State of the Re:Union has recently teamed up with the National Civic League (NCL) to produce and share website content. The partnership was a no-brainer for us. The NCL puts a major spotlight on communities that are coming together, bridging divides and doing innovative things to meet challenges head on. We share such a such a similar ethos and both place prominence on solution. Without further adieu, please welcome Mike McGrath of the NCL:
As the writer/editor/new media person for the National Civic League, I’m always coming across noteworthy examples of community-based innovation or problem-solving, but only occasionally do these stories get the kind of coverage they deserve from the national media. (Perhaps this is the place where I should rail against the 24-7 coverage of Charlie Sheen. But really, why bother?)
To be fair, doing community journalism right isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes a certain kind of finesse and savvy to avoid being bland, “simpy” or overly promotional. So when my boss, Gloria Rubio-Cortés told me about State of the Re:Union’s unique blend of Americana, local culture and issue-oriented reporting, I felt like somebody was finally starting to get this right.
You may or may not have heard of the National Civic League (NCL), but you have probably seen the signature red, white and blue All-America City Award shield on, say, a city limits sign or a water tower somewhere. To win the award, communities have to tell their stories to a “jury” of civic experts, describing their most pressing challenges and listing three successful projects to address them. More than 600 cities (and neighborhoods, towns, villages, counties and regions) have won the award since it started in 1949, and it is the chief source of our nearly bottomless supply of stories of positive community change.
NCL was founded during the Progressive Era as a national clearinghouse of municipal reform ideas. In those days, local government was dominated by omnipotent utility barons and crooked party bosses. Over time, local government went from being the most corrupt and dysfunctional level of government to being the most trusted, thanks in part to reforms advocated by NCL.
You might say these reforms were so successful that NCL was becoming a victim of its own success, but instead of declaring “mission accomplished” and closing up shop, the organization shifted its focus from the mechanics of government to the less formal avenues of local democracy.
In the mid-1990s, when I left the journalism business to work for NCL, it was in the forefront of what some experts have called a “civic renewal” movement, a quiet revolution that was occurring at the local level. All over the country, ordinary citizens were coming together in large and small-scale efforts to address longstanding issues such as housing, jobs, growth, race relations, crime, education—you name it.
Through our Community Services (now Community Success) program, NCL Senior Vice President Derek Okubo, has helped dozens of cities organize communitywide strategic planning or “visioning” efforts, engaging hundreds of citizens in meetings to identify key challenges and concrete ways to address them.
When Gloria Rubio-Cortés took over as president a few years ago, she began to move the organization in a new direction, focusing less on “process” and more directly on social justice issues. We have recently started a new initiative to explore successful examples of communities who are addressing the budget crisis by linking public engagement strategies with a “triple-bottom-line” of equity, efficiency and environmental sustainability. We will be announcing a new issue-oriented community initiative in the coming weeks.
When Gloria heard about SOTRU, she contacted Al Letson and Ian DeSousa to explore the possibilities. The commonalities were pretty obvious as soon as we started talking and exchanging URLs. For instance, in their pilot season, they did a great segment on the “surprisingly metropolitan and progressive” city of Des Moines, Iowa. We noticed the same qualities in Des Moines when we gave it an All-America City Award in 2010.
Greensburg, Kansas, was profiled in SOTRU’s season opener last year, a great piece on how this small rural town was recovering from a horrific tornado by rebuilding green. We published a case study on Greensburg in the National Civic Review special issue on the “Civics of Sustainability” last year. (Here’s a free link to the issue.)
It’s always gratifying when we see others recognizing the same communities we have honored with an award or an article, but even more exciting is the opportunity to contribute community stories SOTRU listeners and readers may not have heard or read about, and to learn about examples they may know about. And that is what I hope to be doing in the upcoming weeks.
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 be appearing every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.