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Mayors and the Need to Develop Community Esprit de Corps

It’s important to provide efficient services and develop sustainable-wage economies, but it’s crucial to bring residents together in a common bond.

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson at City Hall in 1974. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
On Dec. 14, President Biden and other White House officials met with a bipartisan group of 14 newly elected and re-elected mayors to discuss implementation of the American Rescue Plan and the new federal infrastructure law. Cities will be major beneficiaries of these policies, and many mayors are excited about the promise of these plans to create sustainable-wage jobs.

According to the 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors, additional issues local government executives are concerned about include the lingering effects of COVID-19, particularly on student learning; public safety; affordable housing; and homelessness. Addressing all of these issues is important, of course, but cities must do more if they are to become or remain vibrant and special. They need to develop among residents a sense of esprit de corps. Residents need to feel that their government hears them and wants them involved in helping to solve problems that affect them.

The first time I really felt that way was when I moved to Atlanta in 1973. The legendary Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor and the first African American mayor of a major city in the Deep South, was brought to power that year by the strength of Black and white liberal votes. I was in college at the time and felt a sense of personal exuberance and pride in Jackson’s election. I remember being impressed most by Jackson’s welcoming personality; this said to me that he welcomed me, personally, and that my contributions were desired and needed.

At the time I chose to contribute to the development of the literary and performing arts scene and co-founded a “Last Poets”-style poetry performing troupe called the Revolutionary Arts Ensemble. This group was supported by the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, which was one of the first city departments of its kind in the nation, and the Neighborhood Arts Center, a community-based cultural arts center located in an underserved community.

Back in the 1970s, I could not have imagined that one day I would be a city councilman with fiscal oversight of the city’s cultural affairs program. I had gotten involved with my adopted city because of a dynamic 35-year-old mayor who offered openness and public engagement. Out of his governing approach, for example, he created Neighborhood Planning Units for structured community engagement. This provided us with a sense of esprit de corps.

Local officials today, preoccupied with budget shortfalls, how to protect their residents from COVID-19, and how to stem the scourge of violence, often forget what makes their city special in the first place: It is almost always how citizens feel about their cities. This hard-to-define emotion comes from the sense of community esprit de corps created by leaders.

I have worked closely with many local public executives who become bogged down almost immediately with the nuts and bolts of city operations. There is no shortage of government bureaucrats to worry about the garbage being picked up on time and water bills being accurate. Those are certainly important, but cities and towns need mayors with big visions and long views. Mayors must nurture among their residents a feeling of pride, fellowship and common loyalty. This will go a long way toward keeping a city unified during hard times like what we’ve been through combating the coronavirus, what we face when calamities occur like the recent tornadoes that leveled parts of Kentucky, and how we pull together to combat a crime wave like the one we are experiencing now. The unity and togetherness of a city during good and bad times provide an elasticity that allows communities to bounce back from hard times and tragedy.
Maynard Jackson, Jabari Simama and Michael Lomax
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Jabari Simama and Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax in 1989. Lomax had served earlier as the first director of the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs. (photo courtesy Jabari Simama)
Mayors are not just public officials; they are symbols and representatives of what their cities are and can be. Public officials have choices regarding how to relate to residents. They can be cold or warm, closed or open, inspiring or discouraging. Thank God Maynard Jackson, who was elected five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., was not angry or vindictive. While he kept in place many of the top city officials his white predecessors had hired, he also thoughtfully and strategically brought in Black city administrators. In the end, this resulted in the Jackson administration training more Black public officials than anyone else had, many of whom went on to serve other local governments across the nation.

Those 14 mayors and mayors-elect who met with the president were just a portion of those who won their offices this year, and I am sure that in due time more of them will be invited to the White House. I know also that many of them are busy and in transition, bringing in new talent to fix problems that have lingered for decades. Mayors and other local government officials should keep chipping away at these problems with the understanding that this is a part of governing, but not the essence of it. Fixing routine problems should not be the sole reason for public officials to enter the arena. It should be for them to use the power embedded in their positions to raise among their residents a sense of esprit de corps.

The “spirit of the body” can bring communities together in a common bond to face all things, and face them together. And while this attitude must percolate throughout city hall, the salient call to action must be issued in person by none other than the mayor. I am glad I accepted my call to be part of this 48 years ago.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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