- Sessions + Learning
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Economic development involves bringing people together to advance economic prosperity. That is easier said than done, especially now when many believe the state of civil discourse in America is in critical condition.
Inequality, the role of government, and even the state of democracy itself dominate discussion in the public realm and, whether we like it or not, these issues place economic developers squarely in the center of the debate.
At last month’s annual conference of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), I moderated a jam-packed session, entitled “Economic Change in a World Divided,” that explored these subjects and how the expectations of economic developers are changing as a result. Joining me in this discussion were three outstanding leaders in our profession today:
- Kenny McDonald, President and CEO of One Columbus
- Craig Richard, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council
- Jeff Seymour, Executive Vice President of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber
Together, the panel dove into a rich discussion around the state of democracy, the role of civic infrastructure, and how economic development leaders can foster healthy civic discourse, encourage civil engagement, anticipate risks, and evaluate the impacts of dissension.
The panel stressed that economic growth requires the private and public sectors to collaborate in healthy, respectful relationships. When events occur that threaten that dynamic, economic developers oftentimes must take action to minimize negative fallout to the communities they represent. The panel provided numerous examples of how their organizations assumed critical roles as behind-the-scenes nonpartisan arbiters, objective, calming voices of reason when difficult situations face their communities, and as voices for hope and pragmatic optimism.
Kenny McDonald noted that One Columbus is regularly asked to comment or become engaged with public leaders to address situations that might seem removed from the day-to-day work of economic development, such as violence on the streets or ramifications of politically charged debates. He believes it is his duty to help foster healthy civic discourse and encourage civil engagement while improving capacity within organizations and amongst multiple stakeholders to find constructive solutions.
Craig Richard agreed while noting that it can be tricky to know when to “stay in your lane” and when not doing so is needed to keep the community moving in a positive direction. Jeff Seymour noted that it is now the norm for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce to nurture partnerships with community advocates and to focus on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity.
The panel also heard and reflected on recorded remarks from several national experts. Wendy Feliz, Center for Inclusion and Belonging, American Immigration Council; Matt Leighninger, Head of Democracy Innovation at the National Conference on Citizenship; and Valerie Lemmie, Director of Exploratory Research at the Kettering Foundation provided powerful context for the state of civic engagement and thoughts on how economic developers can, and must, become more involved.
Watch the video of these remarks.
The audience was also polled on their thoughts, which elicited some fascinating findings.
Watch a video of the audience poll results.