By Ally Freeman
Opening General Session
Innovation and humanity were resounding themes imparted to attendees at this year's Congress of Cities and Exposition Opening General Session which took place in Boston last week.
NLC Immediate Past President Ted Ellis, mayor of Bluffton, IN and NLC President Marie Lopez Rogers opened the program, thanking this year's host city, Boston and Boston Mayor Tom Menino for his hospitality, leadership and commitment to NLC's purpose.
Shari Davis from the City of Boston spoke on behalf of Mayor Menino, offering a dynamic welcome to Boston, "a city of ideas, city of action, and city of youth." Two conference youth delegates shared remarks about their experiences on their own cities' youth councils, encouraging their fellow delegates to use the conference as a platform to encourage youth across the country to be involved in public service.
After outgoing president Ellis offered remarks, the three general session speakers took the stage, individually offering inspiring TED-style speeches to the audience.
William Taylor, founder of Fast Company magazine, offered his insights on leadership and organizational management. Taylor reminded the audience that in today's ever-changing society and in a world being reshaped by technology, what residents and citizens will really respond to is a heightened sense of humanity.
"The organization of the future will be intensely human," Taylor said.
Taylor also shared that it is profoundly helpful to look at best practices and organizations in other fields to learn from, admitting that the highest impact leaders he has come to know want to learn from and compare themselves to the most compelling organizations in the world - not just in their community, or discipline.
He encouraged the audience of city officials to be creative, and be willing to do things differently, experiment, and try things that have not been done before.
"You can't let what you know, limit what you can imagine," Taylor said. "Your job back home...is to outthink everybody else and help all of your constituents and colleagues think together."
Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America shared how she left a career in Silicon Valley to start her organization. She pointed to Code for America as a model for actively engaging technologists and members of the ‘web generation' in local government by connecting tech professionals with cities to work together to innovate with city services and programs.
Pahlka's stories and insights offered a powerful message to city leaders about the impact technology, innovation, and a committed group of public servants can have on a community. "We can reinvent the relationship between citizens and government for the 21st century and we can do it in a way that scales," Pahlka said in her remarks.
Modeled loosely on the Teach for America structure, Code for America selects an annual crop of fellows and sends them out to selected cities across the country where they work on assigned technology projects in their city. Pahlka shared examples of projects in selected Code for America cities that used data and technology to create constituent-focused websites. In New Orleans, fellows produced BlightStatus, a website that tracks the status of blighted properties within the city's code enforcement system.
Sharing more stories from Detroit and Honolulu, Pahlka told attendees that her organization is not just about technology, or about innovation, but about what people can do together.
"The most important tool in technology is people," Pahlka said. "The nation's most undervalued assets are public servants who care very deeply about serving the public."
Wes Moore, author and youth advocate, was the final speaker sharing an inspiring story of his difficult childhood growing up in a single-parent household in Baltimore and New York City.
Moore's book "The Other Wes Moore" was inspired after he read in the Baltimore Sun about a teen with his same name who had allegedly killed a police officer during an armed robbery. The coincidence of their shared similarities and childhoods was striking to Moore, and he started a correspondence and relationship that lasted several years, eventually leading to the book.
Moore reiterated that the trajectory of the other Wes Moore's life could have easily been his own. He fortunately found support during his high school years from his mother, several mentors and teachers. This support group helped turnaround his life and spur his academic success. Moore eventually graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University, became a Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford University, served in the United States Army and was a White House fellow to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
"What changed is that I found myself surrounded by people who helped me understand that there wasn't a single accident of birth that was ever going to define or limit me," Moore said.
He now uses his own experience to help others inspire, motivate and support the country's youth, emphasizing that potential in the United States is universal, but opportunity is not.
He called on city leaders to think about every single person who sits in their jurisdictions. "Your job matters because there are people in every single one of your communities who need and deserve a champion," Moore said.
The Closing Session also offered informative messages to city leaders. Mark Halperin, political analyst and editor-at-large of TIME magazine shared his insight from covering the 2012 Presidential elections and offered a preview of President Obama's legislative agenda in the coming months.
Halperin reiterated the urgency of President Obama and Congress coming to a compromise on the fiscal cliff, so that the President can move ahead with other legislative priorities in the next year including comprehensive immigration reform and energy policy.
He told leaders it is their obligation as city officials to take risks, educate voters, and stand up to special interests.
Following Halperin's keynote address, a panel of city leaders took the stage, moderated by NLC First Vice President Chris Coleman. The panel included Ronald O. Loveridge, mayor, Riverside, CA, Priscilla R. Tyson, council member, Columbus, OH and Walter Maddox, mayor, Tuscaloosa, AL.
At the closing general session, the 27 City Showcase participants were honored, along with the City Milestone Award winners which are celebrated for 50 years of NLC membership. Loveridge and James Hunt, councilmember Clarksburg, WV were also honored for their longstanding commitment to public service as they are both leaving office at the end of this year.