Reflections on the Vanguard

Photo by Quardean Lewis-Allen, Made in Brownsville
Photo by Quardean Lewis-Allen, Made in Brownsville

Last Tuesday, the 40 members of the Next City Vanguard 2013 class introduced themselves through the telling of 60-second stories. They talked about bringing mass transit to Honolulu. They shared vignettes about using street art as transformative youth development. They touched on the challenges of working in cities where you want to walk, but you’re not sure where the sidewalk will suddenly disappear; of training new urban leaders in Cairo; of managing the recovery of a subway system after Hurricane Sandy.

As I listened to this quilt of stories (and eventually told my own), I envisioned an interactive map of North America. 28 cities. 40 bright lights. These are urban advocates who are doing good, humble work, from Vancouver, British Columbia to New Iberia, Lousiana. Listening to 40 urbanists, I felt a bounciness, a sense of possibility, a buoyed feeling that stuff is going right in our cities more than it is going wrong.

However, if you really want a booster shot of immunity from urban despair, look deeper to investigate the core unifying characteristics of the Vanguards: our approach.

Whereas many conferences mush into a maelstrom of competing self-promotion, the folks at this convening were focused on the what-if; the what-could-be; the let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens. On the plane back to Boston, I realized that through three days of the Vanguard convening, I didn’t hear one mucky, swampy complaint session. Not one.

The focus was action and straight-up hope. Sure, you could chalk this hopefulness up to the idealism of age. We’re all under 40, we believe in the power of cities, and we are willing to seek out a Cleveland karaoke bar on a weeknight. But it’s not about age. Let’s face it: many of of us in this group are in our 30s and have more than ten years of management experience. We have heard shouts of “more creativity! more innovation!” transformed into double-talk via actual decision-making. One Vanguard class member told the story of how she once overheard someone say that an idea (for an innovation competition, believe it or not) was “too new.” Via chronic naysaying, we could have lost our idealism a long time ago.

But we haven’t.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Perhaps we don’t lose our idealism because we grow old; we grow old because we lose our idealism. As I head back into my work making cities better through playful opportunities, I’m going to remember this– and work to spread the feeling.

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