Focusing on Dallas Finds Some Good, Some Bad and Nancy Brinker

Now that we've given up hope that state or federal governments will ever do us any good, the focus is on cities. So what about Dallas?

The Brookings Institution is offering us advice as part of its "Global Cities Initiative," telling Dallas to concentrate on education, exports and sister cities in other countries. OK. Check, check, check.

The Rockefeller Foundation might be willing to give us a nice grant if we can make the cut as one of the nation's top 100 "most resilient cities." I have my doubts.

Another story in the news this week may tell us something we need to know. The Komen Foundation, truly a product of this city even if CEO Nancy Brinker now lives in many elsewheres, apparently is grinding down into some sort of final demise brought about by what may be this city's real ultimate challenge -- the echo chamber. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Komen is canceling a third of its big fund-raising races for lack of interest, still bleeding from self-inflicted wounds incurred last year when Brinker, the foundation's founder, tried to suck up to Republican right-wingers by cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood.

Remember how Brinker said she had learned her lesson so bad that she was going to resign? Well, it turns out that everybody else at Komen did resign, but Brinker stayed on and gave herself a pay raise. She said recently she was "humbled and excited" to be named by Reader's Digest as one of American's most trusted citizens, an announcement greeted in some quarters by the inevitable question, "What is Reader's Digest?"

See also: For the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, a Cold Shoulder from ATTPAC

When Komen hit the wall over Brinker's right-wing suck-up play, public relations experts were calling it "the New Coke of nonprofits," a reference to one of the more famous marketing miscalculations in recent American history. I always thought Brinker's huge goof-up was the product of the Dallas echo-chamber effect.

Here's my point. Any leadership that was even minimally in touch with political culture in the big wide rest of America would have said, "Wow, cut off Planned Parenthood? Doesn't Planned Parenthood have an awfully strong brand going way back with most people in the nation? Shouldn't we test that first?"

Great, tell me you admire Brinker for doing what she thought was right instead of listening to focus groups. Everything she has done since, from offering to resign, not resigning, watching her own top people defect, now hacking entire limbs off the operation to stave off gangrene, is evidence that she just didn't know what she was doing in the first place and apparently still doesn't. If Komen had been able to get even a glimpse of the blow-back ahead of time, they would never have taken on Planned Parenthood.

Brinker still deserves credit for founding a worthy enterprise in the first place, for having the guts and brains to make it thrive and grow. But you have to ask what happened to all that I.Q. later on?

The echo chamber in Dallas is I.Q. poison. It's why we are not going to get selected as one of the nation's top 100 most resilient cities, for example. If Dallas even tries for it, I personally will send a long email to the Rockefellers with lots of stories about the Trinity River toll road attached. No city that wants to build an underwater freeway in the flood-plain deserves a prize for resilience.

The Brookings Institution's take on Dallas, on the other hand, is intriguing. They cite a number of strengths in the local economy, advantages they say offer the city a potential edge in competition with the nation's other great metro areas.

There may also be some strengths they missed. In our business leadership class, for example, are the people who brought this city its first black mayor and are now pushing for public school reform. We are fortunate in Dallas to have a cadre of people in both the corporate and entrepreneurial environments who get out into the rest of the world a lot and know what Dallas needs to look like in order to succeed.

It needs to be diverse, for example. I have to think those people are cringing right now over the story here last week about the Dallas Arts District, where the city's famous and revered black dance company is getting pushed out of prime entertainment venues. The same business leaders who talked Ron Kirk into running for mayor in 1995 have to understand and rue the way this city cripples itself every time it allows its funky old-guard echo-chamber class anywhere near the steering wheel.

So what about Dallas? Our moment is full of promise. The focus on cities isn't only American. Europe, too, is looking to cities and regions as engines of growth and effective policy. In that global competition for robust regions, we look good.

We also happen to have a terrible proclivity for making ourselves look bad. The remedy isn't anything too commie, like abandoning the business class as leaders. It's much less disruptive: To do more and better business, we just need to ditch the old echo-chamber and rely on smarter business leaders. They're here among us. Quick, somebody put them in charge of the arts district before the next ballet slipper drops.

What about Dallas? It looks good. Or bad. Depending.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze