There are as many quotes about leaders and leadership as there are people who occupy that role. But, one statement that is a step ahead of the rest is this observation by Rosalynn Carter, American writer, activist, and First Lady of the United States from 1977 to 1981 as the wife of President Jimmy Carter:
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
Change and the unknown are scary, but they are unavoidable. To deal with the unknown and the scary, people—and the places and systems shaped by them—must be willing to look beyond boundaries and reset sights on new horizons. Especially when the lines—real and imaginary—that define us become too limiting and act to separate us.
Adjusting our cultural compass and bringing others with us on a journey following an untravelled route requires the kind and quality of leadership that Mrs. Carter is talking about. The kind of leadership that is courageous but careful, forward-looking without forgetting to glance back, and firm while flexible
If these qualities were included in a description for an ideal candidate for a job, I’d bet the company would not get many applicants.
Fortunately for the Mahoning Valley, we have several daring and dedicated leaders and public servants who have accepted these challenges and are forging ahead, led by their communities and journeying together to where we ought to be—towards becoming a more active, inclusive, prosperous place
SHIFTING THE STORY
One of the most difficult barriers to overcome when leading coalitions of communities towards where they ought to be (but might not want to go) is shifting the story—creating, repeating, and adopting a new narrative.This process often includes rewiring how we think and recalibrating what we care most about.
Clearing our hearts and minds to make space to build new stories and possibilities is critical and must happen before any physical clearing and building can take place. Recognizing and responding to this reality is another sign of the kind of leadership that will move the Mahoning Valley from where we are to where we ought to be.
Two local leaders who are challenging themselves and their communities to plot new paths are Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller of Struthers and Mayor Steven Mientkiewcz of Niles. Both mayors are collaborating with community partners and residents to co-create and co-navigate towards a more vibrant, active, prosperous future.
Literally and metaphorically, these mayors are embracing new ways of moving and traveling to reach destinations in a way that prioritizes people. One strategy they are investing resources in is planning and developing projects within an active transportation framework. As defined by the Ohio Department of Transportation, active transportation is “human-powered transportation that engages people in healthy physical activity while they travel from place to place.” Active transportation functions well as a literal and figurative framework to guide communities towards making decisions and investments that prioritize creating places that enable people to prosper. Walking, rolling, bicycling, using transit—all of these methods of moving create more active and better connected communities. The “active” part of active transportation has clear ties to improving physical health and mental wellness. Beyond improving human health, active transportation also has measurable benefits to improving the environment and local economies.
MOVING FROM VISION INTO REALITY
Shifting gears and the allocation of resources from prioritizing personal vehicles and moving people as quickly as possible through our communities towards prioritizing people’s needs and developing human-centered solutions is a smart move for all of the well-researched reasons listed above. I kicked off the “For the Health of It” series with a reflection about my experience engaging in this shift and riding my bicycle to work.
More recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Mayor Cercone Miller and Mayor Mientkiewcz about their visions for their respective communities and how they plan to implement well-known leadership scholar Warren Bennis’ charge for leaders: “to translate vision into reality.”
To move from vision into reality, first the vision must be defined. My first question for the mayors asked them to describe, in detail, what a healthy, vibrant Struthers or Niles looked, felt, sounded like.
Mayor Cercone Miller described her vision of a healthy Struthers by focusing on activity: people enjoying the outdoors—walking, biking, kayaking, and exploring the city. She continued that in addition to people being healthy, thriving and connected, the environment should also be considered. She hopes to see continued investment in the restoration of the Mahoning River, maintaining Tree City USA status, collaborating with the Rotary Club’s Operation Pollination planting efforts, and seeing residents take pride in their neighborhoods and the community through volunteering.
Mayor Mientkiewcz outlined a similar dynamic vision of a healthy Niles, which shared a focus on activity and people enjoying and exploring the outdoors. During the description of his vision, Mayor Mientkiewcz lifted up several of the city’s recreational assets like the Niles Greenway Bike Trail, the Niles Wellness Center and Waddell Park, and Kennedy Park, which is located along Mosquito Creek. He also described a community that was connected—schools connected to parks connected to commercial corridors connected to neighborhoods. Residents in Niles of all ages and abilities should be able to travel to a desired destination safely and without barriers.
As the saying goes, an idea without a plan is only a dream. My next question asked the mayors to describe the role of planning to make these visions and dreams realities.
ENGAGEMENT AND BUY IN
The first critical component that determines the success or failure of any plan is buy-in. Mayor Cercone Miller emphasized that the most significant benefit Struthers’ comprehensive planning and active transportation planning processes have provided is the ability to directly connect with residents. When she and her team set out to complete a comprehensive plan for the city- and similarly now as they are on the cusp of beginning an active transportation plan- Mayor Cercone Miller has been adamant that they “get [the planning process] right.” “You need resident feedback in order to be successful, and residents want Struthers to be more walkable and bikeable,” Mayor Cercone Miller continued.
In Niles, Mayor Mientkiewcz shares the same sentiments with regard to the importance of resident engagement and buy-in. He reflected that through his experiences and networks, he has consistently observed that communities that are moving forward and thriving have internalized this practice of meaningful resident engagement. However, he recognizes that this is not always easy and requires the kind of leadership that was described above. “ It can be difficult to find community buy-in for new approaches or ideas from communities with long histories of facing challenges,” he shared. To overcome these roadblocks, the project leader or leadership team must take the time to build trust and relationships with residents and other community leaders.
Creating opportunities for residents to see themselves as collaborators and a part of the process—not apart from the process—helps to open hearts and minds to new ideas and possibilities. Learning what residents need— from residents—and incorporating that feedback into the final product and implementation strategy is critical. This will ensure the transformation of a vision into a reality and create ownership and pride among residents. Any plan that lacks this insight and investment from those impacted by the final product will be doomed to a future as a doorstop or remain on a shelf.
The second critical element to ensure a planning process is successful is following Mrs. Carter’s model for “great leadership.” Much like making sure a process cultivates engaged residents, it is equally important that the process cultivates engaged leadership.
Mayor Mientkiewcz enthusiastically shared that the active transportation planning process he participated in with the Trumbull County Combined Health District, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, and the Western Reserve Transit Authority “was eye-opening.” He embraced the active transportation framework and ran with it. Mayor Mientkiewcz organized walk audits with Niles Middle School students and staff and a community bike ride in addition to promoting residents to share their thoughts through survey tools.
Since the plan was adopted in late 2021, Mayor Mientkiewcz has taken on a role as an engaged leader to ensure the plan is put into action. The Niles Active Transportation Plan helped the mayor recognize the need to support this and future planning efforts and realize their benefit to the community. The result was allocating resources to create positions for a city planner and grant coordinator. He has also put his support behind the first active transportation pilot project, which is the installation of a bike lane on Hartzell Ave. The Plan identified Hartzell Ave. as good location for traffic calming measures, like installing a bike lane, to help address a longstanding issue with speeding. So far, the mayor has been pleased to see many bicyclists using the bike lane, but he did acknowledge that more education and public outreach is necessary to make sure residents know why these improvements are happening and their benefits. An early success indicator, the bike lane demonstration project on Hartzell Ave. will continue to provide connections and a safe route for cyclists to travel the city
Similarly, Mayor Cercone Miller has adopted a hands-on leadership role with the city of Struthers comprehensive planning process and will soon embark on developing an active transportation plan for the city.This commitment to leading by doing and modeling change drove Mayor Cercone Miller to broaden her vision for Struthers and took her on a journey to Washington, DC. In March, Mayor Cercone Miller attended the League of American Bicyclists annual National Bike Summit. Reflecting on her experience, she said that it was incredible to see a community that has successfully built a well-used bicycle and pedestrian network. The way she described what she saw—people out and about and active—was almost a refrain of her description of what a healthy, vibrant Struthrers could look like.
My final question for the mayors asked them to describe what success would look (sound and feel) like in their communities.
Success for a Struthers Active Transportation Plan would look like “seeing people using new infrastructure,” said Mayor Cercone Miller. If the city installs bike lanes, high-visibility crosswalks, traffic signals, and so on, these investments are only worthwhile if people use them. We’ve seen many examples that show the “if you build it they will come” theory does not work in practice. “Community leaders and partners can help make these projects successful by getting the word out, sharing priorities and resources, and creating opportunities for businesses and families to grow and thrive,” Mayor Cercone Miller concluded.
For Mayor Mientkiewcz, success for the Niles Active Transportation Plan looks very similar: “Ten to twenty years from now, I hope to see a fully incorporated active transportation network with bike lanes, more public transportation,” said Mayor Mientkiewcz. “Niles and the Mahoning Valley have suffered through lack of planning and vision, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he continued.
Wrapping up his vision of success, Mayor Mientkiewcz shared that leaders shouldn’t forget to look for opportunities to “connect to what brings people joy”.Once people see and understand why changes are happening and how they will make their lives better, they are more likely to accept, adapt, and embrace change themselves, because they can see the return on these investments.”
The combination of the active transportation and active leadership frameworks will provide Struthers, Niles, and the Mahoning Valley with the tools and tenacity necessary to move the community from where we are to where we ought to be. I hope other leaders embrace these frameworks Mayor Cercone Miller and Mayor Nientkiewcz are modeling and join the journey towards becoming a healthier, more active, vibrant, and prosperous Mahoning Valley.
Published on Thursday, September 29, 2022 at Mahoning Matters. Read the article here: https://www.mahoningmatters.com/news/local/article266501221.html