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.

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.