ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott kicked off Wednesday’s opening general session, sponsored by ICMA-RC, with a rousing speech to attendees. His powerful words come at a time when local government leaders are facing extraordinary challenges, and he reminded us all why we chose this profession and what it demands of us. His encouragement and reassurance set an inspirational tone for the conference.
Reflecting on his four years as executive director—having accepted the role at the 2016 annual conference—he spoke about bringing his whole self to his position.
“One of the things I often say to the ICMA staff is ‘bring your whole self to the table as we tackle the work in front of us.’ Not just your work experiences, but who you are at your core because you are unique. When I committed to ICMA, you not only got my 35-plus years of local government experience, you got the rest of me, too.”
And his message was very personal, just as our nation’s communities and their leaders have been personally affected by the multiple crises of 2020. Ott relayed a moving story about a time when he and a friend, as college students in Austin, Texas, were wrongfully stopped by police and asked to lay face down in the street. He continued,
“When I watched the George Floyd video, what I felt was ‘that could have been me.’ And I am not alone. Lots of people of color have similar stories to tell. And that’s the tragedy of it.”
He explained that he understood how for many of those listening, the past six months have been perhaps the most difficult of their entire career.
“You may be saying, my community is too divided right now with groups that want to defund the police and groups that want us to crackdown on protesters. You are dealing with protests that may have turned violent and councils that are making unreasonable demands. I know it’s not easy. In fact, it’s very, very difficult. But l believe this is where we thrive. Our abilities as leaders have never been more in demand, more essential than now. Think of the characteristics of all of the great city and county managers you have known—the ones who have been able to look past where they were and see what the community could be 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Beyond skill and intellect, this work requires heart. It requires that you bring real courage to your community. The courage to start these difficult conversations and see them through to some meaningful changes, changes that result in rebuilding our bureaucratic structures through the lens of racial and social equity.”
Ott emphasized that the uncertainty and obstacles we are facing are not exclusive to the United States, given the historic racial, cultural, and religious oppression experienced around the world. He expressed his gratitude for our international members and affiliates, and reiterated that we can continue to make progress by working together.
“These are global issues, and as with all of the challenges we face, we can accelerate progress by learning from each other.”
His final words were the most inspiring, encouraging all of us to stay the course in addressing the inequalities present in our communities and to lead the way in bringing about change:
“When this historic conference ends, you’ll go back to dealing with other challenges—staffing, budgets, floods, and wildfires—but I ask that you not lose sight of our commitment to breakdown the systems of inequality and to use your voice to lift up the voices of others who have been marginalized. Now that we have reached this tipping point, I believe more than ever before in my life that we won’t go back, that things will change, and that you will be the courageous leaders that will help drive that change.”
Registration for UNITE: A Digital Event is still open! All sessions will be available on-demand through December 31, 2020. Register today!