Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
As we find ourselves remembering the acts of heroism and self-sacrifice by our fellow Americans on the 17th anniversary of 9/11, I must admit it is increasingly disappointing to me to see how divided our nation appears to be politically. As tragic as the events of that day were, they ultimately served as an example of the strength of our nation’s resolve and bound us all together through a shared compassion for our fellow citizens whose lives would never be the same after that day. Although it came about through tragedy, in the weeks and months following these heinous acts there seemed to be a sense that we were all Americans first as opposed to being a nation defined by our political affiliations. Unfortunately, today it seems as though political campaigns are built around demeaning, dehumanizing and demonizing the opponent due in large par to their party affiliation. However, in spite of the uninspiring, vitriolic and hyper-partisan nature of today’s political landscape, I believe that beneath the surface our nation is not as divided as some may think.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak to a local Sunday school about my perspective on our community and how the church, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal, could make a greater impact through their outreach efforts. In setting the tone for the morning, I shared with those gathered that to some our community seemed to be divided based on local politics but that I saw a different picture. I went on to point out in my morning workouts at the Family Y I had long ago noted that my fellow members comprise a true cross section of our community based upon a diversity of ages, ethnicities, faiths, socio-economic status and genders. I then made the point that it reminded me of a family in that if you were absent for any length of time, people actually missed you and inquired where you had been upon your return. Using this as an example, I shared with those gathered that the people I see at the Y each morning represent what Augusta looks like to me which seems to be more united and less divided.
In further painting a picture of the beautifully diverse tapestry of our community, I then referenced our Annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival. Last year the event drew over 88,000 people to downtown Augusta to celebrate food, arts, diversity and culture. With over 20 countries represented, the festival has become a “not to miss event” for locals and visitors alike, taking place without incident for 37 years now. I made the point that any community that hosts an event of this magnitude each and every year would not appear to me to be a divided community, but rather a community where diversity is not only recognized, but celebrated. Once again, I shared that Arts in the Heart represents for me the face of Augusta.
Finally, to underscore the strength of our community, I told the story of what I saw in 2014 during our historic local ice storm. In all my years as mayor, I felt as though this was Augusta’s finest hour as local governments and local citizens worked together seamlessly to help those individuals and families whose lives had been impacted by the catastrophic storm. I went on to share with those gathered that the message to come together as a community to help our friends and neighbors during their hour of need didn’t need to be spoken as our local citizens simply knew it was the right thing to do. Once again, what I saw was a community united as opposed to a community divided.
I closed by pointing out that Augusta is by no means a perfect community and that there are issues to be resolved, chief among them our high poverty rate and a need for continuing to improve the educational outcomes of our local youth. I suggested that their church, St. Augustine, as home to many retired educators, would be a welcomed mentoring and tutoring partner in a local school. I also shared my perspective that there can be no “community” without “unity” and that unity in any community has to come from the grassroots up by efforts like theirs as opposed to from the top down.
Seventeen years after 9/11, I still believe in the strength of our nation and the yearning of most of America’s citizens to find causes to rally around as opposed to perpetually being led to focus on issues which divide us. I also firmly believe that local governments can, and should, play a major role in moving our nation beyond the hyper-partisan political quagmire we now find ourselves in by setting the example of what true commitment to putting public service above party politics can look like. I’ve often reminded people that at the local level there is no “us” and “them” as at the end of the day there’s only “us”.
As our communities rise or fall, we rise or fall together.