The Dharma of Community Development: Mayor Sees Role as Activating Others

In a new series on community-development strategies for small cities, economic development specialist Hrishue Mahalaha shares stories from the field about what’s working. He starts in Marshfield, Missouri, talking to Mayor Robert Williams. In Marshfield, the city is living up to its motto of “Realizing Potential Together.”

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Hrishue Mahalaha

My name is Hrishue Mahalaha. I am an economic advisor currently working with the Community Foundation of The Ozarks and USDA Rural Development in three communities in Southern Missouri. I’m helping these communities develop and bring to life their respective economic and community development strategies. I’m going to share some of these experiences through the Daily Yonder in hopes of creating a larger conversation about what it means for a community to thrive.

 One of my assignments took me to Marshfield, Missouri, a city of about 6,600 in southern Missouri’s Webster County. While officially part of the Springfield metropolitan area, Webster County is small (about 36,000 residents). To get to know the city better, I decided to stay with a local host family, rather than in an isolating hotel. My hope was that I would learn more about the community, its people, its history and culture, not through contrived meetings, but through a more informal, meandering and a non-agenda-driven dialogue. The community volunteered Marshfield Mayor Robert Williams to be my host.

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 Some people are just born to perform their Dharma.

Dharma is a central theme in the Indian Vedantic philosophy and it refers to a person’s dedicated focus in performing his or her duty.

Robert Williams is one such individual.

Robert didn’t set out with a big glorious plan.  As he journeyed through life and came across a calling, he simply chose not to shy away.  As a young man, he joined the U.S. Air Force and performed his military duty.

When his parents needed help, he and his young family packed their bags in Ohio and headed west to Missouri.  I would have fretted about that decision — moving a young family (three kids under 5 years of age), with $700 in my pocket and no job lined up on the other end. Robert and his wife, Virginia, just did it.

Years later, when it looked like Marshfield needed better public representation, again he did not shy away.  Robert was hesitant to run for office and experienced turmoil over the decision. In the end though, he decided to put his name in the hat for one simple reason – he was becoming a grandfather.  Robert didn’t think that he would be able to respect himself if he didn’t step up and help make the community stronger for his grandson.

So with no prior public office experience, Robert ran for the seat of the city alderman.

And he won.

Two years later, he had seen enough of what was broken. He wanted to look instead at Marshfield’s enormous potential. His frustration led him to a familiar uncomfortable crossroad.

Should he run for city mayor?

Again, Robert went through the familiar inner dialogue.  But being a man of Dharma, Robert knew what to do, and he answered the call. He seemed destined to run.  The night before the election, Robert actually prayed that he not be elected. But the path for Robert had already been cemented.

Once again he won.

Since taking the helm of the city, Robert has created a lengthy list of  accomplishments. To me, there’s one way to measure public leadership that beats all the other criteria: How well are public figures activating the citizens and other leaders in the community? Communities remain on a health path of development when the effort is led by the people, not just the folks with the official titles.  In my opinion, the job of an elected official is to create
opportunities for members of the community to contribute their talents in productive ways.

By this single measure, the Mayor of Marshfield gets a 10 out of 10 in my book.  In Marshfield the community vision statement reflects the mood and the enthusiasm of its citizens – “Realizing Potential Together.

Local attorney Chuck Replogle said building togetherness is one of the mayor’s biggest strengths. “From my perspective, Robert has shown many great leadership qualities as an Alderman and the mayor of the City of Marshfield, but none have been greater than his ability to bring people together,” Replogle said.

A real estate contractor and city alderman, Rob Foster, agreed. “Even when occasionally faced with emotionally charged or opposing views on touchy issues, or in some cases misinformed hostility, Robert had a knack for quickly diffusing the situation with calm clarity, with firm facts, and with an eye towards common vision,” Foster said.

In two short years, Mayor Williams has developed a culture of collaboration, accountability, and inclusion in Marshfield.

Over the course of the evening, the mayor and I also had an opportunity to discuss a critical issue that many local governments face: citizen apathy toward the political process and consequently, the lack of accountability for elected officials.  The mayor has ideas for addressing this need. First, he said city leaders need to do more to get citizens involved in the electoral process. One goal is to never have uncontested elections.  It’s a novel approach: a currently elected official actively seeking challengers to make the political representation stronger. Rather than seeing upcoming leaders as a threat, the existing establishment could begin to play the role of a mentor, developing entry points for new leadership rather than trying to hold back the competition.

The other idea that the mayor shared was the importance of an independent, non-elected public/private “community-board” to own the community’s strategic and comprehensive plan. After an election,  new leaders tend to scrap existing plans and start all over.  The independent board would help leaders  maintain focus and remain accountable for reaching objectives the community had already identified.

Robert also said the time to get folks active in the city is before something goes wrong, not after. Establish a process that is more engaging when times are good and when people get along, he said. Because doing otherwise is almost impossible.

Robert’s biggest challenge today is not civic. In 2016, his wife, Virginia, passed away.  Virginia and Robert were married for 29 years. They worked together, commuted together and were best friends.

There was no warning and no time to say proper goodbyes.

Robert held his grief close throughout our evening together. His difficulties were layered in dignity, humility, and acceptance.

In spite of his sadness, Robert attempts to walk gracefully forward into this new phase of life. There are emotional pressures and there are financial strains. But Robert hasn’t shied away from his responsibilities as a community leader and mayor. Because, in my opinion, that’s his Dharma.

 

 

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