Sunday, May 10, 2009

County Ordinance Vote Is A Vote For The Future

Memphis is like the actor looking for the chance to take a role against type.

We need something dramatic to send the message that we’re not your grandfather’s Memphis, that we’re not stuck in time and that we’re not a group of Bible-thumping, intolerant bigots.

That’s why the vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on an ordinance promising non-discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered persons is a crucible for our community.

It’s not often that a legislative body has a chance to do something so right. Or so smart.

Starring In A New Role

That’s because the ordinance gives us a powerful opportunity to act against type and send the message that this old river city is shedding a reputation that we’ve had too long and that we now find repugnant.

In a city that has suffered from the bitter fruit of bigotry and discrimination, it would seem self-evident that we should jump at the opportunity to be on the side of fairness and equality. But despite the lessons that we should have learned, we remain a place where intolerance flourishes on occasion.

As a result, the new ordinance – which only applies to county employees and companies working for county government – is a welcome development, and Commissioner Steve Mulroy deserves a commendation for the political courage to advance it to a board of commissioners’ agenda, but we’re sure that some commissioners will instead opt to vote for discrimination, but such is the lingering brand of prejudice cloaked in the flag and Scripture verses to hide its ugliness.

Despite this, we’re hopeful that a majority of our county commissioners will understand the importance of this moment in history for our community. You see, while voting for this ordinance is morally right, it is also economically wise.

That’s because tolerance is no longer a virtue. It’s essential to compete in the knowledge economy.

Prima Facie Case

Here’s how the dots connect: the presence of talent in a city today determines its economic success, the percentage of 25-34 year-olds in a city is the key determinant and these crucial members of the workforce are looking to work and live in cities that are clean, green and safe and that are places where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they want a city open enough to accept them as they are, welcoming enough to offer ways to plug in with others like themselves and accepting enough to reserve their judgments.

In this way, gays are the canaries in the coal mine. It’s been said that cities with significant gay populations are more successful, but it’s not just because gays have been key to neighborhood revitalization, development of the cultural and arts scene and to a city’s vibrancy.

More to the point, if a city is welcoming to gays, it is prima facie evidence that it is diverse and welcoming to everyone, and it is the presence of that level of tolerance and acceptance of others that is a magnet for talented young people looking for place where they can live the life they want to live.

Undervalued Tolerance

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of the young, college-educated people as they decide where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

The need for the ordinance is a sad commentary on the discrimination and bigotry still directed at gays, lesbians and transgendered people in our nation, but already, cities that are seen as open-minded are on the right side of the great national migration of young, talented workers.

A Better Image

Memphis and Shelby County are way on the wrong side of this migration. Since 1990, Shelby County has lost 33,300 25-34 year-olds, and we’ve already lost more of this group in the first six years of this century than in all of the 1990s. We’re in the process of determining how many of these had college degrees, but based on the preliminary numbers, it’s doesn’t look promising.

It’s worth remembering that two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

Here’s the thing about the Board of Commissioners’ vote. If it fails, it’s a devastating blow to our already faltering national image through a toxic display of intolerance that will undoubtedly garner national media coverage. The good news is that if it passes, it will garner even more.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing judgmental behavior that defines us too much nationally.

Setting The Future Context

As we said, voting for the county ordinance is much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an exercise in economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers - that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.


Anonymous said...

>>>The need for the ordinance is a sad commentary on the discrimination and bigotry still directed at gays, lesbians and transgendered people in our nation,

Example, please.

Anonymous said...

With a permanent hiring freeze in place and 100 jobs due to be riffed today, why bother?

unless of course the commissioners need a fabulous interior decorator, or something.

Anonymous said...

SCM - When is the vote? We need to get the word out so people can call their commissioners and tell them to vote yes.

Anonymous said...

So you are saying we should pass this ordinance to should how enlightened a city we have become, that we are tolerant we are of gays. Also, as such a tolerant city, we can attract more gays which will make us a better city?

Pardon me, but this sounds like a smokescreen to mask our very real and ongoing problem of dealing with racial tolerance and advancement in race relations. You say that more gays make a more successful city, you (not me) could almost as easily say that fewer african americans may do the same. We are a unique city, with our own culture. Instead of following "enlightened" cities who give special allowances to people based on the way they have sex, we should continue the battle to have whites and african americans live together in harmony and to advance us economically.

I have supported Steve Mulroy in the past but am disappointed that he chooses to concentrate on this versus working more with his large black constituency.

Smart City Consulting said...

If our community decides that we should focus on one disenfranchised group while allowing another one to continue one, we are definitely asking the wrong question. The rights/oipportunities of gays and the rights/opportunities of African-Americans are not an either-or proposition. Surely we can concentrate on two things at the same time - especially two things that have so much to do with fundamental fairness.

By the way, we don't make the leap that gays are white. If we can ever open up the closets in the African-American community, you'd be surprised how many people emerge. And it's time to not only open up the closets here but to tear the doors off the walls.

packrat said...

You just don't get it, SC. Tolerance in Memphis means tolerating, aiding, and abetting corrupt, Bible-quoting, race-baiting politicians.

packrat said...

Of all races, I might add, Mr. Wyatt Bunker....

Anonymous said...

The first of three readings will be Wed May 27 (in committee) and then the following Monday June 1 (in full Commission).

SC is right that gays are black as well as white, and there's no conflict between fighting for civil rights for blacks and gays at the same time.

Anonymous said...

would be a fun cat fight to watch though, come to that.

Zippy the giver said...

Don't already have this ordinance?
More like your great grandfather's Memphis.