A few weeks ago I sat in a local coffee shop (please support local and small businesses, folks) and had a conversation with whom most of the community would call a “prominent leader.” It was a meeting that I was fortunate to secure through a referral of a friend who rightfully believed the synergies of myself and this leader would bloom into a meaningful relationship. I expressed to her my ideas and concerns about the “state of Omaha” and her response was anchored with a big smile as she told me that Omaha is better left alone, that the status quo is inevitable, and that there’s too much red tape to hurdle.
I can’t and won’t accept that mentality and I reject every claim that there is nothing we can do. The Irish economist Michael Higgins said:
The acceptance of inevitability in our lives is consistent of course with the suggestion that there is but one vision of the economy, an end of history, the death of ethics, and an appropriate individualism that eschews solidarity and any transcendent public values.
In order to refute the lazy claim that we must sit still under the familiar arms of the status quo, we must ask ourselves and act on the question:
What kind of city do you want Omaha to be?
In so far as I can see, Omaha is lacking leadership. Of course, the city has “leaders,” but it’s limited to leadership defined only by one’s ability to navigate their way to and remain at the top. This sense of leadership is devoid of any substance. True leadership, which I opine Omaha lacks, serves the values of its community and embraces a vision built on values. This status quo is fostered by a system of puppets built and manipulated behind the scenes or elsewhere.
My obligation and hope for this essay are to provide Omaha with a clear and concise call to action. To serve as a point of departure for civil engagement to put the neighbor back in the hood. The foundation and meeting place for folks from each corner of the city, young and old alike, to come together as One Omaha to find empathy for one another’s situations and to think deeply about the direction this great city is heading. From the onset, I didn’t believe this essay to be the best place to point to specific people, organizations, and decisions. I let the idea rest for 48 hours and returned to the essay of the mindset it was not the time nor place.
This city is much too diverse and positioned far too well for future success for a single economic vision dictated by a predictable voice. In our present day lives, our minds, and ultimately our leadership, are governed by busyness and consumerism. We must ask and ask questions that burden our consciences and find solutions that relieve those burdens. It is these types of questions that drive cultural and eventual policy change. Unfortunately, these very same questions and their respective answers are those that don’t get sympathy, let alone attention. Wendell Berry has said, and I’m of course paraphrasing, that like a farmer in the spring, now is the time for us to turn over new soil. With slow and careful planning, we can awaken the ground upon which we walk and plant new seeds and grow new leadership.
We need to focus on fostering a culture and city that attracts and retains talent.
What attracts and retains talent? Beauty. Not the pop culture beauty we’ve grown accustomed to and recognize. Beauty has been mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. We’ve turned a blind eye to genuine beauty. Our culture places value on quantity. The desire for more blinds our vision. For illustration, the blindness of property development creates rooms and buildings which lack grace and mystery. We don’t have to look very far to see a real life example of this. Go downtown. Drive through a public housing development. We have become blind to our surroundings. We allow policy to eschew our vision as politicians become obsessive servants of economics. When we emerge from our offices, houses, apartments, and rooms what do we want to see?
Classic Greek Philosophers used the word kalon to describe perceived beauty. It included the idea of “call” or “calling.” It’s time that Omaha – One Omaha, a collective, inclusive, and neighborly Omaha – accepts its calling and engages a vision of a beautiful, colorful, and diverse city that supports professionals, blue-collar workers, artists, and entrepreneurs alike. Change can only be achieved through the community, not politics. Our present leadership consists of politics minus the needed neighborly love and a sense of community. This scenario gives little to no thought to what and why decisions are made and profits corporations while increasing waste and destruction.
New ideas breathe and spur new life. I dare you to find me something with an edge so sharp as a new idea. A new idea or thought cuts to the core of our soul and fuels our desire for the beautiful. When working with others to define and plan a vision for Omaha, I beg you to look at your circle. Is it made up of people just like you? A homogeneous group with the same ideas? Research shows that diverse groups are more creative, productive, and innovative. Expand your circle of thinkers and change agents to include others outside your neighborhood. Find and embrace those that look nothing like you to ensure your ideas beautiful, new, and sharp.
Leaders must be led. True leadership reflects on issues and ask questions and uses and embraces critical thinking to provide space for solutions to be generated. Anne Carson said,
Space must be maintained or desire ends.”
When we facilitate the space to think critically, we position ourselves to not only find the best solutions on how to things should get done but we are able to incorporate values to know why solutions are worth finding and executing.
Progress can be made. Let’s not discard the vision of what Omaha can do, be, provide, and attract. It’s okay to question and reject conventional practices and policy that yield reduced productivity and limit access. We should strive for a baseline standard of economic health. That starts with revising and actual understanding of economic life, community work, and pleasure.
Wendell Berry says, “We must reject the idea – promoted by politicians, commentators, and various experts (my emphasis) – that the ultimate reality is political and, therefore, the ultimate solutions are political. Achieving this requires efficient and effective, unofficial local organizing based on use and protection of local resources and human intellect and skills. Asking and embracing difficult questions and thinking critically on solutions ensures we don’t hitch ourselves to the mass heading over the cliff.
Omaha should focus its efforts on building a city on actual usefulness. We are all connected by our work, where we live, and how we make a living. That connection shows itself in many forms – friendly neighbors, an uncaring community, distant and intimate. If we continue to ignore this connection it will ultimately destroy the economy – both economies – that as Adam Smith describes an economy and Thoreau’s economy described as the management of our households.
We have the resources to develop a vision for this city if we pay attention and utilize our local, human intelligent and skills. There are established efforts – groups of people tackling issues but we have to enable those voices to come together. So I ask, “what kind of city do you want Omaha to be?” For your own benefit, reflect on that question, think critically, and take action.
Onward, my friends.
-Midtown Omaha, Nebraska
06 January 2015
PS: Please share this. Engagement is the key to change.
PSS: Hashtags for this movement = #oneomaha #ouromaha #leadomaha