ICMA’s 2022 annual conference, held in Columbus/Franklin County, Ohio, commenced on Sunday afternoon with greetings from ICMA President Troy Brown, who introduced Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, Franklin County Commissioner Erica C. Crawley, members of the 2022 ICMA conference planning committee, co-chairs of the 2022 ICMA host committee, and the ICMA executive board.
This year’s distinguished service awards were presented to three worthy recipients: Teodoro Benavides, Gary Sears, and Mark Wollenweber.
Brown reflected on his time as ICMA president, remarking on the great strides made in communities around the world as we continue to power through changing times. “I’m proud of where we stand today, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Our work is never done.”
He touched on the remarkable achievement of the reimagined ICMA dues structure, which will lower the cost of ICMA membership. “I’m proud we were able to do something historic and meaningful. For the first time in ICMA history, we’ve lowered the cost of ICMA membership, making it more affordable for local government professionals, especially those in smaller communities.”
Lynne Ford, CEO and president of MissionSquare Retirement, greeted the audience and remarked on this being the twentieth year that MissionSquare (formerly ICMA-RC) has served as the title sponsor of the ICMA Annual Conference. However, the partnership goes back much farther. “ICMA and MissionSquare have been achieving excellence together since 1972 and share a deep commitment to helping those in public service create thriving communities.”
Soledad O’Brien: Opening Keynote
Soledad O’Brien then took the stage as the opening keynote address, sponsored by MissionSquare. She praised the work of attendees in local government service and remarked on how she can empathize with the many challenges faced by those in local government through her work as a reporter.
“There’s a lot going on in the world right now. I got into TV news for a lot of the same reasons as you pursued work in local government—I wanted to make a difference.”
Though her first years in journalism were fraught with stories that she didn’t feel got to the heart of the community, that slowly began to change over time as she dug deeper as a reporter. “My reporting at first was uninformed and lacked sensitivity. I didn’t take time to understand the perspective of those I was interviewing, or to realize that sometimes the story was about what was not being said.”
O’Brien said that over time she began to realize that news reporting was truly about service. This especially rang true during her time spent covering Hurricane Katrina. Speaking with New Orleans residents who were stranded in their houses and camped out in their attics awaiting help, she intensely felt the need to shed light on stories of racial injustice.
She herself had experienced injustice as one of six children of interracial parents. Both immigrants, her mother was Black and Cuban, and her father was white and Australian. She recalled times when her older sisters would talk about folks spitting on her family in the street. Her mother would say, “We knew America was better than that.” O’Brien said she reminds herself of that frequently even today—that America collectively is better than many of the terrible things that have happened and continue to happen within its borders.
These experiences were some of the many reasons she created her show Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien, which tells “stories as diverse as America.” She and her staff work hard to find stories that explore the challenges and struggles of people and communities that are seldom told on news shows. She made the decision right from the start that they wouldn’t feature the typical “talking heads” arguing on the show. “I knew that ‘yelling sells,’ but I wanted to dig deep into policy and talk to the people working on solutions. The bickering back and forth doesn’t give the viewer anything. I wanted to understand what folks were doing to make communities better and tell those stories.”
O’Brien showed two compelling video clips from Matter of Fact. The first told the story of a family in a neighborhood suddenly beset by toxic fumes from a mountain of discarded roof shingles. The second clip focused on the often-forgotten female first responders of 9/11. She explained that she wanted to bring these stories to life because no one else was telling them, and she challenged local government leaders in the audience to do the same in their communities.
“The leader that is called for today has to look at the flaws. Good governance is about bringing people to the table to help solve problems. I encourage you to push back hard against cynicism. You have to talk about the hard things, the ugly things. Then and only then can you move forward.”
She proposed that we see the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity. During the pandemic, the cast and crew of her show, Matter of Fact, weren’t able to come together in their studio in Washington, D.C. At first viewed as a setback, this creative freedom allowed them to travel around the world and branch out with their storytelling. “We could be more inclusive about the stories we want to tell. I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to do things differently.” She challenged local government leaders to try to reframe the way they see their community’s recovery. “Now is the time for innovation. We have persevered, but now we need to thrive.”
In closing, she emphasized the need for local government leaders to look for the untold stories in their own community. “Leadership is about telling more complex stories—envisioning what’s next and how we get there. We have to embrace hope and bring everyone on board, even those people who haven’t been a part of the stories before—especially those people.”