This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
“Be nice.” That’s the sage advice of Dalton, a bouncer at a rough bar, as portrayed by Patrick Swayze in the movie Road House
(admit it, you’ve watched the movie on cable TV). While Dalton was focusing on how to handle unruly customers, I believe there’s quite a bit of wisdom packed into those two words for us as city officials.
Many people today across the political spectrum feel that the effects of social media, political polarization, tribalism and economic disparities have weakened the foundations of our democracy and culture. It is open for debate whether or not our democracy is about to crumble, but I would suggest that the tone of our political discourse has become rawer, less civil, more chaotic and increasingly ineffective. How we go about tackling the challenges we face could use a reboot, and it can start with us.
Why us? Because it is at the local level where we live, work and play; where citizenship and community is formed and nurtured; and where the strength of our democracy is grounded. There is no better place than in our communities to begin healing the wounds our democracy and culture have sustained.
So, be nice, or as Anaheim, California, Mayor Tom Tait would encourage us, embrace kindness. The payoff, according to Tait, is that kindness recognizes the difference between treating a symptom and healing from within:
“This is not just a feel-good thing. Kindness actually is serious business. It builds social muscle—the ability of a community to rally in the face of disaster and rebound even stronger. […] The ability to foster community resiliency is one of the most important benefits of promoting kindness.”
My city of Albany is proof of this as I believe its resiliency, after experiencing recent natural disasters, is grounded in the kindness expressed by residents to one another in the storms’ aftermath.
Tait goes on to say that kindness is at its core about culture. He asks, if CEOs can change the culture of their organization, why can’t elected officials change the culture of their communities, which, remember, are the keystone to our democracy. My answer is that we can, and we should.
Start today. Set the tone in your community. Make it a personal goal to be kind, compassionate and civil when you engage with elected colleagues, city staff, community leaders and residents. Run your meetings with grace and kindness. Be nice when interacting with that elected official that invariably rubs you the wrong way and gets under your skin. Greet those constituents that always have a beef with you or the city with a smile and respect. Instill kindness into all that your city does. As Mayor Tait says, ask yourself, “What would a city of kindness do?”
As stewards of our local democratic institutions, we’re in office to make our communities safe and just, and to foster the common good. Our democracy is grounded in the respect and dignity of every man and woman. Be nice, embrace kindness, and become as Pope Francis recently said, “artisans of the common good.”