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Can Mayor Wharton teach a city to listen?

When most of us think of this city, either we emphasize the vibrant Memphis or the violent one.
 
 Linda S.
Wallace

Luxury homes and apartments dot the landscape of downtown Memphis, where the nightlife is lively, the blues are hot, and restaurants sizzle. Not far away, the jobless live in pockets of poverty, under siege by the bad guys in neighborhoods where homes sit empty, showing signs of neglect and age.

When most of us think of this city, either we emphasize the vibrant Memphis or the violent one. We either think of a town that’s bringing in new companies and jobs, or we think of the one where predatory bank practices and loan servicing have devastated neighborhoods and cost working-class jobs. We either focus on the well-heeled students at private school or the students working jobs to pay for community college.

Until we reach a point where key stakeholders care about “those other peoples’ issues,” we are destined to remain a landmark of yesterday rather than a pillar of tomorrow.

Certainly, it is easy to understand Mayor AC Wharton’s frustration on election night when he lashed out at unions and the poor and working-class voters who did not support him. His beef: He says the second-highest vote-getter, former City Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., was not qualified to do his job.

Ford captured 28 percent of the vote and Wharton attributes that largely to Ford’s name recognition. But that analysis fails to consider that only 17 percent of the city’s registered voters cast a ballot. Though Wharton won 65 percent of the vote, more than 360,000 registered voters actually decided not to support him at the polls. What were their reasons? Has anyone dared to ask?

No doubt, Mayor Wharton has worked tirelessly to integrate these dueling visions, and create a unified Memphis. Juggling contradictory needs can be a difficult, thankless task for even the seasoned leader.

Our city can’t move forward until all sides agree to create a culture that is capable of learning from criticism and tolerating ambiguity. Memphis is a city on the rise, and a city on the decline. It is a city making progress, and a city losing ground. Who you are, and what you have, largely determines your view.

The spotlight on his election-night discontent gives the Mayor an unprecedented opportunity to lobby for this bolder, braver culture where leaders suspend judgment while listening, reflect on criticism, analyze and correct their own behaviors (self-purification as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it) and create a culture where the goal of governance is to learn rather than to control.

Imagine if Mayor Wharton were to announce this week that he plans to venture into impoverished areas and listen to people who did not vote for him. “How might I assist you in creating the neighborhoods that allow you and your children to flourish and help grow our economy?” he might ask. How powerful that would be!

Imagine if he were to walk across the street from City Hall to listen to complaints of Occupy Memphis members. He might ask them to consider, “What is it you and I will do together to design a model city that will be heralded as fair, just and democratic?”

Progress occurs when leaders create within a community the capacity for new thoughts and bold actions. Mayor Wharton, by his example, can help us move into the light. Afterall, it was Dr. King who reminded us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Linda S. Wallace is a multicultural communications expert (www.theculturalcoach.com) who specializes in building community and workforce capacity. Her company has worked with a range of clientele, including the U.S. Navy, museums, nonprofits and healthcare and educational institutions. Contact her at theculturalcoach.com.)

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