Thursday, July 16, 2009

Can Memphis Have A Storied Mayor?

Kip Bergstrom, former executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council and now head of Stamford, Connecticut, Urban Redevelopment Commission, is one of the smartest people we know, and always bears listening to.

But his words resonate especially in today's politically charged environment.

“Leadership is about telling stories,” he said. We were reminded of his advice in light of our posts about great mayors, because in his former job, Mr. Bergstrom worked with one of them, Providence Mayor David Cicilline.


In recent years, Providence has made impressive strides in turning around, reducing crime, reforming government, using technology to track public services and more. The Rhode Island Economic Policy Council helped set the agenda for the city because it was an honest broker of economic development data and as a think tank identifying emerging trends affecting Providence.

“We tell stories using data,” said Mr. Bergstrom, who has an uncanny ability to find just the right data to modulate economic strategy. “The right kind of story at the right time can make organizations – and cities – vulnerable to new ideas. Story telling is one of the best ways to change a city.”

He once said that he concentrates on three priorities: 1) improving the business climate, 2) enhancing quality of place, and 3) increasing innovation.

Play To Win

But he acknowledges that every city should be working on these same priorities. “But, these days too many cities play not to lose, rather than playing to win,” he said. "It's about figuring out what we need to play and then we figure out what we need to do to win.”

Cities need to take a Wayne Gretzky approach to its economic growth. He said when the ice hockey legend was asked the secret to his success, his answer was, “‘Some skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck will be.’ Cities that succeed are skating to where the puck is, and today, that means they are creating an ethos of innovation.”

Like Memphis, Providence faced challenges with the performance of its public schools. “In K-12, schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do – creating an industrial workforce. The only problem: there is no industrial economy, but we’re still educating graduates for jobs that don’t exist any more.”

Innovate Or Die

That’s why the mantra for cities today is “innovate or face precipitous decline.” He said that Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s success in marrying medical devices with logistics is a well-known national model of innovation and a lesson in the importance of a city identifying its unique niche.

“Cities that have innovation-ready workers will succeed,” Mr. Bergstrom said. “The end game is for our workers to develop skills so they can offload rules work to free up pattern recognition skills.”

In advice particularly relevant to Memphis, he said that the frontline workers on which the service economy is built must be the focus of innovation strategies. “After all, they are delivering the experience for our customers,” he said.


Because growth of the national economy is being driven by immigration, he said that “the first city to figure out the ways to turn immigrants into knowledge workers wins the game. Is there any reason this shouldn’t be Memphis?”

Another issue of importance is regionalism, because regional answers are needed for the toughest problems facing urban areas. However, he cautions that regionalism is not the magic cure for all that ails cities.

“The beginning of regionalism is not the end of rivalry,” he said. “Rivalry can be good for a region. Regions gain consciousness from outside in. In other words, Boston will not ‘get’ the region first. Providence will.”


So, if the theme of Mr. Bergstrom’s message is that leaders tell stories and innovation is the key to whether cities succeed, it leaves us with some deafening questions:

Why are our stories so often about personality-driven politics and racial conflict?

Who is best able to tell the kinds of story that can inspire Memphians and promise the best hope of success for Memphis?

Who understands and is prepared to lead a city of innovation as its mayor?


kwhalum said...

Great piece. Here are MY answers to the questions you posit: (1) Because Memphians haven't dealt openly with the fallout of MLK's assassination. (2)Go to and search "a dream realized". There you'll find a pretty good Memphis "story". (3)The teller of the story referred to in point #2. Thank you. DR. KENNETH TWIGG WHALUM, JR.

Zippy the giver said...

Memphis had racial problems long before MLK's assassination and if anyone has a problem with that, it's their personal issue, not a cultural issue with any real basis. No one can change the past.

Memphians, including Memphians of color, vocally oposed and objected to MLK's arrival and presence in Memphis stating that the strike would be solved "Memphis way". THAT is a bit more telling WHY there is still a problem. The cultural egotism here is rampant. You would think Memphis invented something we can't do without but, WE HAVEN"T!
We've been something our state and country would like to do without and we're making progress getting rid of ourself as a city.

"Why are our stories so often about personality-driven politics and racial conflict?"

Because that's what our local "leaders" use as ammo to get elected, they all see it as the easiest way to ensure that a man of color gets into office. They pander to the easy sentiments of the angry, undereducated, underpaid, underemployed, and mostly colored populus. Our "leaders" act as if the color of the skin is more important than the integrity or service and that policy is a sure path to destruction, making each one as bad as the clan and guilty of the same crime.
If you can't route a corrupt official of any color out of office, you should live in fear of politicians of every color, including people who look just like you.

"Who is best able to tell the kinds of story that can inspire Memphians and promise the best hope of success for Memphis?"

Someone who will dig for accurate stats, not fudged stats that only serve to make them selves look good by under-reporting crime stats.
Someone who can read and understand hat accurate stats are a measure of success or failure and reporting and acknowledging their story is THE ONLY WAY to know what effect policies and actions have on the physical world and our city.

Someone that can design a plan of action based on "what is on the ground" and "what is desired" that has a desired outcome, a predicted outcome, and is willing to follow it to the end and acknowledge success and failure as valuable data, not a condemnation of future prospects.

Someone who can design a plan that can reach into the future of the region, nation, and world at large, someone who does not bow to economic or political pressure especially when it is ill informed power as we have here.

"Who understands and is prepared to lead a city of innovation as its mayor?"

Right now, Memphis needs a "clean out" of political power. There are people who are obviously living in the past and it's all powered by the fear that white people will bring back oppression, so, they have veiled every process so that they can not be removed, and in contrast, if by some chance they do lose their seat to someone who doesn't have their best interest in mind, there will be no way to remove that person either.
We must be able to remove people who demonstrate that they do not have the best interest of the people of Memphis, and I mean ALL of the people regardless of color or economic status, at heart from office.
Demonstrations of such abuse would be :
Drunk in office, drunk on duty, illegal behavior in office, financial impropriety, drug charges, felony records, illegal drivers licensing, illegally subverting the vehicle inspection laws, taking bribes, any type of misconduct you can think of is an indicator of low moral behavior and it will seep into every aspect of their life whether concealed or not.
We can't have that anymore.

Who is the candidate that is looking to change all these things as fast as possible so there will be room for the future of Memphis?
He'd be the one the rest are having such a party mocking.
Genius is heresy until it is recognized.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Whalum, I consider myself a young mobile 25 year-old professional. I happen to be African-American. No offense, but I believe your comment is very indicative of the old guard politics in Memphis. The truth is most young professionals in Memphis weren't alive when DR. King died. While we love and respect what he did we would like to follow an innovative leader who talks about economic development and a decrease of poverty especially in the African American community.

Light rail is also something we feel should be pushed to the forefront. How about a getting around our city without the use of a car. When will our entertainment district extend from more than a four block radius of Beale Street?
Will CBU or Lemoyne-Owen ever get help to implement comprehensive expansion plans for their campuses in order to boost enrollment and the college experience. How about recreating neighborhoods and thoroughfares that resemble Harbor Town more so than third, getwell, or summer ave.

Dr. Whalum if you don't begin talking about issues that matter to young professionals then you should step aside.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Whalum the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King actually centered around the strength of business in the African American community. At the time it did not exist and continues to be a crutch today. Equality means that all segments of life are seen as equal socially, economically, and spiritually.

Not to say that black business is the only way to do it. But in Memphis African-Americans make up such a large chunk of the population that they must increase their percentage of middle income and higher income families as well as the number of high school and college graduates. If the aformentioned was ever to take place it would no doubt boost the entire region.

If Memphis is to ever change it will do so with strongest and most educated innovative workforce in the Mid-South and a connected approach with the surrounding region through the use of transportation(Light Rail).

Zippy the giver said...

Well said and as you will surely notice, business is suffering now all over the world. This condition is not an accident.
What we have to do in Memphis is collaborate. People in Memphis who have already been collaborating on projects for the betterment of Memphis regardless of the "racial makeup of the group and especially in multi racial atmospheres, and people all over the world, who are of color collaborating on projects with people of other backgrounds have been and will continue to experience success.

There will be no "black success" as an en-masse movement per se, it will only and can only be accomplished on an individual basis. That is an axiom you can take to the bank. There will be successful people of color as there always has been.
Preserving the color of skin as a basis for success or a qualifier for anything is now a nonstarter.For it to be needed in the future the problem it solves must be created into the future, who wants that crap?
As time goes on, as it has, people will be a light color of brown in the future, no matter what anyone thinks, and it won't affect who is successful. Now if you want to join the clan, they are all for separating the races.
The only way to end racism is to deny it a conversation. MLK's message was to be human, not a color, and humanity can not ever let humanity that is recognized be oppressed regardless of anything, including threat to life.
That is what all this, existence, is all about, humanity.
Recognizing humanity in others and not letting anything or anyone de-humanize anyone for any reason not prescribed in human ultimate-law. When we learn that lesson, we get to move on, if we don't, we stay in our personal hole of self created depravity and, because of the color of our skin, it looks like we do it "as a people". If you live in a black neighborhood, you might notice that "we" aren't "a people" till "we" get "our turn" to get some "get back" for a wrong either done to us or, rumored done to us, by someone we know who looks like us or some nebulous "they" who we assume looks like someone else.

There is only one race on this planet, the human race.
Pettiness clouds this FACT. Money is petty compared to community, a community can generate all the money and other resources it needs if it acts like a community. Successfully creating the experience of community in and with other s IS success, it is the ultimate success you can have on earth, it's what this whole thing called "life" human life, is all about, there's nothing else, nothing.

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