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Mayor Berke shares three priorities with Leadership Chattanooga grads

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke addressed the graduating class of Leadership Chattanooga Friday at a ceremony downtown. He used the keynote speech to repeat three priorities: public safety, youth development, and economic development.

Berke was on hand to welcome nearly 30 emerging and existing leaders who have completed an intense 10-month development program through the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

The mayor told the hundreds in attendance that a leader is someone who rises.

"Rising also means standing out and making yourself a target, "Berke said.

"And by rising, leaders put themselves at risk of falling."

The Leadership Chattanooga class was divided into five teams to complete separate volunteer projects. All five teams chose to do a project that helped public education. This is the first year all groups helped the same sector of the community.

The teams created projects ranging from mentoring to a clothing closet. The five schools working with Leadership Chattanooga were: Bess T. Shepherd Elementary, Dalewood Middle, East Side Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle.

Excerpt from Mayor Andy Berke keynote to Leadership Chattanooga:

I want to congratulate all the 2013 Leadership Chattanooga graduates. I can only imagine this time has been both challenging and exhilarating. You have bonded with each other, and those friendships will serve you well over your careers. And I know you must feel some sadness now that this experience is coming to a close, but I can assure you that the memories of these days will inspire you for decades to come.

Leadership Chattanooga is an incredible experience and since its start, almost 30 years ago, we've seen some of our greatest local leaders emerge. Now, it's your turn.

I know you have thought a good deal about what it means to be a leader over the last year. But let me give you my definition of leadership. For me, leadership has always been about elevation, rising upward to accept the challenges of the moment and be willing to do whatever it takes.

Many of us spend our lives in a rut, mired in minutiae. We don't feel like we can escape because the demands we face every day keep us firmly planted on the ground.

Leaders elevate themselves to a higher place. They rise above the mundane. While everyday execution is important, a leader knows there are times to step back and see the bigger picture. Sometimes that means joining the chorus, but it can also mean singing the solo. A leader judges the demands of the moment and rises to the occasion.

Listen, I know that sounds pretty great. It might even sound easy. But as you all know, it's anything but simple. Because rising also means standing out and making yourself a target. And by rising, leaders put themselves at risk of falling.

You might be surprised to know – or maybe not – but one of the most difficult places to be a leader is in the world of politics. If you look at politics today, many of our elected officials seem to believe that being at the front of a pack with the loudest bullhorn is leadership. It's a reflection of the times. Those who care the most seem to be the extreme elements of our society, and elected officials tend to hear from organized partisans much more than the engaged middle. Thinking that their job is to reflect what they hear at a meeting – rather than leading – pushes a politician to the extremes.

Plus it is much easier to be part of the pack, and – let's face it – many of our politicians model conflict every day. If your colleagues are doing it – if congressmen and Senators act that way – there is enormous pressure to go along. I certainly saw that in the General Assembly. That brand of leadership – bluster and notoriety over results – gets us nowhere.

My experience there was a little different than most. Even as a member of the minority party, I never viewed my role as simply complaining and casting the same votes as other members of my party.

Let me give you an example. In 2012 I introduced a bill called Tennessee Works, which would move Tennesseans from the unemployment rolls to the work rolls. I met with Governor Haslam – from a different party – and explained my passion for the bill. The Governor took the initiative to explore the concept himself, and he had members of his staff examine some revisions. Eventually, he made some suggestions to my bill. They made my idea better. I amended the legislation, and the bill passed unanimously in both houses. Now we have training that helps recently unemployed workers return to the workforce quicker, and it saves the State over $900,000 a year in the process.

The Governor and I did all this by rising. By understanding that the pettiness and divisiveness of governing cannot drag us down, stopping progress. It wasn't about showing off or pleasing the extremes. We needed to open up job possibilities for our unemployed.

Leadership also means rising above our usual activity to take advantage of moments that can transform an organization. When I became Mayor, we had an organizational structure that had existed for decades. In the view of many, it was the only way for the city to do business.

I met with city employees, who told me about their frustrations but also their dreams. They wanted to be part of a larger vision, to know the role each of them played in making our city a better place. As we moved forward in those conversations, I told them that I wanted them to be empowered to provide services using their expertise and experience. While they were enthusiastic about the concept, the employees also acknowledged the uncertainty change would bring.

When I took office I wanted to ensure that city government was in sync with our community priorities. So the first order was to institute large organizational change. We eliminated four departments, saving the taxpayers money. In their place, we placed core functions into three new areas, making sure that city priorities were delivered in the most efficient and effective way.

I know this has risks, and I recognized the fear it would bring. Councilmen Smith, Hakeem, Mitchell, and Grohn – as well as the other council members -- showed tremendous courage in embracing and shepherding this reorientation through the legislative process. They knew that part of leadership is rising above it all, refusing to let our fears stop us from doing what is right.

This ability to tackle large problems is a tremendous part of my job. As Mayor I rise to view the issues that affect our city, to see how they are linked and related. Progress will be made by having the right leaders in place, men and women who bring us together to work on issues bigger than ourselves. Issues like making our streets safer, investing in our youth, and ensuring job opportunities that reach every area of our city.

These are the challenges that I heard time and again during the campaign as well as over the last month in office. I have listened as Chattanoogans talked to me about the city they love and their hope for the future. As they told me their Chattanooga stories.

Like Vickie, who worries about the house on her block where a young man lives with his grandmother and deals drugs. Vickie knows that it's tearing down the quality of life in her neighborhood but she just doesn't know what to do about it.

Or Donna, who stopped me as I was walking on Main Street to tell me about her son, Michael. Michael's friends are leading him down the wrong path and she worries about his future. If he will graduate from high school or go to college.

And Tony, a young tech entrepreneur who moved back to Chattanooga because there's something special about our community. Tony knows he could grow and succeed here with the right help and support.

As Mayor, I must lead with a vision for Chattanooga that addresses all of these issues. And I will. My priorities are clear. The city must focus on public safety; economic and community development; and youth development.

There are too many of us who, like Vickie, worry about our safety every day. That is why I will be putting forth a comprehensive public safety plan to address violence in our city. That means employing innovative tactics like the High Point Initiative that bring us all together to reduce crime. And that's just the beginning.

Youth development is the best investment we can make in our future and is central to addressing public safety. For too long in our community we have pointed fingers rather than raising hands when asked who is responsible for educating our children. Today I raise my hand as Mayor and say the city is ready to do its part. And I want to commend Leadership Chattanooga for doing theirs.

This year, the community projects served five deserving schools – Bess T Shepard Elementary, Dalewood Middle, East Side Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, and Orchard Knob Middle. So thank you Leadership Chattanooga for raising your hand and opening doors of opportunity for our youth.

Those doors of opportunity must also open for the adults across Chattanooga. The city will be a major player in the recruitment of new jobs as we will link economic development with community development. Whether it is a new tech company in St. Elmo, a new grocery store in East Chattanooga, or a new retailer in East Brainerd, our growing prosperity should impact all in the community.

By rising and leading Chattanooga, I can see how these issues are connected. Vickie, Donna and Tony all share stories that form the landscape of Chattanooga's story. After all, Vickie's story does not have to end in fear. It could end when law enforcement and the community come together to stop the drug dealing on her street.

Donna's story does not have to end in sorrow. It could end when Michael develops the skills he needs to finish high school and graduate from college.

And Tony's story does not have to end in disappointment. It could end when his growing business creates jobs for people like Michael. You see how the issues that matter most to our community are connected to each other.

After all, it is difficult to get an excellent education if your street is too dangerous to walk to school. If you have no transportation from the West side of town to the east side, your job possibilities are limited by where you live. And it is hard to imagine a future as a child unless you have the education, skills and character to thrive in the 21st century workplace.

If we are going to make gains on these three priorities – public safety, youth development, and economic and community development – then we need a city government that delivers these services in the most effective and efficient way possible. That's my responsibility. But I can't do it alone.

All of us share responsibility for building community and creating opportunity. I have seen our local non-profits, churches, schools, private industry, and civic organizations like Leadership Chattanooga contribute so much to this area. But we can't stop there.

I want to lead a new city. One in which each of us has a role in our government. One in which we strive for unity of purpose rather than divisiveness and pettiness. One in which all of us share responsibility for making our streets safer, mentoring our youth, and building community.

That is what I am asking of you today. Help me lead this effort. Whether you are graduating from Leadership Chattanooga, a past graduate, a family member or a business owner – I ask you to serve your city. Too many Chattanoogans today see their window of opportunity closed, and feel no control over where their life is headed.

Everything in the past year – the energy in the community, the tremendous participation at our public forums, the eagerness of citizens to answer the critical question "What am I willing to do to help?" – tells me we are engaged as a community and ready to focus not only on ourselves but on empowering each other.

I am proud of the Leadership Chattanooga graduates and I am eager to see how you will raise your hand and take responsibility in our community. I thank you for your commitment to rising above as a leader and I know, with your help, we will build a stronger Chattanooga.

Thank you.


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