Getting a response from local leaders

Sometimes our community leaders don’t do what we want them to.

When we’re frustrated about this, it’s easy to generalize and say, “people in power don’t listen, they just do what they want.

It might even be tempting to think this is always true based on our worst imaginings about people who hold office, lead departments/organizations, or who otherwise have influence over the world around us. We see powerful and corrupted villains all the time in movies and on TV, and indeed there are some prominent people around the world right now who seem to be living out incredibly harmful versions of leadership and holding power.

But leaders with truly villainous intentions are probably pretty rare in Richmond and Wayne County, Indiana.

I suspect most people who have sought or been placed into positions of power — especially at the local level — are not sitting around thinking about how many people they can oppress or rubbing their palms together while laughing maniacally about their latest evil plan. They are probably not looking for the darkest, smokiest, most back of back rooms in which to devise new ways to make your life miserable.

They might have the wrong priorities, bring the wrong qualifications, or just be ignorant, but they are probably not malicious in their intent. And for better or worse, they are in a position of influence or power that affects you.

So what do YOU do when they’re not doing what you want?

If you disagree with local leaders, or have questions and concerns that you want them to address, it’s important to follow through on that and actually work to engage them directly on the issues you care about. If you assume they don’t care, or that others have tried and failed to get them to take action, and if everyone else assumes the same, then nothing will ever change for the better.

If they truly are abusing their power or not listening to the people they represent, it’s important to get that on the record sooner rather than later.

Not sure where to start? Here’s one path of “escalation” for getting a response from local leaders:

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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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Leadership transitions

It’s a time of transition for leadership in Richmond. By this time next year, we’ll likely have a new Mayor, a different City Council, a new Superintendent of Schools, and a new General Manager at RP&L.

Of course leadership happens in lots of different forms and not all of them are as high profile as these. There are many people quietly leading in Richmond every day. But the people chosen to fill these roles will exercise some substantial influence over the future of the community.

Such transitions often offer a chance to do things differently. Sometimes we’re too hard on public figures for taking chances or trying new things “just because.”

But something about having new faces and different personalities in positions of leadership gives us all an excuse to say “I hope they do something bold” and maybe not be as worried about the implications. Sometimes it even buries old conflicts, removes old barriers, or shifts old ways of thinking…and great things happen.

Let’s hope the newness that comes with these leadership transitions leads to something bold and great for this place.