Friday, July 25, 2003

Change Can Happen From the Ground Up

Last week I had a stimulating breakfast conversation with Ralph Dise, who has a successful outplacement/headhunting practice, Dise & Co., in the splendid Tower East Building in Shaker Heights (sorry, but you never stop being the son of an architect). The proximate cause was a series of employment-related articles I've been doing for the Plain Dealer's Wednesday jobs section (unfortunately not online). I knew him to be an unusually smart and plugged-in guy, and thus sought him out as a source. But as always happens in writing-related endeavors, in the process of chasing down learning, one tends to stumble over something even bigger and more interesting than you initially thought was there.

And on that level, Ralph certainly didn't disappoint. He's come to the field with what I consider special bona fides: he was himself downsized in a particularly cruel way from the troubled LTV some years ago, and thus can identify with job seekers on a visceral level. He's built his practice ever since the old fashioned way: through reputation and referral, one brick at a time.

More recently, he's just completed a year in Leadership Cleveland, gaining admission on his fifth try, he explained. And that seems to have given him some renewed energy and insight into what the region needs to compete and break out of its mental funk. And it only renewed his certainty, his obvious industry bias aside, that the answer comes down to people and the job skills they provide. And as head of a new regional HR organization (which I'll be telling you more about in coming days), composed of senior people at all levels of the industry, he'll be particularly well-placed to make some special things happen. As we talked some more about the state of things in Cleveland, he grew insistent about how the most interesting developments begin from the ground up. "That's how the Flats happened, that's how the Warehouse District happened."

That got me to rifling through my files for a piece from Governing Magazine a few years ago (also happens to be online here). In an otherwise unremarkable piece in August '97 about urban riverfront development, came this small gem, which I learned about for the first time not from a local pub but from a national: "Cleveland's development fo the Flats, along the Cuyahoga River, followed a similar pattern. The infamous fire on the water in 1969, along with pollution in Lake Erie and the city's bankruptcy several years after, made any waterfront reclamation in Cleveland seem unlikely, if not ridiculous. But the Cleveland Women's City Club began developing plans for parks on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, and several prominent developers acquired property there. 'People thought they were nuts,' says Joseph C. Mazzola, former exec. director of the Flats Oxbow Association. By 1986, however, the city planning department had joined in, adopting a long-range development scheme for the area, and contributing $100 million for streets, lighting, landscaping and public transit."

Wow. Our colleague Don Iannone would call that "citizen planning," with the public taking a leadership role at the outset and the political leadership adding its efforts from there. And it's not unlike a bunch of similar movements springing up now in Cleveland. (Ironically, the Women's City Club is perilously close to going out of business). And with the current political leadership vacuum, which Chris Thompson brilliantly describes this week, maybe this is that peculiar moment in history when the stars are in alignment to make some interesting things happen. At least, that's our plan.

After All, It's Happening at the National Level. We certainly have increasing evidence that grassroots outrage and impatience over political leadership's timidity is causing the average person to act, making this seem more like a direct democracy than at any time I can recall. Just ask poor California Governor Gray Davis, who seems caught like a deer in the headlights over the notion that citizens are agitating for his ouster, using a 1911 law that's only strengthened by new ways of organizing. George Bush is of course finding this out, as well. Check out this full-page ad that's set to run in this Sunday's New York Times, funded by the populist billionaire George Soros, whose last political jihad was marijuana legalization (in concert with our own Peter Lewis).

Maybe most satisfying of all is the way that average citizen outrage over the media mogul power grab at the FCC may well have stopped that outrage, confounding almost every longtime observor of politics, who saw a pretty simple equation: on one side was a few billionaires and the largest media companies, who greased Congressmen and kept the debate mostly off the airwaves. On the other side were a few million upset people, though with no organization or obvious financial incentive to get involved. Ordinarily a slam dunk.

Web-empowered organizing, whether it's designed to get millions to write their congressmen, thousands to turn out for a rally or march, or dozens to join together in a coffee shop, are beginning to change the reality of power in America in ways that even the most mainstream folk can understand. As Andrew Boyd wonderfully describes in this recent Nation piece, the "organizing power of the net" allows citizens to "do an end run around corporate-controlled media and reach into the politically disaffected American mainstream." And most interestingly of all, it often can do so with no apparent leadership, simply as a result "of an email we trusted."

That, my friends, can change the world.


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