Given the success of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous — I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if those same twelve steps were modified slightly, to fit the needs of cities.  Keep in mind, this is not meant to poke fun at AA or NA, or those who are recovering from an addiction.  Instead, this is a way to address a serious issue facing Baltimore and many other cities across the country.  I have obviously taken editorial liberties with some of the steps, but hopefully you’ll get the idea, come up with some ideas, and run with them.

Step One:  We admit there is a problem — publicly, and with humility. 

Anyone who has ever overcome an addiction will tell you this is the hardest step.  Our government seems to be in the denial stage — refusing to admit there are serious issues at the heart of our city’s decline.  Decades upon decades of poor management, poor policy and planning choices, and a shrinking tax base have to be acknowledged in order to move forward.

Step Two:  We believe a force greater than us is needed to solve this problem and restore us.

The citizens of this city are its greatest resource.  And whether they realize it or not — they are more powerful and mighty than any government.  Let’s face it — there’s strength in numbers, and there are more of us than there are of them.  What would happen if the taxpayers in Baltimore truly came together in a meaningful and productive way to make our voices heard?  Young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian — everyone has the ability to make change, and together, we can be unstoppable.

Step Three:  We will trust our collective power, and believe that we can overcome the obstacles we encounter along the way.

It’s one thing to say it, another thing entirely to believe it.  However, restoring anything — a city, a life, a career, a family — that effort also requires a certain amount of blind faith and the ability to trust your neighbor.

Step Four:  We will make a searching and fearless inventory of what we truly need from our elected officials, and from each other.

We’ve all taken the surveys, used the mayor’s fun little “fix the budget” tool, sat in community meetings.  We know what we want from the city — now let’s think about what we need.  Two different things, “want” and “need” — time to let go of the “They’re going to open a Trader Joe’s here” and “We’re going to be the next Federal Hill” pie in the sky nonsense, and get real.  What do we really need, and who among us can make that happen?

Step Five: Admit what we’ve done wrong and discuss how we’ve come to the place we’re currently in.

This, in my mind, goes hand in hand with Step One.  It’s one of the most critical steps — it’s all well and good to admit there’s a problem, but in order to fix it…and most importantly, assure that it won’t happen again…is to address the how and why we’re in this current mess.  Crime, blight, high taxes — these things didn’t happen overnight, and they can’t change overnight.  But how were things allowed to degrade so far?  What decisions and policies can be made to assure it won’t happen again?

Step Six:  Removing defects of character. 

This is a hard one.  But in order to remove the blight, the crime, the homelessness — all of the things that make this city so unlivable at times — we need to remove the pieces of ourselves that prevent sustainable change from happening.  Cronyism in government, the false belief the city can be fixed in one mayoral term, the short-sighted non-innovative thinking.  These things must change.  As taxpayers and voters, we have the ability to make this happen.

Step Seven:  Asking for help to remove our shortcomings.

As voters, this should be a no-brainer.  A big part of our collective shortcoming has to do with the fact that we have a government that has become complacent.  We need to go back to the previous steps and find our collective voice, and remove the elected officials who refuse to allow this city to grow to its full potential.

Step Eight:  Be willing to make amends to the people who have been harmed by our actions.

Our government has treated taxpayers in this city badly.  Our government asks us to live with high crime, blocks and blocks of blight, food deserts, a broken school system.  Our elected officials need to make amends to us, by putting us first.  Growing the city by 10,000 new residents is impossible until current residents have a city worth living in.

Step Nine:  Make direct amends to those who have been negatively impacted.

The Mayor released the preliminary budget for 2013, a budget that negatively impacts our fire department, and therefore will have a negative impact on residents.  Without strong public safety, we cannot grow and change as a city. Neighborhoods have lost necessary services and businesses — grocery stores, as one example.  Without healthy food choices, residents cannot thrive.  Neighborhoods are being negatively impacted by clustering addiction services in residential areas — again, contributing to the crime and blight, sending the message to people in those communities “We don’t care about you.”  Neighborhoods are losing rec centers and community hubs.  Telling our most vulnerable citizens they don’t matter — it’s simply reprehensible.  Children and the elderly in this city do matter, and should be at the top of our government’s priority list.  Healthy safe families = healthy safe city.

Step Ten:  Continue to take personal inventory when necessary.

Obviously this is an ongoing process, and nothing worth having ever comes easily.  We all have to do more with less, and that includes governments.  We all have to embrace the good — the people who have stuck by us through thick and thin, and cherish them.  Governments have to embrace us as taxpayers, and as the people who are most important in the fight to fix the things that are so badly broken.  And that requires diligence and thought.

Step Eleven:  Through thoughtful dialogue, open conversations, and honest communication, our government can seek and receive our help and support in making this a better city for all residents.

Nobody likes to be dictated to, nor do people enjoy being schmoozed.  Honest conversations require participation  on both sides — and it’s time this happens between our elected officials and residents.  Enough with the platitudes, buzzwords, and hollow campaign promises.  None of us live in an ivory tower, and none of us are above listening to each other.

Step Twelve:  Having reached a (hopefully) “aha moment”, we’ve decided to take these steps to a wider audience and make things happen.

Having worked for a few nonprofits here and in DC, something became quickly apparent to me.  We tend to preach to the choir, ad nauseum.  The people who actually need to hear our words, attend our seminars and workshops, be a part of a larger conversation — we don’t reach out to them.  Instead, we reach out to people and groups we know will agree with us.  Democrats with Democrats, white middle-aged people with white middle-aged people, architects with architects.  And we come up with these “great ideas” that never go anywhere, because the very people whose fate we’re deciding (yes, that’s what we’re doing whether we want to admit or not) — well, they weren’t invited.  Oh sure, there was an announcement on Facebook, but my guess is half the folks we need in order to make sustainable changes — they’re not on Facebook.  They’re not on Twitter.  They don’t have an iPhone, and don’t want one.  They do, however, live next door, around the corner, up the block, and across town.  If you’d like to meet them, I’d be more than happy to introduce you.