then what will you do?” I was able to hear his fear and stay calm rather than feel defensive. I simply said to him, “If my experience told me that our residents would be a danger to children, I would not be able to do this work.”

I don’t know how much of an impact our conversation had on this father. I did see him at another meeting, where he appeared calm rather than angry.

Pamela Jefsen is executive director of Supportive Housing Communities and McCreesh Place and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Leaders can be literal life savers

Lan Bentsen tells the story of how a group of leaders with close relationships came together for an incredibly important project: reducing infant mortality in Houston hospitals.

During the mid 1980s, the infant mortality rate in their community—12.5 per 1000 live births—was about thirty percent above the national average, and almost twice the Surgeon General’s Year 2000 goal of 6.5.

Bentsen knew that his community could do better. From his time as a March of Dimes volunteer he understood that the failure of responsible agencies to coordinate their services was a major cause of the problem. He describes how mundane missteps often led to terrible outcomes:

A high-risk pregnancy patient diagnosed at a city clinic would be handed her records and told to go make an appointment with the county hospital. If she were, say, a 15-year-old, she would likely never get there for any number of reasons—fear, loss of records, inability to get an appointment after working hours, lack of bilingual operators, lack of a “hot line”—all manageable circumstances, assuming cooperation. Left alone, her high-risk conditions prevailed until she went into labor, too often with disastrous results.

ALF Houston Class 3 offered to intervene. We felt a community-wide effort would be required to overcome the inertia of the two agencies. Because the subject of prenatal care in those days had become linked with extenuating social issues, we knew all parties that could “veto” the effort had to be involved. In particular, the March of Dimes and the faith community had to come to the table.

To broaden the collaboration, the ALF class members recruited thirty other community organizations with a range of views on health issues. A mission statement was defined, step by laborious step. Our ALF training had taught us that no step could be taken unless all parties agreed. Confidence grew. Respect for values was developed. Misconceptions were identified and clarified. The ALF collaboration approached the city and the county with a request to implement the changes. All leaders agreed that the steps and recommendations were reasonable and desirable.

But somehow nothing seemed to change.

The ALF collaboration then turned to the media, which was suitably impressed with the breadth and depth of the collaboration and its mission. Media cameras entered the clinics asking to see the (nonexistent) multilingual hot-lines for making appointments. The newspaper tracked on the front page how long it took to get an appointment with the county system for high-risk city pregnancies. The television stations visited the “baby cemetery.” The public pressure was unrelenting.

Things changed fast at that point. Systems were integrated quickly, because they had already been designed and funded. Clinics opened on evenings and weekends. Patient records were hand-delivered and appointment reminders were sent to patients. The bus system offered free passes. And the high-risk city pregnancies began to get first-trimester care.

Within three years, infant deaths dropped from six hundred to three hundred per year in the city and county, even as the local birthrate continued to increase dramatically. Houston achieved its year 2000 Surgeon General goal of 6.5 infant deaths per 1000 live births in five years, ten years ahead of schedule.

As it happened, the lieutenant governor of Texas was a Houston resident and saw this unfold. He convened the Select Committee on Medicaid and Family Services and recruited ALF class members to serve on it and make recommendations to the state. The Maternal Infant Health Improvement Act was subsequently submitted to the Texas Legislature.

Over the next five years infant mortality incidence in Texas declined from 3,000 to 2,000 deaths. The state’s infant mortality ranking improved from 49th to 26th, a ranking it continues to hold more than twenty years later.

Defusing a Needless Crisis

MayYing Ly is a Hmong refugee from Laos who immigrated with her parents to the United States, along with thousands of Laotians in the aftermath of the fall of Laos to communist control in 1975. Many years later a revered leader in exile, General Vang Pao, was charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act because of his political activity, and brought to federal court in Sacramento for trial.

When we think about the importance of relationships, Ly’s story is a great example of how inter-connected leaders—with trust between them—can make things happen when it matters the most.

Ly writes:

This was a traumatic flashback of the final evacuation days of Long Cheng, the CIA headquarters in Laos during the Vietnam Conflict where thousands were left stranded not knowing what lay ahead. Young and old were shocked by the allegations of the U.S. government. Gen. Vang Pao was considered by many as Hmoob niam thiab Hmoob txiv, or “Hmong mother and father,” to whom many Hmong owed their lives. A massive Hmong organization emerged across the nation to rally support for the general and demand his release. Over 10,000 people were expected to demonstrate in Sacramento.

Discovering that no permit had been secured, we envisioned thousands of elderly Vang Pao followers who did not speak English getting arrested because they would not understand an order to disperse. If this happened, they could be deported for violating a federal law. It was Sunday evening, hours before the event was to begin, and we knew we had to somehow secure a permit; there was no way to stop the thousands who were already en route from all over California and the world to downtown Sacramento.

Both Sacramento City Police Chief Al Najera and Deputy Chief of Police Steve Segura were American Leadership Forum senior fellows. Steve responded to my call by immediately calling the U.S. marshal, who then called me within minutes. They were thankful that we had informed them of the upcoming rally, especially with the number of people we were expecting. The marshal secured a special verbal permit from the Government Service Agency, instructing me to come downtown early the next morning to complete the paperwork. I did, and over five thousand Hmong demonstrators surrounded the courthouse and the state capitol for a peaceful rally in support of the release of the general and his alleged co-conspirators.

ALF senior fellows in our chapter continued to assist me throughout the years with the case. We had information sessions about the Hmong for all ALF members, including presentations from the police and FBI. At one point the general, who was in ill health, collapsed in jail, prompting fears of possible rioting if he died there. As a networked group, we eventually succeeded in gaining the general’s release on bail. Some time later the federal case against Gen. Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders was dropped.

We can’t know whether my ALF colleagues and I were instrumental in the positive outcome of this historic case in the end. But we know that in the beginning we made a huge difference, because one ALF fellow answered that critical phone call from another.

From Adversaries to Allies

It’s all about relationships.

Relationships are at the core for the transformative leadership American Leadership Forum hopes to create. Why is that the case?

When two or more people with shared commitment to their community develop a strong personal relationship, they become a building block of a sound leadership network. Here’s a story that exemplifies that perfectly.

Joe Whitworth and Dan Keppen took an existing relationship that might be called “polite adversaries” to a very different level during their year together in the Oregon Chapter of the American Leadership Forum.

Joe Whitworth: Agriculture and conservation are the two most natural allies that cannot speak each other’s language—and precious few translators exist. Because I grew up bucking hay in the Midwest and later became the head of the conservation group that listed the first Pacific Salmon under the Endangered Species Act, I see both sides. While I know deeply that landowners do not wake up in the morning looking to do environmental harm, I also know that financial realities drive how they manage their operation. So the value I bring to this field is in a kind of translation. Thing is, though, one translator needs another to create and sustain breakthroughs. My ALF experience provided the setting for that relationship to be built.

Dan Keppen: Joe and I met in 2003, when I was executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. The issue that brought us together was the same that keeps us both in business: water.

Joe: In particularly dry years, with increased pressure on water supplies, farmers predictably dug in on one side, and the “greens” dug in on the other. There was no real dialogue. There were power politics, shout-downs, and litigation. Dan and I found ourselves on panels speaking about our respective interests in the basin. We struck up a relationship built on respect and always talked about finding a way to navigate through the needlessly explosive minefield of agriculture versus conservation, but we never followed through. Whether we were too busy, too far away, or the move was too progressive for our constituencies—we never made it happen. Bottom line is that he and I always knew that our constituencies could easily agree on 70 percent of most issues, but focused on the 30 percent that separated them. And focusing on the disagreements created fear and mistrust.

Dan: So five years later Joe and I end up in ALF together. There, our professional relationship blossomed into one of friendship, in large part due to the camaraderie of the ALF process. Joe is an accomplished outdoorsman, and I remember having to eat humble pie several times when forced to sheepishly approach him for advice on how to tie knots for our rock-climbing exercise in the Columbia River Gorge. He always helped, but added some good-natured ribbing to let me know where I stood. I pulled a good one on him later, though, when the class came together in a circle. The facilitator whispered a phrase to one of our classmates which we were instructed to pass around the circle from classmate to classmate. By the time the message made it around—with a little help from yours truly—it had morphed from “Trouble is brewing, my friend,” to “Joe Whitworth likes barnyard animals.” From then on our classmates referred to him as “Barnyard Joe.”

Joe: ALF forced us together each month for more than a year in a setting apart from our professional roles and allowed us to expand our relationship into a durable friendship. He gained a good deal of admiration from me through his open approach in dealing with the death of his father, a marital change, and the discovery and correction of a brain aneurysm. He constantly tried to make sense of it and make good use of the learning. His earnestness more than made up for his eighth-grade sense of humor.

Dan: As our ALF friendship grew, so did our mutual trust and respect. Joe and I both recognized that the best opportunities to improve trout habitat were on private lands. For groups like Oregon Trout to maximize habitat potential, private landowners like ranchers need to participate. Those ranchers are going to be much more inclined to participate if they get something in return—maybe another cash flow stream, or maybe environmental credits.

Joe: Our mutual trust gave us a willingness to take risks in bringing the new ideas to the table and focusing on those issues where we agree. We are together making folks first uncomfortable and then comfortable in new territory, focusing on forward solutions rather than more of the same.

Dan: ALF gave me a strong belief that leaders should always be ready to stand up for other leaders. Our two organizations work cooperatively in a variety of political and public forums. We recently co-wrote a guest opinion for The Oregonian that focused on the positive aspects of farmer-conservationist partnerships.

Joe: We have some heavy lifts in front of us. Agriculture is at once the most ecologically destructive and humanly critical enterprise on Earth. In the next forty years, we will need to grow as much food as we have in all human history, without destroying the biosphere’s capacity to do it thereafter. We are not on track to do that. We can get there, but not through the old conversations and the old ways. Through the new ones. And for that work, I now have an ally to help me rebalance the scales.

Dan: The “farmers vs. fish” dynamic that very likely could have defined our relationship has instead turned into something closer to “farmers for fish.” The listening, collaboration, and networking that is such a part of the ALF experience definitely played a large part in the strong personal and professional relationship I have to this day with “Barnyard Joe” Whitworth.

Apollo 11 Leadership in Action

Apollo 11 Moon Landing 45th Anniversary Link

 Impact of JFK Moon Speech Link


This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.  When most people think of this historic event, they think of Neil Armstrong being the first human to walk on the moon.  But it was John F. Kennedy’s, “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech that made it all possible.  It could be argued that his speech on this issue was one of America’s greatest examples of leadership in the 20th century.