Article President’s Message by Cheryl Viegas Walker

Hope Is Not a Strategy, but It Is a Requirement for Leadership

This is my first “President’s Message” and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts about the issues facing us as elected city leaders in this time of unparalleled challenges.

Perspective in a Tough Year

2020 has brought us to a state of crisis that we might have sometimes feared but hoped never to encounter. As the year unfolded, local elected officials throughout California faced a series of unprecedented situations that touched every aspect of life in our communities — our health, our families, our homes and schools, and the air we breathe.

In early March, I traveled with California city officials and League staff to the National League of Cities (NLC) Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., where discussions focused on the emerging coronavirus pandemic, a new priority for NLC. Afterward, flying back to Los Angeles from New York City, it was bone-chillingly eerie to walk through empty terminals at JFK and LAX. It was the kind of surreal feeling we would all grow accustomed to as the COVID-19 pandemic transformed life in our country and around the world.

In the months that followed, California city officials worked hand in hand with the League to comply with emergency orders and keep our communities safe. We advocated for our cities at the state and federal levels. We continued providing essential services to our residents, even in the face of challenges that constantly changed just as we were coming to understand them.

Then George Floyd was brutally killed while in police custody, and the issues around equity and justice came to the forefront in our cities. Nationwide, citizens protested and demanded accountability and change from their government, both locally and nationally. Local leaders worked to address the pain expressed by our communities. The League stepped up with resources to support cities committed to justice for all.

As we worked to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and launch dialogues with our community and within our cities about advancing equity, a series of dry lightning strikes ignited blazes statewide. California’s worst-ever wildfire season brought still untold losses to communities, livelihoods, and our beloved forests and open lands. The lives lost, and the ongoing impacts to our most vulnerable people because of the fires, are yet another tragedy in a year already overfilled with them. The call for leadership, and the need for mutual support among our communities to address these challenges, has never been louder.

Leadership and Support

Coping with adversity on so many fronts takes its toll. We hear this firsthand from our nurses and firefighters. We hear it from schoolteachers. We feel it from our children, who have been deprived of so many of their normal joys. We know it from grandparents unable to see their grandchildren. And we hear it from our citizens who assemble peacefully to ask for change.

It’s helpful to remember that leadership isn’t always about remaining stoic and displaying optimism. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is both human and acceptable, especially in relentlessly difficult circumstances. I have been reflecting on our history and on 1968, which marked a turning point and a very difficult year encompassing the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and a contentious presidential election. Our nation faced difficulties of enormous magnitude. How did we live through that year and find the strength to move forward?

This year, 2020, is our generation’s 1968. These unprecedented times have made me reflect on the fact that while hope is not a strategy, it is a requirement for leadership.

As elected officials, sometimes we need to step back and ask: What is it that drew me to public service in the first place? For many of us, it’s a commitment to doing the right thing for the people in our communities. And in today’s world, our residents want to be comforted by knowing that we are working as hard and as best we can for their communities. Ribbon-cuttings and celebrations are all well and good — but making hard choices, in hard times, is the duty we have been entrusted with.

Empathy and compassion are essential elements of effective leadership. It’s more important than ever to listen to the concerns of our residents, who are facing enormous burdens, and say, “I hear you” — and follow up with renewed energy.

I want everyone reading this to know that the League is here to support you and offer resources you can draw on to serve your city, preserve hope, and maintain your morale. Both the League and the Institute for Local Government (ILG) are committed to good governance, and you can find numerous tools and materials on their websites (www.cacities.or​g and ​​ to enhance your leadership skills to face these crises.

Now is our time to step up and lead with the help of the League. Today’s California is not the California of yesteryear. Cities are facing a global pandemic, climate change and destructive wildfires, an unparalleled housing and homelessness crisis, mounting social unrest, and decimated city budgets. To support city officials during this trying time, the League has to become increasingly accessible, nimble, and far-reaching, making it a more strategic and powerful advocate for city interests than ever before.

At the same time, the League will be a welcoming home, offering hope and encouragement to local elected leaders and city staff when our spirits are sinking. I encourage you to join me in cultivating that hope and supporting each other as we move forward in our work to serve our communities and create a better future for all Californians.

Related Resources

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of the League of California Cities and Spectrum Advertising