Defining Strength

Over the weekend I had time to talk to friends about politics in our community and the importance of policy positions and decisions. We touched on all kinds of issues from local to Federal, but it got me to thinking about a critical element that is often missing. Where you’re coming from and how that impacts your ability to govern.

See, anyone can copy and paste policy ideas from a think tank in Washington DC or Nashville. It doesn’t take much more than money to hire consultants to tell you what’s resonating with people in your target demo. But the one critical thing that no policy position tells you is where the candidate or elected official is coming from.

At the top of this page is an image with the words “Make Shelby County Stronger”. I didn’t choose this because I think Shelby County is weak. Actually, compared to a lot of places we’re doing pretty well. I chose this because of my personal philosophy about what strength really is.

Here’s an example.

Some people see strength as big, inflexible and unmoving. While that may represent a certain kind of strength, its not sustainable. We all have moments of weakness. We all bend from time to time. The problem with being inflexible is sometimes you stop whatever it is you’re against. But sometimes it breaks you leaving devastating consequences.

That’s not the kind of strength I’m talking about. For me, strength is not just physical, but a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual state of being that guides you. It is a series of beliefs grounded in gospels of the New Testament and the teachings of my family: Love people. Help people. Listen to people. Be understanding. Be an example.

It sounds simple but if you think about it, its a pretty tall order. Even though I’m not always as successful at this as I would like to be, these ideas frame both who I am, and why I decided to embark on this journey called candidacy.

We have a lot of people in need in this community. Many of those needs go ignored or worse, are only being addressed at token levels. I believe this is a structural weakness that we have a moral obligation to correct. That doesn’t mean handouts. Everyone understands that giving a fish only feeds you for a day. We have to do more to teach people to fish. Teaching to fish is far less expensive and ensures that the knowledge will spread, which helps all of us succeed.

Success isn’t a finite commodity and it cant survive in a vacuum. Success builds positive possibilities. True success demands to be shared. Sharing successes means more possibilities and more success throughout the community. The moment you decide to keep your success to yourself or deny your role in helping someone else succeed is the moment you extinguish a whole host of possibilities. It is a harm to yourself and your community that may seem silent, but has broad ranging effects.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”. The truth is, the responsibility for both success and failure are shared throughout our community. We like to think that if we mind our own business we’re somehow immune, but we’re not. We can’t be. We engage in our community every day, and in doing so, share responsibility for everything that goes on.

And so it is from that point of view that I look at issues, especially the more vexing ones we face.

With all that in mind, I offer a video from TEDxAustin. The speaker is a Death Penalty attorney who is discussing intervention ideas to keep people out of the criminal justice system, but the interventions he is discussing could be about any topic from education to teen pregnancy.

(h/t Josh Spickler at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office)

For much of human history we’ve decided to intervene at the point of no return for the safety of society. As the speaker notes, this is much more expensive than earlier interventions. It also means the human capital that we’ve invested in through education and other spending brings a lower rate of return than it would if we focused on prevention than punishment.

This is not a new idea.

Several days ago I was at a meeting where one of the speakers said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Don’t do what’s right for the community, do what’s right for yourself.” I understand the rationale behind this thought process, but it makes me sad that people feel they are so disconnected from each other that their individual liberty is separate from society.

Society is what protects individual liberty. Without it, we would all still be living in caves.

I believe we have a duty, to ourselves and our society to focus on building successes at all levels. That means recognizing that we are all connected, whether we like it or not. That’s what society is.

Through that connection, we flourish through our successes and suffer through our failures together, even if we don’t immediately see it.

So making Shelby County stronger means rallying around the idea that we have to do more to address the issues we’re facing as a community rather than looking at someone else and saying, “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps”. Even the characters in the old Horatio Alger stories had help in building their success. Why is it any different now?

It isn’t.

So, if we want to reduce crime and teen pregnancy, increase educational attainment, and make our community a place people not only like to live, but want to live, we have to seek policies that help people succeed rather than focusing solely on punishing them when they fail.

Building success is building strength. Building strength through early intervention comes at a much lower cost, both financially and in human capital, than after tragedy has struck. Sure, we’ll always have people that do wrong to others or themselves, but we can have far fewer if we choose to focus on stopping it before it starts.

That’s the way to build a strong Shelby County.

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