How to Be a Vanguard

Last week I had the extreme honor and absolute pleasure of being a part of Next City’s Vanguard Conference in Cleveland, as a member of the 2013 Next American Vanguard class.  I’m fairly humbled to be included with this impressive group of young people because, having become “family” with them during our time in Cleveland, I’m confident that if you don’t know them yet, you will soon.  The things they are already doing in remaking our cities, and the ideas they have for how to do it even better, are nothing short of inspiring.  I definitely returned to my desk refreshed and refocused, thanks to the conversations we all shared care of Next City.

  credit: Quardean Lewis-Allen (Vanguard '13),    Made in Brownsville

credit: Quardean Lewis-Allen (Vanguard '13), Made in Brownsville

Reflecting on the experience, I keep coming back to the feeling I got from the first moments spent together in the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative downtown space, which was something along the lines of, “we all speak the same language.”  I’ve been to many conferences and I’ve attended plenty of professional development, but I’ve found it rare that, in a room full of diverse backgrounds as with the 2013 Vanguards, the group will nonetheless feel an immediate kinship of shared values.

A few of those common threads that I noticed amongst the group:

Be productive.

One of my favorite discussions of the conference happened during a workshop led by Lou Huang of Code for America and Dan Miller of Fundrise.  Both are working on projects that serve long-range goals and empower long-term systemic change in our communities.  I am awed by the important work that both are doing, but the real gem I took from them was to just get on with it already.  Great opportunity exists when you have the courage and initiative to actually start, even when the journey is long and even if you don’t have every answer already.  It is easy to get bogged down with perfecting every aspect of a project still on the drafting boards, but none of the Vanguards would have been there without actually producing a lot already.  So go ahead and put it out there, whatever it is.  The best things are a work-in-progress.

Be positive.

It is no surprise that, amongst a group of young stand-outs, the core character trait of positivity shone through again and again.  It is an especially important attitude for change-makers to have because change necessarily causes friction.  It is a lot easier (and maybe even natural) to react to that friction with negativity, but progress isn’t going to be made in response to the inevitable friction except with a positive attitude.  The problems the Vanguards are addressing in their work are difficult: gentrification, authentic revitalization, legacy cities, governmental transparency, financing innovation, social equity.  Positivity is the only opportunity to find the path forward.

Be both.

At the start of the conference, all Vanguards were challenged to introduce themselves and the work that they do in 60 seconds or less, and I chose to illustrate how I have moved from the realm of idealism (e.g. land planning) to the nuts and bolts of the practical (e.g. community development).  I continue to stand by my description, yet I noticed something significant while learning about my fellow Vanguards: it isn’t one or the other, but both.  You should be both idealistic *and* pragmatic if you are going to affect real change.  Idealism without pragmatism leads to great rhetoric that can never be achieved; pragmatism without idealism achieves, but at a far lower level than might otherwise have been possible.  Strike a balance between the two, and your work will enjoy the enormous benefits of both.

Be patient.

The one area where I was ahead of many of my peers at Vanguard was in calendar years, and with that comes the life lesson of the necessary element of time in most all real successes.  Many of the projects of the Vanguards are still in their infancies, by most success standards, a fact that can be as frustrating as it is exhilarating.  And even in my (relative) advanced years, it is a lesson I know I continue to need frequent reminder of: be patient, as you nurture your great ideas, to give them the time they need to truly succeed.

Again, my thanks to Next City, the host committee, and to the great city of Cleveland for all that you gave to me and my fellow Vanguards last week, and here’s to all that will grow out of our time together.  And to my new Vanguard family, let’s get back to work!