Las Vegas Sun

April 26, 2019

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Solutions to big societal issues could be shaped by local leaders

Benoy Jacob of UNLV

L.E. Baskow

Benoy Jacob, coordinator of UNLV’s Urban Leadership Program in the courtyard of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

Not so long ago, Benoy Jacob said, city and county leaders were seen as the worker bees of government, overseeing nuts-and-bolts tasks such as filling potholes and replacing burned-out bulbs in streetlights, while state and federal elected officials tackled big problems.

That perception was never accurate, and now it’s flat-out wrong.

Jacob, the coordinator of UNLV’s pioneering Urban Leadership Program, said leaders at the city or county government level are facing issues far more complex than their predecessors did 10 or 20 years ago.

“They are now on the forefront of finding solutions to issues like immigration reform, gun control, civil unions,” Jacob said. “These issues are not being tackled by higher orders of government for a variety of reasons. So where are the innovative policy decisions coming from? They’re coming from cities.”

To prepare students to face such challenges, the Urban Leadership Program offers coursework to strengthen leadership skills and includes a requirement for students to establish and participate in a group civic engagement project. The master’s-level program is open to a range of local leaders, including mayors and city council members, non-elected municipal administrators, nonprofit directors and members of volunteer organizations.

It’s the first of its kind in the nation — Harvard recently launched a similar program for elected officials.

At the Urban Leadership Program head is Jacob, who has worked as a county land-use planner and a development consultant in addition to his career in academia. He sat down with The Sunday to discuss the project, outline how it might help Las Vegas and assess President Donald Trump’s leadership style.

Looking at voting turnout, civic engagement in local government is terrible. Will that change as the role of local leadership evolves?

Absolutely. One of the challenges city leaders and community leaders face is to convince people that their little actions will make a difference. To some degree, I think this presidential election has activated people. So rural Americans, who previously had felt disenfranchised, actually voted. And on the other side of the spectrum, now we see protests that probably wouldn’t have happened — people saying, “I’m going to speak out, and I’m going to take little actions that make a difference.”

Civic engagement is a key part of the Urban Leadership Program. Why was it important to include that element?

We want to make sure the people who are coming through the program are not just learning the theory and walking away from it. So we want the program to extend outside the walls of the university so that the cohort (of students) can engage in a project. This could be as big as a community development project, working with communities to facilitate planning processes. It can be helping interfaith stakeholders come together to discuss inequity in their community. It can be helping find funding for projects. We’ve really cast the net as broad as we could.

There’s a perception that Las Vegas residents don’t engage — that there isn’t a lot of cohesion — but you’re seeing something different.

I’ve spoken with people who say, “There’s a lot going on, but there’s just no one bringing it together.”

What’s your assessment of Donald Trump’s leadership?

It’s a divisive approach. It’s worked for him, and it’s worked for a lot of political leaders — to divide people, create this environment of fear and distrust. Politically, it works — he was elected to the highest office in the country. But will it address the problems of today? I can guarantee that it will not, because the problems of today necessarily demand more inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. ... This is another reason why the positive changes are going to happen at the lower levels of government, because they have to foster cohesion. You have to have people at the table, because they’re right down the street; you can’t ignore them.

Looking to the near future, what are the biggest issues urban leaders will face?

There are probably three: inequity, public education and infrastructure. America is still viewed as this country of extraordinary wealth and opportunity, and the fact that there are folks who don’t get access to some of these things is disappointing. Related to that is the public education system. The debate can be about whether you have choice and private schools, but public education is also part of a value system that is supposed to define the country. ... So we have to fix some of the places where the public education system is not getting the resources. As for infrastructure, people think of it in this nuts-and-bolts way — potholes need to be fixed — but transportation fits this broad idea of matching people with jobs. Southern Nevada Strong is working on this plan that connects public housing with public transportation, and that’s going to be a big deal over the next 10 years.

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