Next month, for the 11th consecutive year, civic life will start at 6:45 a.m. in Inglenook Park. That’s when Mayor Brenda Lawrence begins walking with constituents, something she started to do three days a week every June and July shortly after her election in 2001. She says she wanted to find a place where she could be “accessible and available, lead by example and get some exercise at the only time of day that wasn’t already booked.”
The mayor’s walk, which now includes free health screenings and even massages, has been recognized nationally for its contribution to healthy living. Over the years, Lawrence has also noticed a change in the civic health of her city. “It’s about taking the time to talk about life and family,” she says.
During these strolls, Southfield’s citizens engage the mayor on a range of issues, from losing weight to getting the grass cut on city property to struggling with foreclosures. Other city officials, including the fire chief, police chief, planners and city councilors, have also joined the walks to listen and help solve problems.
It would be easy to overstate the significance of a walk in the park on the relationships between citizens and their government. But it also would be wrong to dismiss it as a well intentioned, feel-good effort that really doesn’t change anything.
Carolyn Lukensmeyer is founder and president of AmericaSpeaks, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on the process of getting citizens back into public policy decisions through large-scale town hall meetings and other forms of citizen engagement. Lukensmeyer’s approach has been used by leaders in communities as diverse as Brea, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Minneapolis; and Washington, D.C.
The scale between a mayor’s walk and an AmericaSpeaks-style town hall is radically different, but both pursue the same democratic goals. Lukensmeyer says that when people see “real public engagement, [they see] themselves acting as they are naturally predisposed to act: civil and respectful, with a willingness to hear each other’s differences.”
This, despite the fact that we are living in times defined by extreme political views, polarized institutions and a dysfunctional political party process, all of which are hyped by the media, says Lukensmeyer. The result is to “reinforce the negative down-spiraling of this uncivil political discourse and hyper-partisanship,” she says.
Lukensmeyer insists that the images on TV of Americans screaming at one another are simply not true, but are choreographed by special interests. “If we keep feeding people this story about ourselves, eventually people will in fact withdraw more if they don’t want to behave that way.”
Lukensmeyer says that she believes Americans know better and, when left to their own devices, will do better. “When you bring people together across the [political, social and economic] divides in a safe democratic environment, they do not yell at each other, they are not uncivil -- they actually solve problems.”
Back in Southfield, this will be Lawrence’s last year walking in the park as the mayor. That is not to say she has given up. The mayor hopes to be back in Inglenook Park this time next year for her inaugural congresswoman’s walk. Redistricting gave her the opening to run for Congress; the national mood gave her the motivation. “We need to learn to work together again rather than fight with each other.”