12/20/2011 04:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012

The Big Distraction

We are a city adrift. Our mayor is paralyzed. Our Council is divided between the corrupt and the complicit. Our media has trouble keeping up with the parade of scandals. Meanwhile, corporate money pours into the political system unabated, and proposed ethics legislation is weak and toothless.

But, this is not a letter about our ethics crisis. In all of this great commotion, we have lost sight of the true problems facing the District. While we fiddle with the composition of a new ethics board and technical changes to the municipal code, DC burns with 30% child poverty and 50% youth unemployment rates. The latest national assessments show that DC has the highest black-white achievement gap in the country. A long line of reports catalogue the grinding challenges we face in our communities, and our elected officials do nothing.

But, this is not a letter about statistics either. Instead, this is a letter about leadership. I want to propose something different. Rather than surrender our civic power to unworthy politicians, we should fight to solve our own problems. Here's how:

• Take back school reform. This is the key to our success. Either we get on the pathway to a city magnificent for all young people, or we suffer in a District permanently segregated. The long road begins with community schools, promise neighborhoods, a strengthened teacher corps, increased career and technical education, and improved parent and youth engagement.

• Clean out the money. We must demand real ethics reform that eliminates corporate bundling, constituent service slush funds, conflicted outside employment, and influence-buying donations from lobbyists and contractors. In a city striving for statehood, let's not let big business steal what little democracy we possess.

• Build a local economy. We must be the job creators and revivers of once-vibrant communities not fat cats in faraway corporate offices. This means that we support small businesses with incubators, technical assistance, community grants, green programs, easier regulatory burdens, and a culture of advocacy rather than obstruction. Six Wal-Marts are not the solution. We're going to find the answer in the corner bakery.

These are not silver bullets. They are roadmaps for bottom-up, community leadership. We have enough complicated plans on the shelves. What we don't have are leaders who act as facilitators and listeners. The current crop is too busy protecting its money and plotting legal strategies to stay out of jail. Enough distractions. Let's get to work.