When our son was the quarterback on the high school football team, my husband—who was also his coach — gave him the book “Uncommon” by Tony Dungy for them to read together. I didn’t read it but I might as well have because they talked about it so much our family adopted a sort of litmus test for choices and actions: Is it common or uncommon? The idea was that anyone could do the common thing. But to be uncommon — that’s something special. Coach Dungy’s challenge for himself and his players was to be uncommonly good at football, and like him, we found the concept spills over into everything else in life. The common thing is the easy thing, the thing everyone else is doing, the status quo. It’s the uncommon person who rises above that. And just like a diamond of the first water, the uncommon thing may be so beautiful we decide it’s worth it. But it’s going to cost us a lot more.
I thought about this as I watched the Arkansas Legislature’s most recent session, specifically the discussion surrounding congressional redistricting. The focus was on splitting Pulaski County between three separate districts, as if its treasures — its people — were the spoils of war. Just as I have been this whole year, I was discouraged and embarrassed by what I saw.
Rep. Jamie Scott (D-North Little Rock), who I know mostly through Twitter, spoke passionately on behalf of the people who elected her. Like her typically inspirational, team-building tweets, she reminded her fellow House members of the relationships they’ve built. “I hope you’re listening to me,” she said, “your colleague, your friend, your supporter … . This is going to really impact the people that I serve every day.”
In another exchange, Nelda Speaks, the Republican representative from Mountain Home who introduced the map that was eventually chosen, seemed unfamiliar with it, begging the question of who designed it, and for what. When Rep. Fred Love (D-Little Rock) asked why she wanted to divide the capital city, after just testifying that cities would be left whole, Speaks appeared bewildered.
“My house actually is now in the 4th Congressional District,” Love informed her.
“I was told it was a suburb … of Little Rock,” Speaks sputtered.
He assured her it was not. “I don’t live in a suburb. I live in Southwest Little Rock.”
Speaks’ reaction made the obvious even more flagrant. “OK.” She was ready to move on. No need for further discussion. Because it didn’t really matter.
Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) lent her support to Scott and Love by suggesting her fellow House members actually listen to their colleagues who serve on the ground in the affected districts. That they respect and trust each other. I wanted to stand up and cheer, even though this should not be a revolutionary idea.
Rep. Speaks’ behavior should not be the status quo in our state legislature, but it is. In fact, from what I watched, her insouciance was fairly mild. Much louder and prouder posturing by others is all too common.
What should be common is for elected officials to comprehend the bills they sponsor. It should be common for them to represent the people of their districts. It also should be common to listen to one’s colleagues and care about the effect a bill has on the whole state. It should be common to reach across the aisle and work together. Reverence for one’s sacred duty should be custom. It should be common for a government to do what is fair and right for all of its citizens, not just a chosen few.
All of these things should be common. They should be what every elected official is doing. They should be the basics of governing; the norm. But they are not.
It’s going to take us regular, everyday people acting in uncommon ways for things to change. We the people have to set the example we want our leaders to follow, and we have to demand they do it or vote them out. We have to stop accepting corruption, greed and dishonesty as the norm for our politicians. We have to humble ourselves, come together around values we share and learn to compromise on what we don’t.
We are all Arkansans. We are the ones who set the norms, who define what the status quo will or will not be. We’ve accepted this low level of governance for too long now. The truth is it both gives rise to and reflects what our communities have become. And it has gone too far. We can make things better — even beautiful — but it’s going to cost us. We must raise our standards. Arkansas is worth it.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry describes herself as a mother, teacher, farmer, writer, seeker and failed politician. The latter remains to be seen.