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Jul 06

Strategic Thinking – Strategic Action

Posted on July 6, 2020 at 12:25 PM by Melinda Mayo

“Action expresses priorities”

Mahatma Gandhi

Three years ago, at my request, the City Council assembled to discuss priorities and strategies.  The result—the City’s first strategic plan was established, starting us on a path for a moment such as just where we find ourselves today. I am confident a few Council members were puzzled at the need for such an effort. After all, they had been budgeting around priorities for a number of years by then, and there was a compilation of strategies scattered among several policy documents used to varying degrees by the City in decision making.  The real value of that retreat and the strategic plan was not the document so much as it was the recognition of a particular manner of decision making or of thinking, that is strategically.  For the first time, the Council (and community members) could see and think about how interrelated many decisions are—how the various approaches we take, the way we deliver our services, and where we choose to spend taxpayers funds are weaved together to form the City we have.  

A Progression

The first plan concentrated mainly on pulling the disparate parts together into one coherent document and highlighted the connectedness of the various parts.  The second refined this a bit further, and it became clearer to those involved how a program to help third-graders read better, efforts to rid homes of lead paint, and investments in community libraries related to a stronger economy and healthier community.  It became clearer how an entrepreneurship program in an old building, combined with cutting-edge biomedical research in new multi-million dollar facilities, and care offered at the region’s largest health care provider, together formed the foundation of a corridor where innovation is driving economic expansion.  It became clearer how a diversity of outdoor recreation offerings, along with unique restaurants and small businesses, combined with museums and vibrant performing arts lure visitors and serve as a recruitment tool for those researchers in that innovation corridor.

The Value of Strategy

So now we find ourselves confronting a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and an unprecedented opportunity to recreate an equitable future that finally rids the implications of centuries of racism.  Strategic leadership has never been so important or necessary.  The virus, the economic fallout, and the demonstrations have, combined, made it very clear we need to do many things better than we have been.  We need to advance further and faster on addressing inequities in health outcomes and economic opportunity.  We need to determine how we can support our local businesses and cultural institutions even more.  We need to be certain that our expenditures on and practices around community safety ensure everyone is safe.

A Foundation Upon Which to Build

The good news is we are not starting from scratch.  As a community, we have been for years addressing many of these challenges and, in many instances, making meaningful progress.  This is much more about how to do what we have been doing even better and more intentionally.  It is also critical to note that while it is important that the City lead in many of these, real, lasting change will only come about through similar intentional actions by the people, businesses, and organizations that call Roanoke home.  The Council, with help from its residents, can address structural and institutional racism, but real change will only occur when the entire community does the same in their homes, associations, churches, and businesses.


This is a time to progress from rhetoric and demonstrations to thoughtful, strategic, and sustainable action.  In many ways, what lies ahead is the hard work, the slow and messy work.  Building on past actions such as inclusion of equity in the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and ridding schools and libraries of the names of divisive and racist individuals while honoring champions of freedom and justice in the naming of other institutions, the Council continues this work at today’s Council meeting.  First, with the formation of a permanent appointed body to advise the Council of ways to rid our community of institutional inequities and advance empowerment.  Second, by initiating further removal of monuments to those whose ideals are incompatible with the goals of anti-racism and equity—in this case, the removal of the Lee Monument and the renaming of Lee Plaza.  

These steps will be followed by a series of focus groups, individual interviews, and other methods of listening by the Council and City Administration to prepare them for amending the City’s priorities, strategies, and expenditures.  These conversations will occur in late July and will be reported on in August. Then in late August, the Council will again convene at a retreat to engage in intentionally thinking about its priorities and the strategies used, and expenditures made to advance on those priorities.  This retreat will be followed by a series of work sessions where new policies, new or revised initiatives and programs, and revised budget proposals are formulated.  This will culminate in November at the Council’s annual budget retreat, where the foundation of the FY22 budget will be laid out to ensure equitable outcomes aligned with the work completed through the preceding months.  Along the way, the City will continue to advance the work of addressing health outcomes disparities, educational attainment, economic opportunities, and recovery from COVID-19 impacts.

This is important work. If done well and done thoughtfully, lives will be made better and our community will be the stronger for it.  And, shouldn’t that be why we are all here in this City—to better our situation, that of our friends and family, along with those we may never know or even meet?  

--Bob Cowell


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