Veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien says she got into the news business because she, much like many members of the International City/County Management Association, wanted to make a difference in the world.
“Maybe this will sound quaint or even silly,” the former anchor for cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC and NBC, told the audience at the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference. “I felt like there was something of value that I could contribute.”
O’Brien and city and county officials outside Dallas, Texas, proved that aspiration to be true when they met at a place that locals called “Shingle Mountain.” Since 2017, 139,000 tons of used shingles had been dumped, creating a six-story tall pile of stinking debris. Neighbors complained about the smell and ailments they attributed to living near the toxic waste pile.
O’Brien produced a segment on the plight of the neighborhood and the battle to clean up the land, which took place in 2021, thanks to the efforts of both residents and city officials. Such leadership is not easy, O’Brien said, but necessary.
“I think the leader that is called for today has to rise to that challenge and doesn’t take the easy bait,” O’Brien said. “The easy bait is just fighting with people. But the hard bait is to recognize mistakes, to understand that there are ways to make them better, that good governance is about bringing people to the table who might not even realize that they need to be sitting at the table to solve those problems.”
What it takes to make a difference
Local government leaders are used to facing challenges, O’Brien said, pointing to economic pressures, infrastructure projects, diversity goals and efforts to heal racial divides. Trust is key for city and county officials to tackle these challenges, she said, along with “innovation, fresh ideas plus strong communities.”
Communities, O’Brien said, “matter more than ever before,” and she challenged ICMA members to “envision what’s next” and come up with strategies that include everyone.
“We’ve come through a crisis with a common purpose,” she said. “Let’s get back to saying, ‘I’m going to love my neighbor and help them. I’m going to keep my community safe for everybody. I’m going to channel new ideas for what the healthy future of a city can look like.’ And we have to do it now.”
Embracing the challenge
O’Brien shared stories from her early career up to her current role as the CEO of a multi-media production company that tells the stories of those who are engaging with their communities in powerful ways to move society forward. That, she told ICMA members, is the difference they can make if they do not shy away from the hard responsibilities of leadership.
“We have to embrace hope and opportunity,” said O’Brien, “and change and create a shared mission in our communities to bring everyone on board — even those people who feel like historically maybe they haven’t been part of it. That’s a big to do list right there. It’s big. But I know that you’re up to it.”
Candace Chellew is the senior editor for SmartBrief Business Services.
Contact her at [email protected]