Opening mail around a newspaper office can be an exercise in entertainment, junk collection and, occasionally, thirst quenching, like when the Cheerwine folks from North Carolina send you a 12-ounce can of the cherry-tasting stuff. But, sometimes, it also presents the opportunity for righteous indignation, the likes of which is about to be demonstrated here.
“CONGRATULATIONS!” the April 13 letter to this editor read. “Your name has been placed in nomination for application to Leadership Nashville’s Class of 2006-2007.” It was signed by the chairman of the selection committee, no doubt someone who commissions oil paintings of herself to hang in the formal living room or the corporate office. The letter goes on to say that I am encouraged to apply to this “much sought after program” from which “many highly qualified people are deferred each year.”
Well, whoop-di-friggin’-do. The civic-building nobility have found it within themselves to go slummin’ at the Scene (again).
For those of you unaware of Nashville’s 30-year “leadership building” tradition, Leadership Nashville is a kind of selective finishing school for “established leaders” aimed at preparing them “for responsible public decision making.” The elitists assemble a “class” of 40 folks every year, offering sure slots to certain institutions in town—major Nashville-based corporations and the daily newspaper, for example—before commencing a seven-month agenda of retreats, small study groups, “Diversity Day” and other saccharine, cliché-driven programming that is supposed to “offer both an education about our city and an exposure to differing points of view from people throughout Nashville.” Mind you, all of which is readily available at the McCabe Pub bar without having to engage in mood-altering chitchat with desperate social climbers earnestly trying to build their résumés.
Why this public criticism dripping with sarcasm and cynicism? Because it’s about time someone came right out and said that Leadership Nashville doesn’t make the city a better place. The Leadership Nashville folks are like those kids in high school who organized pep rallies. Their leadership in building team spirit may have looked good to the guidance counselors preparing their college rec letters, but school would have gone on just fine without them. In real terms, parading three dozen hapless senior vice presidents up to the Metro Council chamber every year to hear Ludye Wallace talk about governing is, by any objective measure, a colossal waste of time. This sham of a public service institution may be run by true believers with good intentions—they are probably lovely, unimpeachable folks—but from our vantage point, Leadership Nashville has few, if any, tangible benefits, except perhaps to give certain business leaders introduction to others, which should happen naturally anyway. What it perpetuates—and, more importantly, what it symbolizes—is a kind of clubby aristocracy disguised as selective populism.
Sure, it’s better than the days of yore, when a few middle-aged white guys formed a group called Watauga and assembled in secret to make decisions about Nashville’s future—who would run for office, what civic initiatives would be undertaken. But it still smacks of the cognoscenti hand-picking who will join their ranks, who will be deemed a “leader” and an “alumnus.” And, moreover, it’s mortifyingly old-fashioned. “Diversity Day”? Really? Isn’t there something disturbingly telling and patronizing about that? Imaginary dialogue: “So, you’re a black leader? Interesting. What church do you go to? AME?”
No doubt certain speeches given to this year’s Leadership Nashville class will illuminate, maybe even inspire. But in the end, the program won’t send its graduates into the world to make it a better place. Instead, it will have been a huge time suck, a drain on otherwise productive people furthering a self-perpetuating oligarchy that puts its own self-aggrandizement above civic improvement. The average Leadership Nashville alum will spend so much time congratulating himself on being one of the select few that he probably won’t find any time to help those who really need it. Besides, is it really such a great idea to get labor and business together to bond, to put media and elected officials in one room to understand each other better? Only if the goal is to tone ourselves down. Who would that serve?
I’ve taken my invitation to apply and thrown it in the recycle bin. It probably would have been deep-sixed anyway, for lack of membership on any boards related to diseases.