The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.
— Lewis Mumford
Last week, this space featured a jeremiad on the I-20/59 project. For those who missed it, the bottom line was this: While I have had a hard time finding anyone who is for what the Alabama Department of Transportation is proposing, the fight against the ALDOT plan is hampered greatly, perhaps fatally, by three interrelated factors — the lack of leadership from City Hall or elite corporations on this critical public issue; the absence of active involvement in the opposition by prominent citizens and organizations; and the want of financial resources to do things like file lawsuits and commission an alternative plan fleshed out with construction specifications and time and cost estimates.
Regarding the latter point, I offered the opinion that the best and most viable alternative is to do away with the interstate entirely and replace it with a street-level boulevard. I also said that I would devote this week’s column to a discussion of the advantages of the “tear it down” plan — but I’m exercising my prerogative as the sole proprietor of this little corner of our paper’s real estate to postpone that discussion for a week, in favor of something else that’s preying on my mind.
That something is the quality of leadership. It’s a word we throw around a lot in our community, but I’m not sure we know what we mean by it. We know we want it. We know we need it. I’m pretty sure we’d know it if we saw it. But how do we define it in the abstract? If we had to write a job description for “leader,” what would it say?
The problem, of course, is that our civic landscape is not exactly littered with examples that might actively inform the task of coming up with a description. That’s not a statement I make lightly, and I don’t mean it to suggest that we don’t have plenty of people who are capable of providing leadership, or even that we don’t have people who are leaders within their immediate realm of influence. We do, and more is the pity, because what we seem to be lacking, in a city that is in fact full of bright and caring people who want Birmingham to be everything it can be, is the person willing to step out and take the lead in making it so.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about a transformational leader, a person who can articulate and activate a vision for Birmingham that transcends the legion of dichotomies — of black and white, rich and poor, downtown and neighborhoods, progressive and traditionalist, and yes, urban and suburban — that have defined our city and its environs since virtually the day of its founding. I’m talking about a person who understands that the real challenge we face in building the best possible Birmingham is not diversity — for we have diversity to spare — but inclusion, not merely the extension of opportunity but the creation and perpetuation of the means of matching opportunities to people. I’m talking about a person who loves Birmingham more than they love themselves.
Above all, I’m talking about a person for whom redeeming Birmingham — righting our greatest civic sin — is paramount. What is that sin? Very simply, it is the glaring failure to help the citizens of Birmingham — all citizens — feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. We need a leader of this city who wakes up in the morning with a laser focus on aiming every step they take in the direction of igniting the vast human potential that is, and has been, present in our community. We need a leader who has not only the vision to see where Birmingham can go, but also the courage to get us there.
That means having the courage to challenge ingrained attitudes and established ways of doing things. And it means going about it in a way that both overcomes the forces that have always stood in the way of transformative progress in Birmingham and incorporates those same forces into allies in the fulfillment of overarching goals and achievements that redound to the benefit of the entire community.
So, will Birmingham find the leader it needs? I am hopeful that we will, and equally convinced that we have exactly four years to do it. Things are stirring in a way that points to 2017 as perhaps the single most pivotal election in the history of our city, even more so than the one in 1963 that rid us forever of Bull Connor. I’m particularly encouraged to see the number of talented highly qualified younger people who are putting their names forward in the city council and school board races for which we’ll go to the polls next Tuesday. I’m even of the opinion that at least three or four of them will win their races, thus laying the foundation for progress over the next four years.
But will we find our leader? It goes without saying that our history does not offer great grounds for hope that such a person will emerge. With rare exceptions — such as the one of which we currently are commemorating the 50th anniversary — ours is a story of successive waves of progressive thought and deed that break short of the shores of essential change. If you want to dedicate yourself to working for change in Birmingham, to perhaps becoming the leader our community needs, you need to go in with your eyes open, in the full knowledge that Birmingham is a town that will, to borrow a line from Bruce Springsteen, rip the bones from your back.
You need to know that, and to decide that the effort is worth it.