NLC University Tackles Inclusive Leadership at Annual Summit

CivicMakers was invited to attend the NLC University Leadership Summit and Big Ideas for Cities event in San Diego the first week in October, which focused on inclusion and equity — two of our favorite topics! NLC University is “a collaborative education and professional development initiative developed by the National League of Cities that helps municipal leaders — both elected and appointed — build the skills they need to better govern, serve, and advocate for their communities.”

When we learned about NLC University, we reached out to gauge whether members would be interested in our Public Impact Design training, which brings innovation practices and collaborative problem-solving methodologies to public sector practitioners. In an effort to learn more about each other’s goals, I headed to SoCal to see what NLC University was all about.

Along with mixing and mingling with 100+ participants from around the country, made up mostly of Mayors and City Council members, what really struck me was the bold but humble approach NLC University took toward helping attendees truly understand the concepts of equity and inclusion. For anyone reading this who’s been grappling with issues of systemic racism, (ahem…likely anyone following recent events, from Charlottesville to DACA), I was impressed with the way NLC facilitators made space for folks to brainstorm solutions to problems that are understandably emotionally charged.

In fact, after a session entitled From Past to Present: Building on Lessons of the Past to Create Engaged Communities, an attendee commended NLC for “leading these conversations for the field.” This particular session was facilitated by folks from NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership initiative and featured a video recounting the historical context fueling today’s racial tensions in the U.S. Viewers were instructed to discuss prompts between segments of the film. I found myself at a table helping an older white gentleman from Florida understand that just because he’d never experienced racism in his town did not mean that racism wasn’t embedded in some of its institutions. These are the conversations we should be having — challenging ourselves and each other as civic innovators to think beyond our own contexts.

The other standout was the Big Ideas for Cities event that preceded the official Summit kick-off. During this evening panel, NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony facilitated a conversation between five mayors from the state of California:

Mayor Keith (Menlo Park, CA)
Mayor Rosenberg (Mountain View, CA)
Mayor Salas (Chula Vista, CA)
Mayor Tubbs (Stockton, CA)

The theme was how equity and inclusion can be applied at the local level to deal with issues as varied as housing, community development, transportation, sustainability, and public safety. With a brief intro by Mayor Faulconer (San Diego, CA), who spoke of leading with community first, bringing people together and getting rid of rhetoric and ideology, the conversation was poised to venture into a little bit of criticism for what’s happening at the federal level…right?!

Yes, it sure did. And. We. Loved. It. There’s nothing like a handful of mayors, who are closest to the people and services their cities deliver, talking about some of the inspiring, relevant and effective work they are doing with their communities to remind us that we have the power locally to create a brighter future.

From left: Mayor Tubbs, Mayor Salas, Mayor Rosenberg, Mayor Keith & Clarence Anthony

From Mayor Keith in Menlo Park working on mindfulness training for her police force, to Mayor Rosenberg of Mountain View speaking proudly of his his city becoming a Human Rights City (one of only 11 in the U.S. total!), to Mayor Salas of Chula Vista (the city’s first Latina mayor!) establishing a Resident Leadership Academy to “give voice to people who normally don’t speak up,” the panel was brimming with hyper-localized solutions that considered inclusion as integral to success — not merely an afterthought.

Perhaps most impressive in terms of thoughtfulness around embedding community input in decision-making was Mayor Tubbs of Stockton, CA. Tubbs is the city’s first African-American mayor AND the youngest mayor in U.S. history, having been elected at the age of 26. He spoke of what he described as “real” community outreach, whereby government agencies are not simply validating their own solutions but learning from the community itself how to craft those solutions. With a population of 350,000 made up of 75% people of color, Mayor Tubbs focuses on reaching the most marginalized in his community. He spoke of economic inclusion and the city’s current approach: 1. Identify the gaps; 2. Build partnerships; 3. Pilot programs with companies.

While the panel shared some inspiring anecdotes of their work, some admitted struggling with how to make a difference and create sustainable change within the constraints of short terms in office, some of which are only a year. At CivicMakers, we hope our vision of communities having the tools and resources they need to co-create solutions to shared challenges will transcend term limits, administration changes, ideologies and, in particular, federal policies that simply don’t work at the local level.

Some of the ways we’re doing that with our local government partners is by helping to improve programs and services with direct input from residents through service design, strategic planning, research and evaluation. We also find increasing engagement with stakeholders by co-creating communications strategies and through workshops and facilitation to be powerful tools for crafting extremely relevant, meaningful and effective local services. After all, as Mayor Rosenberg put it, “It’s a sad day when we have to protect ourselves from the federal government.” Let’s hope we can leverage this stark reality into a brighter future.

Thank you, NLC University, for providing the opportunity to see some of this work in action! Curious? See the video below for yourself.