Local leaders have presided over a remarkable period of disruption and uncertainty, navigating their communities through a devastating pandemic that has touched every person in some way.
Decades from now, when historians document the major lessons learned, I believe that local governments and municipal officials in their hometowns will be recognized as true difference-makers who responded with extraordinary speed and innovation to save countless lives, preserve local economies and keep hope and faith alive, during the most difficult of times.
We are only beginning to understand the long-term impact that the past 20 months will have on the U.S. and the world going forward. The wounds and scars of COVID-19 will be visible for many years and will shape the way we grow and lead. For some, the tragic loss of family members, friends or loved ones will be acutely painful forever. For others, the isolation and separation required for our physical health has led to mental health struggles. Many have been forced to shutter their businesses, transition to different vocations, and face the prospect of lower incomes and fewer opportunities.
Systemic problems that persisted before the pandemic have been exacerbated. The wealth gap has increased, and the health gap has widened as well. Historically disadvantaged populations, primarily people of color who have been on the short end of the wealth and health spectrum, were hit much harder by COVID and we now find that there is much more ground to make up in the pursuit of a more equitable society.
The pandemic has caused so much pain, and yet we’ve seen so much resilience, and so much adaptation. Science has given us vaccines and testing. Technology has given us virtual connections. Government leaders have used these tools to create a new normal, with most of society finding more stable ground to stand on. Businesses are now reformatted and open, schools are back in person and the Braves just won the World Series. City halls, local boards and public agencies are back to in-person engagement, following new protocols. People are finding their rhythm and moving forward.
Yet the beat is still off, for sure. Supply chains are still disrupted, inflation is rising and partisan and polarized politics have not eased. These are the more visible signs that things are still askew. Less tangible, but more insidious, is the growing sign that the uncertainty, angst and isolation of the past 20 months has emboldened a small but growing number of individuals to become more disruptive and confrontational, and less civil and tolerant in their interactions with public officials, businesses, co-workers, neighbors and strangers. Local officials, mayors and city councils, and school officials all know of colleagues who have been yelled at, interrupted and insulted—all because they were simply trying to make their best decisions on very difficult and charged issues. Some believe that because the pandemic has reduced face-to-face personal interaction, people are out of practice in handling difficult situations or conversations. While those with less authority are more likely to act out, this makes it critically important for those in authority to model respectful behavior, as the failure to do so allows the behavior to spread and deepens a vicious circle that becomes harder and harder to unwind.
As city leaders, we should advocate for organizational policies setting expectations for respectful interaction and civil engagement. The first step is for local leaders to model civility in all their interactions, to do their best to not respond in-kind to personal insults, to voice support for colleagues who have been the targets of rude or disruptive behavior, to actively listen to each other and to constituents during deliberations to understand everyone’s perspective.
Civility does not mean unity. There will always be policy disagreements. But that is the democratic process. If local conversations can be framed with the understanding that everyone is trying to be their best selves and do what they believe is best for their community, then perhaps that will create an environment for civility.
Rising incivility is one of the many side effects of the pandemic. Unabated, it will spread like a virus, and make it more challenging and less rewarding for local leaders to make their cities true communities in the best sense of the word. We have too many good people leaving public service because they are tired and exhausted, not from the challenges, but from the abuse.
The good news is that you and your municipal colleagues are in the perfect position to shape local norms, to model best expectations, and to guide your neighbors in how to engage with respect and understanding. That work—fighting incivility and building inclusive communities—will make an outsized difference in the post-pandemic world.
Let’s stay strong, stay positive and stay civil in all we do and say. City officials embody leadership, and I am grateful for making a difference each and every day.
This article was originally featured in the November/December 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.
Edited and revised with permission from Geoff Beckwith, Massachusetts Municipal League Executive Director & CEO