We can completely rethink how to leverage the power of cities to make vast improvements to health care, crisis response and our long, winding economic recovery. Allow me to explain.
City mayors and council members actually have the power to increase or decrease the quality of your life in significant ways. They could, if they were so inclined, be at the forefront of ensuring that the ten services for surviving and thriving are available to everyone in your community. If you are lucky, you have a thoughtful mayor who can clearly explain how the city is addressing the pandemic in chaotic times, but most cities just get deafening silence.
As we move toward two months of physical distancing, I can see the signs of people starting to go a little crazy. Some act out and defy public health protocols. Many more are retreating into ennui, that truly dismal feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction. What keeps me focused and engaged are my ongoing calls, emails and video conferences with our elected leader and stakeholders. While so many folks are shutting down and retreating into Netflix binge watching, I find myself ramping up and asking: “What’s the plan forward and how do we ensure all city residents are truly in this recovery process together?”
I am cautiously optimistic that with the right amount of educating, mobilizing and technology-enhancement, city government can be transformed into an engine for reinvention and community resilience. We must look to, and collaborate with, our local elected leaders as we lurch toward economic health. We require a new, bold collective vision, goals and measurable activities. We need THE PLAN FORWARD.
I recommend that you put considerable energy into connecting with your local leaders. Our biggest challenge might be getting city hall to see itself as the local power that makes sure all city residents of all income levels have access to the services that matter most. We need one centralized entity that can oversee the quality and accessibility of vital sectors that include medical care, behavioral health care, stable housing and job training to help all of us transition into the post-pandemic/economic free fall world. City hall is positioned perfectly for that role.
City leaders agree with the hypothesis that if city residents have access to vital services like health care, food, transportation and state-of-the-art education that aligns with the future job market, they have a chance at a successful future. It’s just that up to now, city governments in the US weren’t designed to ensure the availability of such services. As a waiter used to say in an overcrowded bistro with hungry people waiting, “That’s not my table.”
Ten Areas To Innovate
I am reminded of the film The Martian and the line by the stranded astronaut, “I’m going to have to science the sh-t out of this.”
So it is with city hall and problem-solving. We need a level of innovation never seen before. Let’s look at the ten services at the core of empowering families and all city residents to see what role city government has or could have in their capacity to serve all residents, while working with their partners in county government, the schools and higher education.
Behavioral health care: Today, that’s handled mostly by the private sector with some funding for local agencies by the city, county, state and foundations. Tomorrow, cities could take an active role in meeting these needs through the funding of community-based and school-based behavioral health care centers. Add in tele-health models and we have a citywide system of mental health care.
Medical and dental care: Today, just as with behavioral health, this is addressed by a private sector solution that only people with health insurance or Medicaid can access. Cities might help fund a clinic with a sliding fee scale, but it’s not their job to ensure access to medical care. Tomorrow, city leaders could assess the need, identify gaps in medical and dental care, and push for innovation and partnership to ensure care for all residents. And like mental health care, tele-health models will revolutionize care.
Housing: Today, cities can and do get involved with zoning, building permits and inspections, but they don’t ensure every child and parent has a safe place to live. Housing comes from developers and the private sector. Tomorrow, housing could be guided with care by city leaders, pushing for green homes built locally to serve varied populations: young folks wanting tiny homes, vets with PTSD needing housing with special support, low-income families, people fleeing domestic violence and those with chronic mental health challenges needing subsidized housing so they don’t end up homeless. City counselors can work on statutes and laws that make creating additional dwelling units easier to build and rent — radically increasing local housing options.
Transportation: Today, the city will take responsibility for a bus line, if a line exists. Tomorrow, city leaders could choose to assess the need for public transport and seek out alternatives that will work in both urban and rural settings. Subsidized vans akin to Uber cars might be the answer. Or, perhaps cities convene transport experts to identify best practices from what’s working really well elsewhere on planet earth.
Family-centered community schools: Today city leaders and school district superintendents do a little political dance, understanding that they represent two distinct groups that must work together in order for residents to learn and get good paying jobs. This means important conversations about how today’s education aligns with the rapidly changing job market.
Early childhood learning programs: Usually a patchwork of funders, from nonprofits and foundations to state agencies, make such programming available to some but not all who need it. Tomorrow, city leaders can make creating a seamless system a reality by leveraging their power and relationships.
Parent supports: Also usually funded by assorted players, programs like home visitation are typically offered scattershot throughout the city and county. Tomorrow, city leaders can be main players in a strategic plan to ensure all city residents have the parent supports they say they need, as established by a yearly survey of families administered by the city.
Youth mentors: Today city government might award small grants to a group like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Tomorrow, city leaders can support a seamless system of mentorship that’s easy for parents to access, with models that are both face-to- face and online (offering mentors with expertise in both “hanging out” and job readiness).
Job training and placement: Today city leaders look to higher education and assorted vocational education programs to meet the needs of residents as they train for jobs. Tomorrow, city leaders can prioritize supporting education that leads to the jobs of the near-future — those that pay well, include benefits and promotion prospects. If there was ever a priority for city hall then post-pandemic job readiness is it.
As you can see, city leaders can be actively involved in assessing the status of vital services, identifying gaps and using their clout to leverage improvements. Note that this is not necessarily an ask for bigger budgets. All of this might be able to be done within existing city budgets. But, it does ask mayors and city council members to radically rethink what a city does to protect and empower 100% of its residents.
Elected leaders are just like you except…
I have met (and by “met” it might be a long collaboration or a handshake and a one-minute exchange) with many elected leaders, from school board members to city council members, mayors, county commissioners, state lawmakers, congress people and Lt. Governors. If you didn’t know their titles (and that they control the funding that can make or break groundbreaking projects), you might perceive them as your basic nice businessperson with a spouse, kids, mortgage and hopes for keeping the public healthy and safe in times both calm and chaotic.
These folks are civil servants and doing important work. They did not sign up for global pandemic/economic disruption recovery. Regardless of which side of the aisle they may sit, they have chosen the public sector to focus their energies in the hopes of helping. How they wish to help is for you to discover. Amid unprecedented change, I believe that the slogan “we’re all in this together” is one most elected officials at City Hall are embracing these days.
The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.
Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Any questions? The mission awaits: www.tenvitalservices.org