Whatever the reason, some of the community and business leaders I run into, the kind of folks we used to call civic boosters, are starting to say some uncharacteristic things.
The head of a business organization remarked over lunch that he is starting to wonder if Albuquerque and New Mexico are doing as well as they ever will do, that too many of our children will always be high school dropouts, that our economy will never thrive without government spending.
A former civic booster who left town a few years ago told friends during a recent visit that a return to Albuquerque would be a step backward.
A retired but still active civic leader said she was beginning to wonder if anything will ever change in New Mexico and if instead of fighting all the time she should forget about our problems and focus on enjoying her own life.
Politically astute boosters bemoan the lack of quality people to run some state and local government agencies and the lack of quality candidates for political office. Neither team, they say, has a very deep bench.
What really got people depressed seems to be the latest Kids Count publication of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which found that New Mexico is the worst state in the nation to be a child. Just about everyone I’ve talked with in the past month has been sick about it.
The foundation reported our kids are too poor, too often pregnant, perform badly in school and die too young. There was nothing new in Kids Count, except for the ranking. Our kids have been impoverished, ignorant and in danger for a long time. What the boosters have told me is that after years of seeing New Mexico wind up on the wrong end of all the lists that circulate, we finally found ourselves dead last on an important and well- respected list.
There is a sense of helplessness. We cut taxes but business does not thrive. We raise teachers’ pay but children do not learn. The same well-intentioned people rotate through the boards of charities, trade groups and state advisory commissions, and it seems as though nothing happens. Boosters ask each other where we begin to get a handle on these problems, and no one seems to know.
It’s weird. Folks who for years have set themselves the task of making this a better place – confident folks, people who have been successful in their businesses, people who get the awards handed out by trade and civic organizations – are beginning to suspect the goal is unachievable.
New Mexico’s only real problem is poverty, and poverty is perhaps the most difficult problem to solve. Let’s acknowledge that the booster bench is pretty thin, too. This is a state with a workforce of fewer than 900,000 people. There are only so many civic leaders to go around. It’s no wonder they’re tired.
Let’s ask ourselves why it is that our own sense of identity as a city, a state and a citizenry is so tenuous that we let every out-of-state organization with a database dictate to us who we are and what we should think of ourselves. We spend our time in our civic and political organizations whining that some D.C. or Dallas think tank has decreed that our taxes kill jobs and our hospitals kill everybody else, that our pensions will destroy our finances and our nuclear waste will destroy Santa Fe.
Don’t get me wrong. What Kids Count reports is valuable information that, if used properly, should help guide us toward solutions. What we do with Kids Count is beat ourselves bloody and resign ourselves to failure.
A confident people with a strong sense of self would not do that. I find it difficult to believe that people living in Boston or Dallas or Seattle spend much time fretting over what anyone thinks of them as a community. I suspect we do so because we don’t really know who we are. When Johnny Depp promotes a movie here or when Forbes magazine, in an absurd and misleading commentary, calls us a “death spiral state,” we feel some relief that someone out there can tell us something about ourselves. Whether it’s good, bad, accurate or silly, it’s a reed to lean on.
The antidote to letting Forbes or the Casey Foundation define us is to define ourselves. As any psychotherapist will tell you, defining oneself is no small task, but it is essential to good health. If New Mexico has a leadership deficit, it is there. I cannot name a civic, political, business or media leader who can tell you what it means to be a New Mexican. I’m no leader, but I can’t do it either.
Until we understand who we are, until we define ourselves on our own terms, until we are prepared to say what we intend to become, I fear our economy will remain unhealthy, and our children will remain impoverished.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or email@example.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.