Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Lifelong "Fight for Justice"

“She waged a fight for justice” – stated the headline in the Pioneer Press for its story about Katie McWatt, a longtime Saint Paul community leader. I first met Katie in about 1978, when I became involved in some initiatives in the Summit-University area. The neighborhood also had the moniker, Selby-Dale, which conjured negative images for many, especially those who lived outside the city and did not understand the true nature of city life and specifically life in this neighborhood, with its rich traditions, strong family networks, and of course, its leaders like Katie McWatt.

Katie can certainly serve as a model for the community leadership initiative which we are currently crafting with the Bush Foundation. Its purpose is to inspire and empower grassroots community leaders to make progress in their communities.

I think of her when I think of John Gardner’s contention that:

“Most leadership today is an attempt to accomplish purposes through (or in spite of) large, intricately organized systems. There is no possibility that centralized authority can call all the shots in such systems, whether the system is a corporation or a nation. Individuals in all segments and at all levels must be prepared to exercise leaderlike initiative and responsibility, using their local knowledge to solve problems at their level. Vitality at middle and lower levels of leadership can produce greater vitality in the higher levels of leadership.

What qualities of Katie might other community leaders – those working at the level which Gardner says can have such an effect on our vitality – want to emulate?

Awareness of self – perhaps first and foremost. She knew exactly who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. This provided a set of values which anchored her and sustained her through difficult situations. In addition, she visibly lived and communicated those values – something which effective leaders must do.

Selflessness. She did not self-promote, but always acted for others, for the community, even when it meant taking risks. Leadership, visibility in the public eye – these can bring about strong temptations to act in self-serving, arrogant ways; but Katie did not succumb to such temptations.

Vision. She dedicated herself to a future ideal. This served as a constant guide, influencing what she did in everything from working on community improvement through institutional channels such as service on boards (Hallie Q. Brown is the place where I think I first met her), to less conventional activities such as nonviolent protests, in the spirit of Martin Luther King.

Use of information, communication, networking. She based her efforts on a sound understanding of what was really happening in her community.

We should all aspire to develop these qualities. It’s what can make our communities great places to live. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s comforting to know that, in their own ways, leaders like Katie McWatt have commitment, have a vision, and are getting it done – with results that benefit not only those of us who live in Saint Paul, but those of us in this entire region, of which Saint Paul makes up an important, vibrant part of the center.

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