First, some definitions:
Partnership: An association of people working together for common goals and aims for their benefit.
Entitlement: A belief that one has a right to something with minimal or no contribution.
One persistent complaint that I hear about Memphis, from people who mostly live outside the city, is that the whole place is corrupt, from the City government and all its divisions to the schools, and the developers and regular joes on the street, depending on ingrained prejudices of the complainer.
I’ll grant you that Memphis has problems, but the notion that Memphis is the home of corruption says more about the speaker than Memphis, and what it says isn’t particularly pretty. Yeah we’ve got a lot of things to address, and yes those issues are challenging, but the lens through which these individuals see the world is one of having no skin in the game.
Memphis is a regional financial and population center. That means that a lot of what goes on in this area, which includes most of west TN, north MS, east AR, and even parts of KY and MO, happens because Memphis has this mantle. From that frame, all those parties, as well as the people of Memphis have skin in the game. The better Memphis does, the better all these surrounding areas will do.
But that’s not the way people have chosen to look at it.
It’s easy to leave. It’s easy to whisk yourself away to your quiet suburban neighborhood in the County, or in DeSoto, or Crittenden and forget how much of your life and livelihood depends on Memphis being the best Memphis it can be. In fact, we’ve made it too easy over the years, expanding infrastructure to accomodate people who have checked out of being a part of the solution, often with little or no effort.
Good government doesn’t just happen, it is intentional. It requires the participation of all those that have a stake in the success of an area. It requires people to serve as checks on power both at the ballot box, and the 1460 days between election days. It requires engagement and an understanding of issues that often fall outside our personal bubbles.
For instance, blight is not a serious problem in my neighborhood just outside of Central Gardens. Sure there are some ugly buildings. There are things that just don’t fit the character and every time I pass them I wonder just what the heck someone was thinking. But I understand that blight be it a half mile away, or 5 miles away, negatively impacts me personally, even if I don’t see it every day. It depresses home values across the city even if it doesn’t exist next door. That, in turn, negatively impacts city tax revenue, which negatively impacts investments we should be making in our city, as well as vital services. All these things impact me, and they impact you too.
But too often we only look at the symptom. “This road is falling apart”, “Crime is too high”, “Traffic is a mess”, whatever the complaint, it is not just constrained to the situation, it is a symptom of a bigger problem.
We, as a people feel entitled to good government, as if it is supposed to just make itself in a vacuum. As if it can judge for us what is good and what is bad with no input. This sense of entitlement is a passive aggressive stance, and one that is ultimately toxic for both the government and the people served by that government.
Certainly, everyone directly involved in government should endeavor to create and maintain “good government”, whatever that is. But people are human, and because we are human we are fallible. Because our institutions, be they governments, or religious institutions, or other associations are made up of people, they are also fallible, and subject to failures as a result.
You don’t have to look far for examples of this fallibility outside of government. The persistent reports of child abuse from clergy, which, despite perception, is not unique to the Catholic church, is an example of institutional failures due to human fallibility.
From that frame, the expectation that people, be they government officials or religious leaders, are just supposed to do the right thing on their own, is entitlement at its worst. Certainly we hope for this, but to expect it is folly. If you want something, you have to go out and make it. The people who benefit most from our institutions understand this.
“But they have too much power, access, etc.” That may be true, but access has become much easier. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t communicate with one of my elected officials. Just the other day I talked to Kemp Conrad, not because I have extraordinary access, but because we engaged each other. Through that engagement, hopefully, we both came away with a better understanding of our perspectives. Through this intentional engagement, my concerns, my perspective was heard. Whether or not it will impact the way Councilman Conrad votes is another issue entirely, but it was heard, and responded to, and in a partnership of over 600,000 people that make up Memphis, its something.
We all have to stop relying on someone else to do it for us. Certainly there are good people out there working for the good of all. People like Brad Watkins with Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who made tackling the homelessness problem in Memphis the cornerstone of MSPJC’s mission. Or Memphis Heritage who lobbied relentlessly to save a historic building from demolition. But these people can’t do this on their own, and neither can government. They need engagement, they need the energy of the people to find the best solutions for the challenges facing the city. They need it all the time, not just at budget time or on election day.
And that’s one of the primary failures of Memphis as an economic and population center. We don’t, as citizens or a government, act as though we’re thinking three moves ahead, we react.
There are some significant problems with relying on a reaction rather than action. First, you’re a step behind. Second, whatever you decide to do or not do is colored by the source of information. So if it’s budget time and people are talking about an issue as if it’s waste, you may decide its waste too, only to later discover that maybe it isn’t. Your lack of direct information has hampered your ability to react making you at least 3 steps behind. Third, and most importantly, because you find yourself this far behind, you’re in a really bad position to work for a positive solution. Now you’re caught in a “just don’t break it” mode, which is like putting your issue on life support.
I talk and think a lot about intention. Intention is a funny thing. We can all intend to do something or be something and not meet the bar set by that intention. But despite our falling below expectations there was some effort. Working intentionally is different. It means you have thought, and talked, and worked and built a coalition to deliberately impact something in some way.
In this city, and across the country I see a lot of people with good intentions, but I don’t see enough people working intentionally, with a specific end in mind…at least not on my side of most issues. And that’s why I think we’ve been losing ground for so long. We haven’t been working intentionally as a group toward specific and tangible goals. Until those goals are defined and expressed to our government, from political leaders to low level government workers, the partnership will remain broken, and so will so much of what could be here in Memphis.
Ed. Note: I’ll have more on ways to get involved and informed in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.