Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cultural Divides

When I was young I used to think that the key to success in Cleveland was to observe what was being done on either coast and to adapt that to the local scene. It seemed to me at the time that we were ten years or so behind what was happening in the leading business and cultural trend-setting centers of the nation.

Now, 30+ years later, [as we embark upon a new, yet to be named decade], as political and cultural evolution accelerates more rapidly in much of the rest of the country and the world than here in Cuyahoga, we may be facing a larger gap.

The perceptive Fareed Zakaria observed last year in his book, The Post-American World, that America’s real problem was not one of excellence but one of access. Recognizing the danger posed by the country’s inequalities, he argues that the country will decline “if we cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy.”

An application of this global political analysis to our beloved crooked river community suggests that Zakaria’s concern has special resonance in our County. Indeed, apprehension over the effects that the new county charter would have in exacerbating the County’s existing inequalities was a paramount concern for many opponents of the charter.

Charter champions touted the ability of a sleek new county government to drive economic development. Others, sensitive to the county’s historic role as provider of essential health and social services to those in need, worried about the neglect of those services by a county administration focused on bringing new development in. This worry was joined by concerns that the fruits of any new development would be skewed towards those Cuyahogans who already enjoy the most fruits of America’s competitive marketplace.

In reality, both sides of the Charter dust up may have been guilty of a too-narrow focus. Greater Cleveland’s competitive advantage once relied on its “great location”. Once upon a time we touted that with great community pride. The refrain now echoes plaintively as if emanating from a scratchy phonograph record still looping; everyone has left the party and nobody stayed to clean up.

In today’s wireless digital age, a company’s choice of where to locate may have more to do with the owner’s preferred lifestyle than the economics of manufacturing. But what has remained constant for business success, of course, is human capital.

This area once boasted one of the largest, most highly skilled and best trained manufacturing workforces the world has ever seen. The guts of that workforce are now largely deceased, retired, transferred, migrated, or casualties of globalization.

The establishment of Plato’s Republic along these southern Erie shores will not be sufficient to attract new businesses if we cannot replace that legendary workforce with its modern equivalent: tech-savvy, open-minded, versatile, young men and women with a global appreciation of possibilities.

Those kinds of workers flock to Silicon Valley, Route 128, Austin, the Research Triangle, and other dynamic locales. We have some of them here, concentrated in world-class enterprises like the Cleveland Clinic and hey, the Cleveland Cavaliers [key workers come from Lithuania, Brazil, Mississippi, Akron, and wherever Jamario Moon is from].

Today’s workers are increasingly people of color, some with ethnic self-descriptions and sexual orientations that defy the white bread, black-white, male-dominated, racial and religious, manifest destiny, nine planet world reference points we were once fed as universal and eternal truths. Many are multi-lingual and untethered from our own sense of limitation.

Here in Cuyahoga, we are going to have to work diligently and creatively to unleash the creativity in our most precious resource, our children. Where in our community is there greater hunger and energy than in our public schools?

My son struggled with some typical black-male issues in his suburban high school years, persevered, got an M.B.A., and now runs a successful company in … Hong Kong []. His customers are those who aspire to a global understanding for their children so they can compete internationally. Do we want as much for our community’s kids?

We have bought or been sold a new form of government. Left untouched in the transaction was any discussion of consolidation, of working across municipal boundaries that would go unrecognized but for differently colored street signs, or of cooperating safety, sanitation, or [!] school systems.

Zakaria understood that part of the universal appeal of American culture is rooted in its celebration and reinforcement of a problem-solving attitude that questions authority and thinks heretically.

The authors of the new county charter should have included a provision for those traits to be embedded in the DNA of all county office seekers. They omitted such a clause, so county voters are going to have to demand it from candidates. Maybe we should start demanding it from all of our leaders. Maybe we should demand it of ourselves.

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