Passing the Torch – How to Hand off Responsibility to Younger Civic Leaders
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
As painful as this election cycle has been, we have to look around and consider the alternative. We live in a remarkable country where we can “throw the "rascals" out” every few years – the majority of the world does not have that freedom. A key question, however, is who you replace them with. And, with increasing frequency, the answer is people "of a certain age". Missing in this process are the young. If you analyze the demographics of all elected officials at the city, county, state legislature, governors, and congressional level in the United States only 5%, or one in twenty, is younger than 35 years old. This age disparity has significant implications because down the road it is these younger involved citizens that go on to make up the core of our national leadership. More than half of the members of Congress, governors and presidents of the United States were first elected to office when they were between 18-35. In electoral politics, we are not on that mentoring path.
The National Association of Counties conducted one such study which focused on at the county level. Elected officials were asked if our current system encourages the best people to run for offices, discourages them, or makes no difference. The majority (66 percent) said that the current system discourages the best. Only 9 percent overall said our system encourages our best leaders to run for office. Fortunately, some good role models exist we can imitate to bring about change.
Let us look to Texas, where the Mayor of the City of Fort Worth decided she wanted to take steps to grow what she called “The next generation of leaders. She sent a message out through all sorts of churches, civic organizations and the schools, asking them to get the word out that she was looking for future civic leaders to work with who are currently between the ages of 21 and 40. The only real requirement was interest and concern for the larger society. Over a few months, roughly 300 names were gathered. Leadership Fort Worth facilitated a process where a list of the features of an attractive community were posted on social media so the young professionals could discuss them, vote on them, and otherwise refine the dimensions needed to create an attractive place to live. Using social media, The Young professionals narrowed the list to four - public transit, employment opportunities, urban development, and education. After the online rank ordering and discussion period, everyone was invited to a daylong event called “The Big Brainstorm”, where the members of the group had an opportunity to meet, and develop specific focus areas with high leverage potential within each of the big four topic areas.
At the conclusion of “Big Brainstorm” event, the members were asked to select one of the four focus areas. Of the original 300 identified potential future leaders, 120 agreed to serve on 8 month task forces to impact the problem that captured their attention. The other 180 agreed to be a resource and help when asked. The Task Force process was managed by Leadership Fort Worth in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office to assure that all four groups reached actionable conclusions to report to the community in September. The reports were dynamic and impactful including a pilot program on more nutritional school lunches, the securing of grant and local funding for a bike share program, an online employment resource site, and a partnership with Better Block to assist local urban villages.
One year later, about half of the original 120 are still active in the task forces, and a lot of the rest drop-in to help when called on. While the task forces worked, the Mayor’s office hosted monthly “brown bag lunches” where top level civic leaders like school superintendents, law enforcement officials, and transportation system administrators engaged in frank discussion and were available for open question and answer sessions. A series of “happy hours with a purpose” continues to be held around town, where the young leaders could meet and get acquainted with their senior counterparts. They bowled with city council; got a behind the scenes look at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, and became much more familiar with the city that needs them to lead it into the future. We do not have to act like the future is a bus coming toward us as we stand still. We can take the driver’s seat, and steer toward the world we want to see. You can help by thinking of young potential future leaders, and introducing them to the process of governance and civic responsibility. Will you?