A Lesson for Those Who Would Lead America's Cities: Michael Scott Did Not Die in Vain

Michael Scott was a colleague of mine for 26 years. We first met when my man won and his man lost. My man was Harold Washington, my mentor; his was Richard M. Daley, his mentor.

No matter. After the election, we worked together. Michael doing his part, I doing mine. We made a contribution; we learned a lot; we had some fun, and, luckily for the rest of us, Michael continued to serve our mayors who followed -- Gene Sawyer, and then Richard Daley, for the last 20 years.

In this week of Harold Washington's death, 22 years ago, I can't help but think of Harold and Michael -- together. In this time of America's thanksgiving, what can we learn from two lives cut too short?

I've already written a bit about the lessons I think Harold Washington taught Michael, me, and so many others.

Today, I write about the lessons I think Michael taught us, by the sheer force of his presence and personality in this city of (so many) big shoulders.

Chicago: "City of ... big shoulders;" yes, Carl Sandburg was right about that.

But Sandburg was also right, when he said: "Our lives are like a candle in the wind."

Be grateful that the (candle) light that was Michael Scott withstood as many Chicago winds for as long as it did. For those winds are powerful; they can burn a city down.

Others have written about the leadership lessons Michael Scott taught, as leader of the Chicago Board of Education.

But Michael Scott was a teacher, too, a teacher in spirit, if not in fact.

And, yes, lest you think otherwise, both these Michael-lessons apply everywhere else in urban America: in Detroit, in New Orleans, Birmingham, Miami and Los Angeles: Yes, even in Washington, D.C.

For they are lessons applicable to all who would lead our nation's cities; to all who would propose solutions for our cities' problems; to all who would say: "I know what to do," for this urbanized America, for those neighborhoods -- in every city, everywhere around us -- where so few children have any hope for the future.

Yes, we need reinvestment and recovery. Probably, we need billions and billions more than have already been obligated. But there's more to our nation's renewal than that.

There's more to be thought-about and more to learn.

"Building, breaking, rebuilding," to quote Carl Sandburg again.

Here are lessons for that rebuilding of urban America, lessons drawn from Michael Scott's life and work.


1) Safe neighborhoods: Safe neighborhoods are a must, if we expect children to learn and succeed.

Earlier this month, when Michael rode that school bus, from Altgeld Gardens to Fenger High School, he made a powerful point: I will be in this neighborhood with you; I will understand what you need and want.

That's the kind of "I will" spirit needed in every American neighborhood, every day, until we get it right.

2) Affordable, permanent housing: A sense of homeplace, even in a nation where mobility is the norm, is requisite to children's success in school and in life.

The economic meltdown of the last year taught us that home ownership isn't possible for everyone, but, in spades, it taught us that a permanent homeplace -- rented, owned, or otherwise -- should be an American guarantee, whatever it costs.

Michael's lifelong residence and work on Chicago's West Side proved this point. He was rooted there, and so he could grow from there. Yes, he made money there, but there sure were plenty of easier real estate development opportunities elsewhere, for a man of his smarts and stature.

3) Adult leaders who care: A warm spirit and a giving presence are the greatest motivators, in a world in which lives can be snuffed out, for no apparent reason.

As our President plans an expanded commitment to wars a long way from home, to leading an America in which we will read, everyday, about the deaths of America's boys and girls, in very faraway places, it is ever so important for the brothers and sisters of those soldiers to feel the care, love and engagement of the adults in their lives back home. For, when those soldiers who survive come back home, they will surely need that kind of community, too.

Presiding over a large urban school system is the embodiment of caring: 'nuff said regarding this lesson.

4) Personal endurance: For pain is endured, by those who give to others, even when their own lives are at-stake. The lesson: Pain can be surmounted, so that great gifts can be given. In this season of thanksgiving, we must remember this, as we give thanks for what we have, and for what we could give to others, if we just would.

Just imagine the suffering one would feel from being questioned about one's business dealings,about one's (very public) community activities. I'm guessing Michael suffered, just as any of us would. Regardless, he persevered: That's the lesson here.

5) A sense of wonder and possibility: Where there are empty seats at the symphony, fill them with school children, not big donors; where there are empty halls in the art museum, hold children's art classes; where there are parks with splashing fountains, invite children to splash; where there are empty "summer homes," create your own fresh air fund.

Michael Scott's advocacy for the rebuilding of Garfield Park, left for naught for decades, is a lesson in creating a sense of wonder and possibility. Poor people's neighborhoods deserve beautiful parks, too. Michael helped make that happen in one of Chicago's poorest.

In stereotypical Chicago politician mode, I remember once, walking through Grant Park with Michael, while he made sure there were enough garbage cans for one of that summer's festivals.

A prosaic memory; yes, but, two decades later, I remember that particular summer afternoon because Michael was having fun; he was doing what he loved. Let's take that "I will" spirit and bottle it.