Finding the Village Square Again

A model in Tallahassee

 

“Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

–              NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

 

It’s the start of another school year and public school teachers throughout Florida will begin a race against the testing clock.

In Florida—and in other states—education has become about the standardized test.

I get it. Children need to learn specific skills and they need to be measured, but it’s hard to argue that something special has been lost when the test becomes the be all and end all. We lose the opportunity to teach the soft skills and perhaps the ability to think critically. We also might lose the chance to train leaders and the importance of empathy and emotional intelligence.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my visit with the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. What emerged from that discussion was a concern among those who served our country that we are not doing a good job teaching civics in America. They see the results of that deficiency in the current toxic state of our politics.

As I read, watch, surf social media and talk to friends I’m sensing a tremendous concern about the state of our society these days. Yes, to some extent these concerns have been here since the founding of our Republic and throughout our lives. But something feels different today. The level of toxicity feels higher, our discourse seems meaner and fear, anxiety, anger and despair appears to be deep and widespread.

The results are showing up in a variety of ways: trust in institutions is at historic lows according to the Edelman Trust Survey, a landmark poll. Congress, the press, corporations and our justice system are all suffering from low levels of trust.

Spasms of violence are breaking out too—from mass shootings and school shootings to extraordinary gang violence in places like Chicago. When the school year began this week, local and national press were focused on steps that were being taken to prevent massacres—important for sure. But also terribly sad. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we were anticipating all the amazing learning opportunities being rolled out for our children instead of fretting the next school shooting?

These are all symptoms or larger societal issues—but they should motivate us to find the root causes of these issues and begin the process of healing and uniting.

Of course, we run a hyperlocal blog which means that we believe in the power of “localism.”
So that means addressing issues at the grassroots community level.

While we may never drain the swamp in Washington (I happen to think we’d be better if everyone resigned) we can fix our neighborhoods and cities.

When it comes to improving dialogue, there are models throughout America that have proven to work.

One example that is worth mentioning and modeling is “The Village Square”, a Tallahassee program that describes itself as “A nervy bunch of liberals and conservatives who believe that dialogue and disagreement make for a good conversation, a good country and a good time.”

The Village Square hosts about 30 programs a year all centered on fact-based discussions of the issues between people who disagree. The effort has been chronicled in “Governing” magazine and is credited with building community by lowering the temperature around divisive, hot button issues.

What a concept.

The Village Square was founded on the belief that the hostile tone of our national debate is a predictable result of the worrisome reality that we’ve essentially formed tribes. We’ll all grow old waiting for Washington to fix it, so we’re going to have to get it done ourselves.

“The solution to this complex problem is surprisingly simple: To revive the American marketplace of ideas, we have to breathe a little life into the neighborly civic connections that used to exist without much effort on our part. It’s past time to bring back the spirit of the quintessentially American town hall, where foes become partners in futures that are inextricably linked. As much as we want to blame Washington, ultimately this work can only be done in hometowns like ours and between neighbors like us,” according to the Village Square website.

Through dialogue combatants are reminded of what we often forget: we are on the same team.

I had a similar thought last week when I was reading about a baseball player who joined a rival team. Once he was “on the team” all previous animosity went out the window. His new teammates may not like him personally but they remember that they are now on the same team, with the same goal in mind: to be successful and win.

Reading that, I wondered why elected officials can’t adopt the same mindset. In order to do so, it requires that you first acknowledge that your personal success and the community’s success is tied inextricably together. If the other team consistently blocks your initiatives or undoes your accomplishments we get locked in a perpetual zero sum game. The people lose in this scenario every time.

But if you realize that you may have differences but your success is tied to coming up with some sort of workable relationship you have a chance to solve problems and seize opportunities.

Washington lost the plot a long time ago. But local communities don’t have to.

I worked with a city commissioner who explained that some votes were votes of principle and others were votes of preference. On votes of principle, he was dug in. On votes of preference, he was open to compromise or supporting a contrary idea, especially if it was important to a teammate.

It seems to work and allows for issues to move forward and for accomplishments to occur.

There are other examples, but the main point is, politics can work if we are invested in outcomes not just in thwarting those we don’t like or agree with.

 

 

In Zero We Trust….

Trust is the foundation of pretty much everything.

Without trust, it’s hard to have either a personal or business relationship.

It’s also hard to build a civil society, because lack of trust undermines the willingness of citizens to engage and get involved.

This week, the Edelman Trust Survey was released and while the results were not surprising, the findings were pretty dismal.

The public’s trust in key societal organizations—government, business and the media, has taken a nosedive from already low levels.

The decline in trust in government was greatest, falling 14 percentage points, while trust in business fell 10 points, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) 9 points, and media 5 points. The survey was taken before this week’s brief government shutdown and can kicking to early February.  The last time this stunt was pulled the U.S. economy lost an estimated $20 billion…that’s billion with a b.

The survey was conducted in 28 nations and none experienced the decline in trust that the U.S. has endured.

“The United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the communications firm that conducts the survey. “This is the first time that a massive drop in trust has not been linked to a pressing economic issue or catastrophe like the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In fact, it’s the ultimate irony that it’s happening at a time of prosperity, with the stock market and employment rates in the U.S. at record highs.”

The root cause of the fall, says Edelman: lack of objective facts and rational discourse in the U.S.

To see the full report visit this link: https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer/

No country saw steeper declines than the United States, with a 37-point aggregate drop in trust across all institutions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, China experienced a 27-point gain, more than any other country. I find that odd, but I guess all the Communist Party has to do is demand trust in order to get it.

The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 14 points to 33 percent among the general population, and 30 points to 33 percent among the informed public. The remaining institutions of business, media and NGOs also experienced declines of 10 to 20 points. Why does this matter?

Because it’s hard to rally a nation if ‘we the people’ don’t have trust, are divided politically and walk around touting our own facts.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once admonished a colleague that while it was Ok to have his own opinions, he certainly was not entitled to his own facts. That old saw seems to have been abandoned.

So what do we do?
I think an answer is what is being called “new localism”—which essentially believes that if we can’t fix the nitwits in Washington maybe we can solve problems and build trust in our communities.

 

While Washington has struggled with its most basic functions (passing a budget, keeping the government’s lights on etc.) there are cities of all sizes throughout America that have created vibrant economies, fixed distressed neighborhoods, improved public safety, reformed schools and created a better quality of life for its citizens.

Local government is where the opportunities lie—but only if we can attract talented policymakers, leaders and professional staff. Because let’s face it, building great cities isn’t easy either. But it is possible.

I have long told prospective elected officials that local government provides a rich soil for achievement and innovation. But they have to do a few things in order to succeed and if they skipped those things they would surely fail or fall far short of their potential.

So what is the secret sauce?

How do you succeed locally?

We’re glad you asked…(and that’s not just an aside, I do appreciate your emails).

First, it helps to have a vision or a North Star that the community creates, develops and defends against the inevitable push back from those who fight change, don’t bother to show up or adopt a mindset of now that I have moved to town—nothing else should ever change. We call it: “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder.”

Elected officials are successful when they want to get things done; when they shape change rather than resist it.

They get in trouble when they see themselves as “goalies” there to block any and all ideas—or any and all ideas that aren’t theirs.

Now that doesn’t mean that good elected officials don’t have a role to play in defending their cities from change that would be harmful, hurtful or out of character. The best ones know the difference between the former –which is needed in order to grow and survive–and the latter which can ruin a community.

The best elected officials build trust by being inclusive, open-minded and fair. They serve more than their base. They know that once elected they have to shift from campaigning to governing which demands decisions and those decisions should respect the rule of law, support community visions and take in the long term interests of the community not their short term political needs.

They understand that they will be called on to make and defend tough decisions but once those decisions are made they need to move on. In politics and in life, you win some and lose some.

The best leaders listen. And while almost every politician claims to be a listener, you can easily tell who is truly listening and learning and who is merely paying lip service.

But if you do truly listen, you will reap the rewards. Listening builds trust.

But listening doesn’t mean obedience—it just means you respect people enough to hear their concerns. When the roll call vote is called, you have to vote your conscience which sometimes will aggravate your friends and neighbors. So it helps if you acknowledge their concerns and where possible try and find a way to compromise so that decisions can be win-win, not a zero sum game.

My test for local success is whether you are supported by the doers in your community—the volunteers, the business owners, rank and file employees, senior level staff, key organizations and important community groups. If you can earn and keep their support you know you’re doing a good job. Again, that doesn’t mean blind loyalty—it just means that you have made enough decisions that they support so that they respect your work, trust your judgment and go to sleep at night knowing that on most issues you will do the right thing.

 

The 8 Pillars of Trust

I recently read a book called the “The Trust Edge” which explains how you and your organization can earn trust.

Author David Horsager contends that a lack of trust is your biggest expense because it is the currency of business and life.

I agree.

Mr. Horsager defines trust as a confident belief in someone or something to do what is right, deliver what is promised, and to be the same every time in spite of circumstances.

Horsager identifies twelve barriers to trust: conflict of interest, threat of litigation, lack of loyalty, increasing examples of others untrustworthiness, threat of exposure, lack of control over technology, fear of the unknown, negative experiences, individualism, differences between people, desire for instant gratification, and a focus on the negative.

To overcome the barriers, Horsager offers eight “pillars of trust.”

The eight pillars all take time and there no quick fixes for any trust issue.

Here’s a deeper dive. We think you’ll find lots of wisdom in the list.

Clarity. Clarity starts with honesty. People trust the clear and distrust the vague. Communicate clearly and frequently.

Compassion. Think beyond yourself. There are four keys ways we show we care: listen, show appreciation, be engaged, and serve others.

Character. Have high morals and be consistent in your thoughts, words, and actions. Always ask, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Competency. Humility is the first step in learning. Create a regular plan for staying competent and capable.

Commitment. Great leadership demands sacrifice. The people who stick with you when things are tough are the ones you can really trust.

Connection. Trust is about relationships. In every interaction we increase or decrease trust. Be genuine, and be grateful.

Contribution. You must deliver results to be trusted. Give attention, resources, time, opportunity, and help.

Consistency. Probably the most important pillar of all as it gives meaning to all of the other pillars. You will never get one big chance to be trusted in your life; you will get thousands of small ones. Just one inconsistency can change people’s perspective.

We’d thought we share these pillars as a useful guide to your personal and business relationships. When elected officials, CEO’s, companies and governing bodies fall short–my guess is it’s because they are failing on one of more of the above pillars.

We believe that leaders given the public’s trust should abide by these pillars. All eight of them.

Do they?

Arts Garage is a Start Up to Bet On

Bob and Linda Schmier and Chuck and Pam Halberg are just a few of the passionate volunteers devoted to Delray's Arts Garage.

Bob and Linda Schmier and Chuck and Pam Halberg are just a few of the passionate volunteers devoted to Delray’s Arts Garage. The couples were honored for their contributions Friday night.

I think of Delray’s Art Garage as an entrepreneurial startup.
Roughly five years old, the Arts Garage has blazed a trail, overcome a few near death experiences and has created a brand in a very crowded and fickle marketplace.
Tomorrow night, the Arts Garage is hoping to land a five year lease from the City Commission. I hope they get it. I’m rooting for the Arts Garage because it’s an important part of Delray Beach and because some really great and passionate people have rolled up their sleeves and opened their check books to keep it alive and thriving.
If you had doubts as to the passion and commitment to the cause, they would have been erased if you saw what I saw Friday night during the Arts Garage’s Tribute Gala.
The sold out event honored Chuck and Pam Halberg and Bob and Linda Schmier for their commitment to the organization.

I was honored to emcee the event and say a few words to celebrate the naming of two theaters at the facility after the Schmier’s and the Halberg’s.
You couldn’t find two more deserving couples. Their commitment, generosity, hard work and belief in the Arts Garage has been unwavering and that’s a good thing because the Arts Garage has had some major challenges in its short life.
First there was an ill advised attempt to challenge the CRA’s ability to provide funding, then there was some strange politics that briefly threatened the organization, followed by fiscal challenges, staffing issues, board turnover, attempts by others to purchase the space and assorted other dramas.
Through it all, the Halberg’s and the Schmier’s were there.
The truth is, cities, startups and non-profits all need people like the Halberg’s and the Schmier’s in order to thrive. They need the true believers, people who just won’t let an endeavor or a mission fail.
Delray has been especially blessed to have these kind of people in a variety of spheres over the years.
When they show up and lead, great things happen, success is ensured and any and all obstacles can and will be overcome. Progress is literally assured.
Smart communities recognize these heroes and heroines and nurture them. These leaders should be appreciated, protected, trusted and supported. Help them if you can or get out of their way. But trust in the outcome. Because success is assured.

These are the type of people who are so talented, so dedicated and so committed that failure is simply not an option.
I have seen the power of this type of leadership and it is remarkable to experience.

Quite simply, it’s magical.

And while it is rare, it is also essential. That’s why I believe our city has been blessed. We have had a bunch of special people who have emerged to achieve incredible success often against long odds.

If you think this type of work is easy, I can assure you it’s anything but. Yet the examples of local success are abundant and that’s made all the difference in Delray Beach.
Frances Bourque and Joe Gillie at Old School Square. Nancy Hurd at the Achievement Center. Lynda Hunter at our library. Perry Don Francisco of Boston’s on the Beach as an exemplar for the business community. And the list goes on.
I have a similar feeling about the Arts Garage thanks to people like Chuck and Pam, Bob and Linda.
The key is to be able replenish the tank when it inevitably empties. People move on. They retire. They pass away. They relocate. They want to try new things.
The Arts Garage is still new. It was launched by a very powerful and visionary force: Alyona Ushe.
I really like the choice of Marjorie Waldo as the new leader. And of course, they have the Halberg’s and Schmier’s.
These are the type of people you trust in… Brian Rosen too.  He’s a real good guy. Ronnie Dunayer: awesome. The other board members–excellent.

The great people on the Guild too..they care.
Give them a lease–they’ve been month to month for 9 months;  a period of time in which they have made strides. Let them experiment; don’t micromanage. Allow them to use the facility to raise money and try new things. Trust in passion. It’s what makes cities magical.

Water Cooler Wednesday: Engage Or Lose Trust

Hard to earn, easy to lose, really hard to regain

Hard to earn, easy to lose, really hard to regain

 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a survey on stress last week.

It seems that politics is one of the top daily stressors in the lives of Americans; second only to juggling schedules of family members and more stressful than car trouble and commuting hassles.

Congress has approval ratings in the single digits; colonoscopies and root canals are rated higher than congressmen.

Even the Supreme Court –long respected by Americans in polls– has an approval rating of only 47 percent, one of its lowest ratings in the last 14 years.
So what bothers Americans about politics?

  • The inability to get something done.
  • Failure of government to perform basic functions well
  • Failure of government to solve problems.
  • Failure of politicians to find common ground.
  • A feeling that they are being lied to and that government isn’t working for them but for special interests.

Among the various groups polled, “millennials”  have less trust in government than ever and tend to trust government to solve problems less than older Americans, according to the Foundation’s findings. That doesn’t bode well for the future. Something has to change.

A few years back, the Florida League of Cities produced research showing that the most trusted level of government was local government, the type closest to the people. Polls also showed that people trusted their mayors more than their Congressional representatives.

I wonder if that still holds true.
Locally, Boca and Delray were able to progress because voters trusted local government’s ability to deliver. In Delray, every bond issue brought before voters passed and usually by overwhelming margins.

Why?
Because elected officials took the time to engage the community on issues ranging from infrastructure needs and parks to a new library and the need to support a beautified downtown. But referendums also passed because taxpayers believed in their local government’s ability to deliver on citizen’s visions. They viewed City Hall as an extension of the community, not some alien building full of faceless bureaucrats but rather a place that was engaged with them in solving community issues and seizing opportunities.
That trust is the most valuable commodity imaginable. It’s hard earned, can be easily lost and once lost hard to regain.
That’s why it’s important to constantly engage stakeholders on issues large and small. Governments that skip this piece do so at their own risk. Citizen engagement takes more time and effort but it’s essential and once you have buy in great things happen. Just look at Boca’s amazing parks and Delray’s dynamic downtown.
Larger governments find it harder to engage citizens and are more susceptible to monied interests.
Special interests also play locally–but city government is still the level of government where people matter most. But…that is true with one giant asterisk… only if they pay attention, engage and vote.
You have to do all three. There are no shortcuts.