In politics, a word can become divisive. This can be said of the word “diversity” as well as phrases like “healthcare reform.”
You might ask what these two things have to do with each other. The commonality is that people attach certain words to certain policies they might not agree with instead of focusing on what they agree upon. With the recent passing of President George H.W. Bush, the concept of unity has been greatly discussed. How can we as a country aspire to unite around who we are and our shared values? As President Bush famously said, “We are a nation of communities … a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
Arkansas Municipal League Chairman and North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith recently challenged cities to be inclusive of young people. He had everyone in the meeting stand up. In waves, he would ask people to sit down if they were over 70, then 60, and then 50. As you can imagine, the standing crowd of hundreds became a number you could count on two hands as he asked the folks over 40 to sit down.
After returning home from this meeting, I thought Mayor Smith’s challenge should apply to making efforts to include all citizens of Jonesboro in our city government. Who are the next generation of leaders for our cities? They are a diverse group of people who come from all incomes, all wards, all ages, all races, all physical abilities, etc. In short, we need the type of government President Abraham Lincoln envisioned: a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
At the city level, we cannot make decisions on what is best for the city if we do not hear from all cross sections of the community.
My resolution to encourage this diversity in civic participation was met with great support and a unanimous vote from my fellow city council members. Leading up to the vote, there were a few citizens who worried the measure was requiring ratios on city boards or commissions, but the measure did no such thing. Instead, it served as a statement of public policy for the City of Jonesboro, a statement that communicated our dedication to providing all people in our city with opportunities to serve on boards and commissions.
A recent example of inclusion efforts occurred when Mayor Harold Perrin and the council appointed a cross section of people to serve on the Downtown to ASU Corridor Committee. It included a young professional in her 20s, a young black pastor and a female economic development professional, as well as ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse and a hospital president.
The people on this committee were chosen not just for diversity’s sake. They each had a relevant perspective regarding the topic at hand. For example, the young professional runs the downtown Jonesboro Association, while the young pastor’s church is along the corridor. Everyone on this committee provided an important and unique perspective that played an integral role in the committee’s (and our city’s) success. We need these fresh and diverse perspectives, and they are often found by looking beyond the usual sources.
People often reach out to their friends when they know of service opportunities. This is not simply a matter of a good ol’ boy system. People trust who they know, and they often know people like them (i.e. same income level, race, gender). As public officials, we must spend time among all the citizenry and develop relationships with people from all walks of life. These relationships will help the mayor and council recognize the best folks when opportunities become available on boards and commissions.
Of course, inclusivity at the city level is not just a matter of city boards and commissions. These relationships can help elected officials gain perspectives before making important decisions. We need to broaden our circle of trust to include as many Jonesboro residents as possible, especially as our city changes and grows.
These perspectives can help us maintain the best of who we are while gaining perspective of where we need to go.
Editor’s note: L.J. Bryant is a member of the Jonesboro City Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.