Alison Zajdel on transition, politics and sustainability

Alison Zajdel, Executive Director of the Cope Environmental Center, recently announced that she would be stepping down from her role there to pursue new opportunities. Alison is someone I consider to be an incredible model of leadership, hard work and creativity when it comes to community-building and organizational development, and while I’m sad that Cope is losing her talents as ED, I’m excited to see what she does next. I talked with Alison about this change, what it means for her, and what stands out to her as some of Richmond’s strengths and challenges. (Full disclosure: I’m a financial supporter of the Cope Environmental Center.)

Chris Hardie: Can you give some context on the transition you’re going through right now with stepping down at Cope?

Alison Zajdel: This is my sixteenth year at Cope. I started off as Resource Coordinator working with membership, then moved into the Development Director role, working with fundraising and marketing. Then I moved into the Executive Director role, coming up on five years now.

I’ve been here for a long time, and it has been a wonderful ride. There’s just a ton of stuff that we’ve gotten done, and it’s certainly had highs and lows as every organization goes through. Everything that we’ve done has come to a nice transition point with getting through the campaign and finishing the new building – we’re ready to dedicate it in a month now. It felt like a really good time to pass the torch to somebody else for a different style of leadership, and that will be needed with the new opportunities that the Center has. I keep saying I was meant to be a “chaos director,” and that’s what I am, that’s what I did. I was Director during a chaotic time. I was trying to figure out how to navigate the Living Building Challenge, campaigns and Bicentennial projects all while managing the Center. I think it’s ready for somebody that can steer the ship straight and keep moving toward our mission.

I’m excited to turn over the reins. It’s going to be very sad and it’s certainly bittersweet. I’ve just grown to be completely head over heels in love with this place. It’ll be a difficult move, but I think the Center is ready and I’m ready.

CH: Sixteen years is a really long time. What stands out to you as something that’s been the most rewarding part of your work at Cope?

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In recent years we’ve put a lot of energy into changing how people who live in Richmond talk about our city.

If you look at projects like Positively Richmond, A Bright Side, Stellar Communities and the social media feeds of many community leaders, you’ll see it. Great profiles of impressive and exciting things happening here. Recognition of individual achievements. And celebrations of what the area has to offer.

I think that has in turn prompted others to share stories of the positive things they encounter about life in Richmond. More people seem to claim their identity as a proud Richmond resident, at least more than might have just a few years ago. (My essay “Why did I stay in Richmond?” has been one of the most liked and responded to on this site.)

These efforts came about a number of different ways. In general it seems we came to understand that some people here had a consistently negative perception about the condition of their city.  And we realized that if the only story being publicly told about Richmond was a negative one, our economic and tourism development efforts could be seriously undermined.

Combatting uninformed negativity is important.  A little improvement in self-image can go a long way toward making visitors feel welcome, and maybe even like spending more money. We are making progress, and we should thank the many people who have helped turn this community conversation around.

We also have to be careful with positivity. A negative self-image isn’t something that can only be addressed through a louder, more polished promotion of a positive alternative narrative. A narrow-minded focus on positivity could drown out the need to address real, complicated problems with solutions that require time, money and hard work. Too much positive thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, or drain us of the energy we need to reach our goals.

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Legislating neighborliness

The recent headlines about a proposed change to Richmond’s barking dog ordinance highlights a lesson that I think many communities still have to learn: if you’ve come to the point of legislating neighborliness, you’ve already lost.

The moment after we codify specific quiet hours and acceptable barking durations into law, someone will point out a scenario or an exception where the law doesn’t make sense. What about someone who works third shift and is sleeping during the day? What about parents desperately trying to get a young child to sleep for a mid-day nap? What about…

It’s probably important to have some kind of ordinance on the books that empowers the City to handle the most egregious offenders. But I would hope that before turning to the legalistic imperatives of a law in order to get someone living near us to reduce the noise their dog (or lawnmower, or leaf blower, or party guests) is making, we would start a little more simply: with a direct conversation.

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State of the City

I had the honor of being in the studio audience tonight as Mayor Dave Snow gave his State of the City address. The speech was broadcast live and you can also watch the full video replay from Whitewater Community Television on WGTV.

A few things stood out to me:

First, it was unexpectedly refreshing to hear a political office holder speak with such clarity, maturity and specificity about the successes and challenges facing a community. Maybe I’ve been listening to too many state and national politicians talk lately, but I continue to appreciate Mayor Snow’s style of communication as one that celebrates the good, acknowledges the things that are hard, and encourages action from everyone involved, all without the fluff or hyperbole that has become too common in political speech.

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Marketing in Richmond

It seems all too common for local businesses and organizations in Richmond to confuse marketing and advertising. I wonder if that confusion is affecting our ability to effectively market this community as a whole. Here’s why.

Advertising is mostly about the mechanics of getting the word out. Advertising is buying space on a billboard, taking out an ad in the paper, airing a spot on the radio, or posting about sales and promotions on social media.

Marketing is more about crafting the message that you’re sending (though advertising and other means) about what you do and why it matters. Marketing is telling a compelling story that people can see themselves as a part of.

Some Richmond organizations and business owners seem unwilling or unable to truly invest in promoting their offerings. They may not think they have the budget, they may not see the value, or they may just assume that word of mouth will send clients/customers charging in. At best they have a hard-to-read sign, an outdated brochure or a broken website. Even for the ones that do invest, they sometimes don’t seem to understand that good marketing is about more than just advertising.

Very much related, there’s a dearth of professional marketing experts and services available in Richmond. If you search for marketing firms here, you’ll mostly find folks who do it as a side business to some other primary offering (usually related to technology or advertising). So even a business owner or not-for-profit director who is thoroughly committed to investing in their marketing might have a hard time creating or following through on a marketing plan without turning to experts in Indianapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati or beyond, and at a price that might feel out of reach. Most probably don’t bother, and instead rely on college interns, retired journalists or their IT staff.

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How to run for local elected office in Richmond

It’s a time of increased political engagement for many, and some people are realizing that if they are concerned about the direction their government is heading, one option is to run for office themselves.

I’ve only done it once as a candidate and I didn’t win the office I was seeking, but I still learned a lot about what it takes to run for local elected office in Richmond, Indiana. So, I’m sharing some of that knowledge in hopes that it will help people who want to make a difference in our community in this particular way.

1. Learn about local government, pick an office to run for

Some people assume that the only local elected office that could really make a difference is that of the Mayor, but it’s not that simple. The interactions between the Mayor’s office (executive branch), the Richmond Common Council (legislative branch), various boards and commissions, and the many other departments and divisions of city government are complicated. There are also significant interdependencies between local government, Wayne County government, and even state-level government. Understanding how all of these work is an important first step in deciding to run for office. You might even find that there are unelected positions (as a volunteer or employee) you could take on to tackle the issues that are important to you.

So, read through state and local codes that dictate the power and responsibilities of these entities. Visit the offices in person. Talk to the people who currently work there and ask them what they do every day. Watch the many hours of government-related programming from WCTV. Read through past media coverage. Attend government meetings yourself.

Once you pick the office you want to run for, study it carefully. Research who has held the position in the past, what kind of work they’ve done, where the biggest opportunities and constraints seem to be, and what current issues are facing that position in today’s political and economic environment.

You should also study the calendar and major milestones of local election cycles. The Indiana Secretary of State usually makes available detailed packets of information for candidates and campaign committees with all of the filing deadlines, reporting deadlines and election dates – here’s the 2016 Candidate Guide. The Wayne County Clerk also typically has helpful information for candidates online, and you should visit their office in person to get familiar with their friendly staff and the forms you’ll need to file.

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Tech skills for elected officials

Should basic competence with technology be essential for serving in local elected office?

I think so.

Historically not a lot of the workflow of local roles like City Council member, County Commissioner, or even Mayor have required much familiarity with technology. If you could receive and read through packets of paper, answer the phone and listen to voicemail, speak reasonably coherently in meetings, and perhaps operate a motor vehicle, you had everything you needed to serve the public interest without worrying too much about computers, the Internet, phone systems or other tech tools.

Today, I don’t think an elected official can claim to be truly in touch with the needs and opportunities in their constituent community if they’re not proficient with more modern tools like email, the web, cloud-based document sharing and collaboration, and social media.

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