At the Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, we celebrate the legacy of Nelson Andrews and put his beliefs into practice. We, like Andrews, believe civic leaders can be developed to intentionally create great communities. Ed Cole now joins the conversation, sharing his personal insight. Cole is the Executive Director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, which in collaboration with the Andrews Institute, launched the Transit Citizen Leadership Academy in 2011.
What is “civic leadership?” One set of answers can come from words written by great thinkers such as Socrates, John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. These writers describe the idea of “civic virtue” and the importance of citizen involvement in public life to assure that such virtue makes its way into the laws and actions of the state and hence into the lives of citizens. A second set of answers to the question of “civic leadership” is perhaps much easier to discern and may, in fact, be more accurate. This set of answers comes simply from the examples set by individuals who, when their lives are examined either in the present or as history, are true “civic leaders” who influenced public life in such a way as to better the lives of citizens living not only in their time, but in succeeding generations as well.
Nelson Andrews was such a civic leader and I had the great fortune to learn much about civic leadership first hand through his example. My first experience with Nelson is perhaps the most lasting. In the late 1970’s, a great debate was raging across Nashville (especially in south and west Nashville) regarding the proposed construction of I-440, an interstate highway proposed by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. As a then-young activist in the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association and, at the same time, as a Metro government employee, I saw the debate dividing families, neighborhoods and even local government. It was during a meeting with Nelson that a possible pathway towards consensus became clear to me for the first time. Nelson, who had significant interests along the proposed corridor, suggested that we all “take a deep breath” and ask ourselves why an interstate corridor was even under consideration for this part of Nashville. “What is its purpose?” I recall him asking. Gently, in his embracing style, he moved us from conflicts over design and impacts to consideration of the purpose of doing anything at all. We all agreed that something had to be done given traffic and growth issues in area of the proposed highway. So, he said, the issue is not about doing something, it is about what we should do. Looking back, this seems so elementary. But then, it was not. In his wisdom, Nelson helped us look at what we, who saw ourselves as adversaries, actually had in common, including the understanding that some type of highway facility was clearly needed. The impact of this awareness was not immediate, but it did occur. Compromises on the design of the highway were made. An interchange was removed. The number of lanes was reduced. Noise walls were added. Countless leaders, neighbors, officials and engineers were a part of making these things happen. Obviously, some opponents remained opponents. But, without question, in my mind, a major public transportation investment not only happened, but was made better, because Nelson’s leadership helped us all realize that what we have in common is just as important as those things over which we differ.
Many years later, just before his death, I had the opportunity to be with Nelson again when transportation issues were being discussed. In this case they had to do with traffic problems in the Green Hills area. As the group talked about these issues and shared obviously varying views of possible solutions, Nelson, with a twinkle in his eye, looked over and reminded me of the conversations we had had many years ago about I-440. In fact, he noted the time and location of one of our earliest meetings…something that had disappeared into the recesses of my memory. Then he reminded us all that the lesson then is still the lesson now: discover what we have in common and then go about the work of resolving our differences. For me, there is no greater lesson about the nature of civic leadership and I will forever be grateful for Nelson’s example.