Civic Leadership is Drifting

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

July 28, 2003
James O'Connell

Many eyes are fixed on the State House these days, as lawmakers and the new administration grapple daily with the difficult decisions caused by the tightest state budget in Massachusetts in decades. While the spotlight falls on legislative leaders during tough times like these, we should not lose sight that there is another key group of individuals that must pay a major role in keeping our community vibrant, in good economic times and bad - our civic leaders.
In this era of consolidation and mergers, there is a growing concern that many of our leading local businesses have become local outposts of national or international business behemoths. The once-dominant department store, Jordan Marsh, was bought by Macy's of New York. New England Telephone is now part of Verizon, also headquartered in New York. Stop & Shop and Shaw's supermarkets are now foreign-owned. This trend could seriously erode what is already a fragmented civic coalition, making it that much more difficult to mobilize local support for issues as varied as public education, public trans portation, and affordable housing.
Even assuming that our most influential corporate entities retain their local roots, there is concern in some quarters that, especially when compared to other eras, civic leadership in Boston is lagging as we embark upon the new century. One aspect in which it has been found wanting is the cultural arena. Advocates of the arts point out that while cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Minneapolis dedicate significant public resources to the arts, Boston is overly reliant on its cultural institutions and private patrons of the arts to support its cultural life.
One observer has said, "Boston is the hardest city in the world to raise money." Another longtime civic leader, Hubert Jones of the University of Massachusetts, criticizes Boston for "working in silos," while indulging in "struggle and rancor."
This "tribal" approach is deeply rooted in the city's history. From the Puritan elite to the exclusionary dominance of the Brahmins to the struggles between the Yankees and the Irish, the social structure of the city has never been a model of cohesiveness. "In Boston," wrote the novelist George V. Higgins, "envy is robust and vigorous."
How, then, to effectively marshal our civic resources? One of the first steps is to recognize that there are several distinct ways to create and build upon civic leadership. In Boston, we have seen examples through the years of each of these different strategies.
The first is the "business elite" model, under which corporate chieftains develop coherent plans for regional development on priority issues. The classic example of this model is the Vault, a small group of bankers and businessmen who met from the 1960s to the 1980s to develop a consensus on matters such as urban renewal and school desegregation. Gradually losing its influence, the Vault disbanded in 1997.
The second model, the "independent sector," assumes that private and nonprofit organizations will provide the kind of civic leadership needed to promote a robust cultural life.
With the third model, "the strength of weak ties," there is no dominant civic leadership structure, but instead a rich and varied network of civic participants who invest as they choose to in a wide range of civic activities.
Although elements of each model can be found in Boston, there are several other keys to building a firm foundation for civic leadership.
* Transparency and feedback: Public, private, and nonprofit organizations are likely to become engaged when matters of public importance are visible.
* Strengthening existing organizations: Building networks and training leaders to provide direction for the people who participate in different policy-making processes is an important element of civic leadership.
* Leadership development: Hubie Jones' City to City Leadership Exchange Program, in which 45 to 80 Bostonians have traveled with Mayor Thomas Menino to other US cities, gives civic-minded individuals an opportunity to see community-building innovations from around the country.
* Creating a new regional coalition: Greater Boston has no collaborative regional organization of leaders from politics, business, community organizations, and the arts. In light of the successes of such groups elsewhere, such as Cleveland Tomorrow, Chicago Metropolis 2020, and Envision Utah, our regional leaders would do well to make a concerted effort to form such a coalition.
Next summer, Boston will host the 2004 Democratic Convention. A year from today, a Democrat will be officially nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate. As it did in hosting other recent events such as the Ryder Cup and the 1999 Major League All-Star Game, the city has another opportunity to showcase our world-class city to visitors.
As important as these events are to our tourism industry and our local economy, the long-term vitality of Greater Boston can only be preserved by strong civic leaders whose efforts are appreciated and supported by us all.