Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in May 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Each Monday leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in May, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in early 2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.
Andrew Dahl, Assistant to the Economic Development Director of the City of Minneapolis.Andrew is a small town Wisconsinite living in urban Minnesota. During the day, he works for the City of Minneapolis, keeping the city’s neighborhoods and economy vibrant. Outside the office he’s busy volunteering with his neighborhood association, fixing up his old house, growing trees, and trying not to fall off his bike.
What is your typical workday like?
The course of my day depends on the numbers of emails and phone messages I have waiting for me each morning. If there are a lot, I’ll spend most of my day putting out fires: tracking down missing work products from staff, coordinating meetings, talking berate elected officials off of a cliff, calling constituents, and stepping into meetings. If there aren’t many, I’ll load a few podcasts and get to my less stressful work of policy research, database management, and all the little projects that I rarely have the time to focus on. Not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow is what keeps it interesting.
Why do you do the work you do?
It goes without saying that our generation faces unprecedented challenges – environment, economy, education, health; take your pick. I’ve always wanted to devote myself to helping solve at least a bit of these issues. Working in local government is a great place to be able to do that. You’re empowered to make meaningful change and can see the direct effects of your efforts in your own neighborhood.
What is your proudest achievement?
As the youngest person in my department, I’ve become a sort of de facto IT expert. One week, after showing four or five of my, shall I say “more tenured,” colleagues how to cut and paste emails, I realized how much of a generational gap there was in our technology use. I started an email newsletter I called “The Geek Tip of the Week” that had a mini tutorial on a variety of computer tools that I thought would make our department more efficient. I expanded this into quarterly in-depth training sessions on different topics and made it all as humorous and entertaining as I could. It was a hit. It’s a little weird sometimes teaching people twenty or thirty years older than me how to use the Internet better, but I think that’s the value that our generation can bring to the workplace.
Who in your city inspires you the most?
Minneapolis has a historically active and well-developed neighborhood system. Neighborhood associations play a huge role in governance of the city. It’s always energizing to be at my neighborhood meeting and see citizens debating and acting on issues very close to them. It’s so inspirational to see how many people really care about their city.
What is your favorite thing to do in your city?
Honestly, I always look forward to winter biking. There’s something really invigorating about riding through the absolute stillness of falling snow. And when you manage to get home alive through a 40 below windchill (at which point your eyelids literally freeze shut if you don’t have goggles), you know that you’ve challenged nature and have won. It’s a uniquely Minneapolis experience, and one that I think speaks to our culture.
What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?
Any leader who’s willing to stick their neck out for something good is right by me. I had the chance to interview John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. As mayor, Norquist refused to adhere to his party line and took stances that were hugely unpopular at the time. He wasn’t universally loved while in office, but today he’s known as an urban visionary, and Milwaukee is much better off because of him.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
The frustrating part of working in government is having an ideal vision of how a project or policy should be built, then seeing that vision changed by elected officials and citizens. The democratic process doesn’t always produce the best outcome, from a policy perspective. It’s unavoidable, though, and not entirely a bad thing. Like Winston Churcill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
What would you like to have achieved in ten years?
I really take pride in my ability to connect people. I’m a matchmaker. Through my work, I’ve built relationships with lots of really fantastic individuals and organizations. I love helping entrepreneurs, nonprofits, citizens, communities, and others accomplish their goals by connecting them to the right people and resources. I look forward to expanding my network further and seeing the great things that come of it.
What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?
Work for government! It’s not the most exciting advice I could give, and it goes without saying that it’s hard to find a public sector job these days. With all the challenges facing our generation, effective administration will be more important for us than ever before. With an aging public sector workforce across the country that’s nearing retirement, we need more young people to fill the ranks and bring fresh minds to our agencies.
How would you define the “Next American City”?
The Next American City will be a hybrid of the urban/suburban dichotomy we’ve been taught to believe in. The suburbs will be denser and more diverse than we’re used to. Urban culture and values will shift as a new generation of suburbanites move back into the urban centers that their parents or grandparents left. The Next American City will be more efficient out of necessity, with streamlined government, smarter infrastructure, more austere social programs, and wiser use of our resources. It will be just as great or terrible as we choose to make it, but it will be almost unrecognizable from the “city” as we’ve come to know it.