Thursday, June 5, 2008

All America City?

I've been in Tampa, FL at an extended municipal pep rally for the last two days, as part of a tiny and cynical delegation from my town to the All America City competition. All America City is a program of the National Civic League that recognizes cities, towns and counties for engaging citizens in sustainable improvements to its sense of community, infrastructure, and municipal programs.

I've never been a group think person. In fact, I find group think to be a little scary. But, I can definitely play the act for the team. So, with a motley crew of other urbane cynics, I've been chanting city slogans, wearing the same outfit as the other travelers from my town, and rehearsing a 10-minute song and dance number to perform for a group of judges who will decide if our town will be named "All America City."

I've watched with amusement the 50-person delegations from other parts of the country in their matching outfits, coordinated accessories, and midwestern peppiness. I've listened with amazement to the Southern groups waxing on philosophically about pancake houses and Jesus, and wondered what lies beneath the illusion of demographic borderlessness among the groups of blacks, native americans, hispanics, whites, seniors, children, families, and disabled people. And, I've seen more American flags than I really can process. American flag birkenstocks, sequined headbands, bandanas wrapped around denim-clad legs, cowboys hats and embroidered polo shirts.

What is it that makes a city an All America City? What does it mean to be an American? I think to the history of our nation and the current presidential administration. Hubris, religiosity, secrecy, scrappiness, disingeuousness, inequality sanctified by the social order.

Don't think this is what the National Civic League is looking for. I think they are looking for a set of democratic ideals applied to municipal governance - most importantly citizen engagement and liberal advancement.

If I were king of the universe, what would I be looking for? Authenticity, willingness to name problems, and concrete and compassionate solutions for addressing them, leadership and leadership development.

What would you look for?

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