It’s Election Day here in DC, and in my neighborhood of Columbia Heights, a diverse mix of citizens – old and young, wealthy and struggling, black and white and brown – have been casting their votes all morning in the basement of an old Baptist church. Inside, cheerful volunteers explain the ins and outs of the paper and electronic ballots. Outside, supporters of the prospective candidates line nearby streets to hand out leaflets and answer questions. As they do, two major construction projects – one a new restaurant in an abandoned storefront, the other a new apartment complex in an abandoned building across the street – fill the air with the sounds of power saws, hammers, and the voices of workmen.
Election Days are supposed to be about possibility, hopefulness, and the promise that comes from a system of accountability, transparency, and the will of the people. And yet in my neighborhood, amid the din of new development and community renewal, the primary feeling, paradoxically, is of disappointment and discontent. In DC this year, the election is less a contest between two candidates, and more a referendum on the leadership of mayor Adrian Fenty. And if the polls are at all accurate, it is also the beginning of the end for him and his high-profile schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee.
As I’ve already written, Fenty’s demise has been brought on by a self-inflicted march of strong-armed, tin-eared words and decisions. That same approach to leadership has characterized his choice for schools chancellor, Rhee, even as her tough-minded style has been celebrated nationally. But what the media reports gloss over – and what this election is likely to demonstrate – is a simple fact: the only way real change occurs is if you invest equally in technical expertise (so people will have the knowledge and skills they need to bring about a new way of seeing), and emotional commitment (so people will have the motivation and passion required to see a difficult set of challenges through). The art of democratic leadership comes from loosening one’s grip, at least partially, on what the exact “end result” needs to look like. This doesn’t mean ceding all ground or any core ideas. But it does mean painting a picture for the electorate that is intentionally incomplete, thinking strategically about which broad brush strokes must anchor the work, and leaving ample room for others to fill in the remaining blank space on the canvas. Only then will whatever emerges truly reflect the collective wisdom of a community.
In elections like this, however, too many observers still frame the issues as a false choice between choosing the path of reform or maintaining the status quo. As always, it’s more complicated than that. In the DC schools, there are undoubtedly some serious issues with the teachers union. There are undoubtedly some horrible teachers in our schools who deserve to be fired. There is undoubtedly a shocking injustice at our continued inability to guarantee each child the same basic opportunity to a high-quality public education. But history tells us – not to mention common sense – that you can’t address those issues by recklessly demonizing a majority of the people you will need to bring about a paradigm shift in the school system. This style of leadership is media-friendly because it provides a clearly defined cast of heroes and villains. And, as we’re about to see in DC, it will also get you voted out of office by unnecessarily polarizing the electorate.
The language of hope will not always unite. But the language of division will always divide.
I don’t know what type of mayor Vincent Gray will be. If history is any indication, he is as likely to disappoint – and become a victim of his own hubris – as the countless candidates who have gone before him. Still, I cast my vote for Gray this morning because of the possibility that he will take heed of his predecessor’s implosion.
A good first step would be to heed the insights of Edith Warner, the woman who spent her life living along the Rio Grande, and writing about the delicate balance between humans and the natural world. As Warner clearly understood, there is a subtle ecology we all must maintain, and our public leaders are the primary stewards of that human ecosystem. Words matter, in other words, since it is the words of our officials that shape the possibility of our collective action – or alienation.
“What we do anywhere matters,” Warner wrote long ago, “but especially here. Mesas and mountains, rivers and trees, winds and rains are as sensitive to the actions and thoughts of humans as we are to their forces. They take into themselves what we give off, and give it out again.”