I am going to write this one as an elected official: the identity that will follow me for a few more months and then be gone.
This is about the voices I hear, and how they affect my decisions. I don’t often reflect on this but recent events have caused me to wonder about the decisions I make and who influences them. Ours is a representative democracy. We DO have direct democracy options for just about anything that people will put their minds to make happen, but the normal course of decision-making means that five elected officials collectively make decisions that will affect the lives of 70,000 others. As one of my colleagues notes: the power is not in one person but in the collective voice of five people.
In that sense, the decisions I make have very little force. But in putting forth my ideas, my perspectives, and my arguments for a given course of action, I am seeking to influence the direction of a decision. In that sense, the voices I hear, and how they influence my decisions do matter. So, to whom do I listen and how do I use that information?
Answering that is not as easy as it might appear. But let me try to name the sources–the voices I hear.
- I hear the voices from my past–especially those that have brought me to this point. I hear the voice of my mom, first and foremost. Her exhortation to be fair, to be wary of the powerful, to be honest… Her voice is in my head every day on these and other matters. But there are other voices from my past who speak to my mind: my friends from West Africa who tell me about the importance of taking time with people; my Ph.D. advisor who tells me to give time to students–to keep learning from those who are experiencing the full joy of learning; my colleagues in the field of maternal and child health who tell me to seek evidence for the effects of programs and policies I support… And there are many others whose words remain in my mind and heart. I listen to them.
- I hear the voices of columnists and writers I admire and seek to emulate. Ellul is a constant voice, as is Howard Zehr, Dean Baker, Wendell Berry and Andrew Bacevich. These voices continue to inform and shape that thing called “world view” and there are many others that would require more space. Each of these adds an element to how I approach the framing of what I see and how I choose to act.
- I hear the voices of City staff. These are the people most closely associated with the decisions I am asked to make and I rely on them to help me understand the issues and the options for dealing with them. These folks have a thankless job because there is rarely agreement from all quarters on the recommendations they make. But they continue to make them and when I push and probe and prod them they always come through with their best, considered, opinion on the matter at hand. I don’t always agree–but their voices matter a great deal to me.
- I hear the voices of passion from people across this community on nearly all the major issues that come my way. I have never, in my three-plus years in office, refused to meet with someone who wanted to share a perspective with me. I have never deleted an email without first reading it and considering its import. These voices are as varied as the issues and they can be cacophonous as well. There is no way to arrive at a place of consensus among them but they provide a FULL array of perspectives that force me to consider where I stand.
- I hear the voices of my colleagues on the City Council who share the responsibility to decide with me. Each brings his/her own voice to the dais and together we seek–in that very public space–to come together to make decisions. Laws limit how many of their voices I can hear outside the meetings on any given issue. And so I often only get to hear these voices moments before a decision is made. But I value these voices because they come from people who are walking a very unique path with me.
- I hear the voice of my life partner–my wife. She does not get into the policy issues but she does provide me with a perspective on what matters most. She is a voice that reminds me that I have not failed just because the latest angry email says I have. Her voice tells me to stick with it, stop being such a baby, and, most importantly that she loves me.
I am sure there are others I have not named here. I am sure there are others who influence me in ways of which I am not even aware. I am sure that I favor some voices over others. But when I pause to consider any decision I make, I realize that the voices I hear are varied and provide the grist that turns thoughts into actions.