When I finished college in 1994, I had no intention of working for my hometown newspaper. But then 15 years and thousands of Commercial Appeal bylines later, I had no intention of leaving.
That's basically what I told Brian Stephens and Darrell Cobbins when they approached me over Christmas vacation about joining their new civic undertaking, a coalition called Rebuild Government.
With the Memphis and Shelby County Charter Commission charged with writing a charter for new government that voters will consider in November, Brian, Darrell, and their allies created Rebuild Government to generate a county-wide conversation about the enormous opportunity this community has to reform and reunite.
Come join us at Rebuild Government, they said. We want to inspire citizens to imagine the possibilities for a new, better, more efficient and effective government — and make sure the Charter Commission clearly understands the hopes, values, and concerns of people throughout this county.
Their arguments tugged at a part of me that, at age 38 and with two young children, felt a yearning to advocate for causes that aligned with my values. In short, I had an itch to stop being professionally neutral — to get off the bench — and Brian and Darrell offered an unexpected opportunity to scratch it.
I had gotten to know Darrell a few years earlier and had come to value his insights as one of Memphis' most civic-minded and respected young businessmen.
He's the Democrat in this civic partnership. Brian is the Republican and Army veteran who successfully rallied neighborhood groups to prevent Walmart from adding another big-box store in Cordova and to keep a strip club off Germantown Parkway.
"We can be a part of helping people in this county consider a new constitution that includes the protections we all want," Brian told me. "The city-county model we have is broken."
Darrell's business background has shown him the limitations of our current government model. "What we have is antiquated, rusted, and not transparent," he said. "We want to have a conversation about building a new government that responds to the challenges and opportunities we face in 2010."
Deciding to leave the newspaper was not easy, but ultimately I became convinced that no cause holds greater potential for generating the positive change Memphis and Shelby County so desperately need. That Rebuild Government is bipartisan, diverse, and includes active participants in neighborhoods throughout Shelby County only makes it more attractive.
Like Brian, I'm self-conscious about how idealistic we can sound talking about the possibilities, but it does make me think about my 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. What kind of future do they have in Memphis and Shelby County? Will they have any interest in sticking around after college? Will we even be able to afford the colleges if the Memphis region's stagnant economy continues to smother the earning potential for residents in all communities?
Right now, Rebuild Government is focused on getting people together from throughout the county for small group meetings where people feel comfortable being candid about priorities for a new government.
We are listening, we are organizing data, and we are studying how reformed metro government models have helped peer cities such as Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville accelerate past us toward healthier, more prosperous futures.
When my wife and I told my son that I was leaving the newspaper, he surprised us by getting emotional. Trying to reassure him, I said that Rebuild Government allowed me to try to make this a better community for him and his sister.
"But weren't you already doing that at the newspaper?" he asked. How do you explain to a first-grader about a daily newspaperman's duty to not take sides, to stay neutral, to suppress personal convictions?
Near the end of my first week at Rebuild, at school pickup, his teacher stopped to say my son had shared the news with his class. "He said you were going to help make a better future for him and his friend," she told me.
At Rebuild Government, we recognize that's an audacious goal. But we think it's worth talking about and invite you to join the conversation at rebuildgovernment.org or 347-8523.
(Zach McMillin is a former Flyer intern and Commercial Appeal reporter who now serves as communications director for "Rebuild government.")