In 1947 burglars broke into the Jackson County, Missouri Courthouse, blasted open a vault with nitroglycerine and made off with local election records. The crime was never solved, but everyone knew the purpose: to prevent the government from investigating allegations of widespread fraud in the 1946 Democratic Party primary.
It wasn’t obvious at the time, but the unsolved break-in (shades of Watergate) marked the dying gasp of a notoriously corrupt regime, a machine that had dominated Kansas City, Missouri, for decades. After that and some other outrages, a citizen committee formed to prevent the remnants of the machine from regaining a foothold in local affairs.
Kansas City won its first All-America City Award in 1950 for “forming a citizens committee to keep the rascals out.” They’ve won the award four more times since, making them one of a select group of five-time AAC winners.
Over the years, the focus of AAC, or rather the projects listed by the communities, has evolved along with mission of the National Civic League and the nature of the challenges facing American communities. During the 1950s, a central theme was fighting corruption and professionalizing city government. In the 1960s and 1970s there was more on race relations and redeveloping deteriorating urban areas. In the 1980s, the focus shifted to crime and youth gangs, the loss of manufacturing jobs and dealing with the consequences of rapid growth, and so on.
The idea of the award is that by recognizing and publicizing outstanding examples of civic accomplishment we could influence other communities to undertake similar efforts. We’re pretty proud of the way the program has worked in the past, but in recent years, we’ve begun to think about how we could use the award more strategically, not just to recognize things that have already happened, but to try to get communities to focus on particular challenges going forward.
In small ways, we’ve been doing this for years. A recent example: in 2010, Scott County, Kansas, was selected as a finalist for the award competition. The community sent a delegation of local worthies to plead their case in front of a jury of civic experts. The delegation came very close to winning, but fell short, partly because, as one of the jurors put it—where’s the diversity?
Like many other areas of the country, western Kansas had experienced rapid growth in its Latino population as more and more immigrants moved to join the local work force. But this growing diversity was not very well-reflected in their application or in the composition of their delegation. “We took that to heart,” notes Katie Eisenhour, executive director of the Scott City Chamber of Commerce. “NCL called us on it. That’s when we really looked at our community and had the courage to have these conversations about our Hispanic community.”
That year, Southwest Airlines offered to pay for any finalist community that wanted to avail itself of NCL’s Community Success program, which helps convene community-based dialogues and civic engagement process. Scott City held its first Diversity/Multicultural Roundtable in November 2010. A Diversity Steering Committee has been meeting on a monthly basis. (Read more about the effort here.)
The committee has been hosting local events to bring together Latinos, Mennonites and other groups within the community. They developed a list of priorities, including after hours English-as-a second language classes, a resource center for newcomers, hiring bilingual employees in local businesses, encouraging a more diverse representation in local government and holding an annual multi-cultural event that would hopefully become a community tradition.
In 2011 they came back to the All-America City Award (this time as Scott City), making diversity and cultural understanding a central part of their presentation. The jurors were impressed enough to make them one of the ten winners selected last June, fittingly enough, in Kansas City.
We do this award for a reason. Sure, it’s a great event and its gives people a chance to network, exchange ideas and receive the recognition they deserve, but we also want to have a tangible influence on what’s going on in communities, which is one reason we decided to focus the 2012 award program one critical issue, K-3 reading proficiency and see if in partnership with a national coalition we could help move the dime on a critical issue.
It’s an experiment, and next year we will find out how well it works. In the meantime, you can read more about the 2012 AAC Grade Level Reading Award by linking here.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.