City leaders from across the country convened last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, pledging to work together in a bipartisan fashion on the most critical issues that affect the communities they serve.
Over the course of three days in Washington D.C., more than 250 mayors addressed a broad range of issues, including immigration, broadband access, public safety, racial equity, infrastructure, and the upcoming census count. They often spoke candidly about their challenges as they shared tactics and best practices with each other.
Many of the solutions being discussed focused on innovative approaches to engaging community members and fostering cross-sector collaborations.
“Mayors must govern in real time, in spite of what’s happening in Washington D.C.,” said USCM President and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “We have a united group of bipartisan mayors, modeling how public service can impact communities to help working people’s lives.”
These are some of the highlights from the conference that most inspired and motivated our team.
At a press conference on January 24, mayors standing together at a podium pledged to boycott their scheduled meeting at the White House to protest the Administration’s threat to serve cities with subpoenas for information on their policies related to undocumented immigrants.
“These threats are nothing short of a distraction,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, adding that mayors are too busy working on the day-to-day challenges that affect their communities to engage in rhetoric.
After Landrieu noted that not all mayors will boycott the event, some of those who were at the podium took the opportunity to speak against the Administration’s measures, citing the importance of building trust between public safety officers and immigrant communities for the benefit of the general population.
With the help of Los Angeles’ immigrant communities, for example, Mayor Garcetti said the city worked with federal safety officials to take down dangerous gang leaders.
Likewise, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel emphasized the importance of community policing, which requires building relationships between law enforcement and residents to increase public safety. “We can’t do that if you drive a wedge between the community and the police,” Emanuel said. “It’s contrary to the ideals of law we established.”
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait added that “just about every mayor agrees with us on reform for this issue,” he said. “It’s a bipartisan effort.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo made a public announcement at a session on January 25 stating that he would be stepping down from the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband advisory board, because he believed that industry concerns were being prioritized over the needs of municipalities and citizens. In particular, he noted that the FCC was cutting out low-income communities for whom broadband access can have a significant impact in their education and employment opportunities. “Deployment of broadband infrastructure goes to the heart of the digital divide,” he said. “It’s not about who can go fast or slow on the information superhighway, it’s about whether you can even get on the onramp.”
Shireen Santosham, San José’s Chief Innovation Officer described her city as living in two realities. “We’re the tech capital of the world, and companies are telling me they need 5G access for autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things for their products and services, and we want to help,” she said. “But there are 95,000 residents who don’t have access to the internet, especially Latino and immigrant communities. If we don’t oblige industry to serve everyone, they won’t do it.”
Building Police-Community Trust and Empowering Youth
Mayors shared the tactics they’ve been employing to build and cement trust between their police forces and communities.
- Pro athletes as community bridge. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett touted the connection between NBA pro basketball players, the Milwaukee Bucks, who are revered by both police and youth, as a unifying force to work with both parties on shared goals. “The NBA is uniquely positioned to act as change agents,” Barrett said. “The mystique of pro athletes is powerful. They can be the bond between police and young people.” And it’s a tactic that he suggested can be used in any city that has a professional sports franchise nearby.
- Responding to youth’s needs. Educating youth at risk while engaging them has been the goal for Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. To spur community engagement, she said the city went on a listening tour to understand what young people needed. In response, the city has begun investing in youth apprenticeship programs, recreational centers open during the hours that youth most need access to those spaces, and offering meals in neighborhoods where schools are being closed.
- Encouraging mindfulness to build resilience. To help kids who must confront the reality of violence in their lives, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer spoke about putting in place programs to teach how to develop mindfulness skills, as well as building up kids’ nutritional, social, and mental health capacity. The efforts have helped close the social emotional gaps in schools, he said.
- De-escalating conflicts. In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said police have been trained in de-escalating conflicts, learning the names of community members, offering contact information for residents to be able to reach them directly. That’s resulted in communities working with police to address gang problems, locate illegal weapons, and work proactively on crime.
Other Critical Issues
Mayors and civic leaders discussed other challenges they’re facing, which are largely still in need of solutions yet to be developed.
- The 2020 Census. As the date for the 2020 Census approaches, a few civic leaders sounded the alarm bell for a fair and accurate data-collection process. They noted that the initiative is currently severely underfunded, risks undercounting poor and vulnerable populations, and may potentially alienate immigrant communities from being counted if it includes a question about citizenship status.
- Labor shortage for major infrastructure projects. All the unseen yet vital infrastructure projects – like storm drains, sewers, and conduits for high-speed internet – need to be maintained and updated. But because of the boom in economy, contractors in cities are no longer reliant upon municipal work, so it’s difficult to find the labor to take on these important infrastructure initiatives.
- Early childhood education. Mayors are proactively working to bring universal preschool to their communities, even including “three-school” for younger children in some cities, knowing that the earlier kids can reach important milestones, the better chance they’ll have at closing the opportunity gap.
- Information technology shortage. While technology continues to advance at lightning speed, the information technology industry has been stalled. There are more than 200,000 open positions in technology, which are crucial to making businesses run more securely and efficiently, but the demand is quickly outpacing the number of skilled workers available for those roles.
The event closed on a high note, with mayors and community leaders pledging to continue working on these challenges and more, together with a unified front. The next USCM will take place in Boston in June.