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.