Dr. David Mathews – Community Engagement

Dr. Mathews visited Huntsville last Monday 4/28/2008 to discuss public engagement with people from Leadership and the Huntsville Committee of 100.  He also spent two hours earlier in the day discussing with the current Impact Class about engaging the public about improving public education (I will discuss this topic in a later post). 


First, a little about Dr. Mathews.  In 1968, he was named the president of the University of Alabama at age 33.  He spent the next seven years growing the University and working through the issue of racial integration.  He was also Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s boss at the time.  From 1975 to 1977, he was asked by the Ford administration to serve as Secretary of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare – pretty significant given he was a life long democrat asked to serve in the Ford’s republican administration.  In 1977, he returned to his former position at the University.  Since 1981 he has served and CEO and president of the Kettering Foundation, researching social issues dealing with community dynamics and public education.


Here are my notes from his talk –


  • We have spent the last quarter century building big civic systems, and we have forgotten the little communities.
  • Takes entire community to address wicked problems (persistent poverty, embedded crime).  The causes are multiple, so the responses must be multiple.
  • Soon to be released Harvard study about three different communities New Orleans – 2 communities have turned the corner and are thriving, the other looks like the hurricane just hit (almost three years later).  What’s the difference? The community still waiting for someone to take care of their problems is still waiting for someone to take care of their problems.  The other communities had a deep organic sense of community and knew that they had to take care of each other or else their communities would perish.
  • Communities proceed neighborhood by neighborhood.
  • Interdependence (both intra and inter community) is our greatest resource.
  • Another community study dealt with “How do we get these people involved?”
    • Reality – the only people in a community that do not care about the community are the ones in the graveyard – everyone cares for some part of the community
    • Observations about community engagement
      • Name of the problem sets in motion or completely stops everything.  Those in control of framing the problem need to capture each community’s interests to avoid alienation and myopic conversation.
      • Framework is important when problem is to be solved – Must capture the tension between the options.
      • Pay attention to the way decisions are made and who makes them – Confront the hard issues, and take responsibility for what “we” decide, not what “you” decide.
  •  Community leadership defined using example of two different cities
    • Community A had incredibly well connected leaders – ones that had the ear of state and federal leadership.
    • Community B wasn’t as well connected, but had 10x the number of local leaders.
    • Community B thrived because the leaders were gate-openers, while community A stalled because the leaders were gate-keepers.
    • Function of community leadership is not to be great, it is to build the capacity of the community.
    • Communities that do well are like the student you want in your class (recall that Dr. Mathews was a professor) – always learning, never copying, unstoppable, studied and read everything, unbelievably persistent – learn how to fail successfully


Personal Observations –

I really enjoyed Dr. Mathews presentation!

Dr. Mathews seems to believe in complete organic solutions that may take a lot of time to solve. In my limited experience it seems that local communities cannot completely take care of themselves due to the structure of the local and state governments.  If they have strong community leadership, they will be heard, if not they will be overlooked.  I believe that there have to be some global agents that are working across the individual communities.  The quiet, reserved communities do care, and their views must be understood.  The mentality of these global agents has to be that of a servant leader.  If your leadership role becomes your livelihood and you are using it instead of serving it, bad things will happen.  


What is the cause for the loss of the local community in Huntsville (and other cities)?

Did you grow up in a community that had a strong sense of identity?  

If so, what people or actions made impressions on you?


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