I’m on my way home after a week and a half of meetings and book talks in North Carolina and D.C. It was both energizing and exhausting.

Here are some highlights:

  • Joined our allies at NY State Public Employees Federation to describe the Fund our Future Campaign at the conference of the National Association of State Highway and Transportation Unions (NASHTU.)
  • A fascinating book discussion with Community Change co-president, Dorian Warren, at Busboys and Poets in D.C.
  • A book discussion and deep dive into privatization of public education with historian Tim Tyson in Raleigh, NC at an event sponsored by Public Schools First NC.
  • A book talk and discussion with Nancy MacLean and local activists in Carrboro, NC.
  • A book talk with Si Kahn in Charlotte, NC at a fabulous bookstore, Park Road Books.
  • And I got to spend time with new and old friends. I met state legislators, school board members, local activists, union leaders and even some candidates.  And, yes, I saw some live music (the amazing Rissi Palmer – look her up.)

I came away with new insights, understanding and answers to hard questions.

There are things I really like about traveling to different cities and states. I listen, learn a ton, and meet people who are doing the hard work fighting for their communities, cities, and states.

But there are also things I don’t like. While driving from city to city in North Carolina, I realized I was going from bubble to bubble. NC is a conservative state and I wasn’t able to meet or talk with people who see the world differently, have different ideas, live in conservative areas or listen to talk radio. That’s a problem. I’ll never learn how to talk to people about the work I do if I’m not actually talking with them.

And I got a few hard questions that challenged me.

For example, Dorian asked “how can I say that democracy is the solution, when our democracy has systematically excluded black people?” I responded by saying that democracy is a battlefield not a guarantee. That’s true, but afterwards I realized the more fundamental democratic choice isn’t us vs. them at the polls, it’s market vs. public and public vs. private. (When public means all – without exception.)

The problem with writing a book about everything is that people, in every talk and interview I do, inevitably ask “so what do we do?” About everything.

I continually struggle to describe a simple action plan (for everything!) to reverse the tide, dislodge private power over our basic public goods (it’s a long list) and put the public in charge. And, oh yeah, at every level of government, in every city, county, state and federal agency. Piece of cake.

There are vitally important big picture things we need to do to shift our culture, politics, governing ideas and the economy, but even those things can happen in small, everyday steps.

When Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, asked me the “what to do” question, she was looking for real implementable guidance on how she should govern a county of 2.7 million people with a budget of $9 billion. Here’s what I suggested she can and should do for every policy idea she proposes or decision she will be asked to make as mayor:

  • Step 1: Be clear about the public purpose. A road is about mobility for all, public education is about an educated nation and clean air is about our health and saving the planet for future generations. I could go on.
  • Step 2: Set standards. Make the rules and enforce them.
  • Step 3: Think forward. Every decision today impacts the future. Chicago didn’t do that when they sold their parking meters for 75 years. They might not have sold them had they considered long-term impacts.
  • Step 4: Think sideways (laterally). Actions to do one thing impact other things. For example, outsource a county function to a company that pays low wages and get increased poverty.
  • Step 5: Interrogate. Ask the hard questions about every proposal and decision, even if it slows it down.
  • Step 6: Make it visible. Transparency is crucial at all stages.

And finally,

  • Step 7: Continually assess and repeat the above. Governing is hard, it never ends, and the world is constantly changing in unpredictable ways.

I’m still thinking hard about the “what do we do” question, so send me your thoughts (donald@inthepublicinterest.org) and stay tuned.

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