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Annual Meeting Keynote Speaker: 'Be with the People'

Compassion, a willingness to listen and the simple act of showing up to lower-profile gatherings — such as events at local schools — can all go a long way toward communicating a commitment to public service and building bonds between local government officials and residents.

Those are just a few of the ways Jennifer Pinckney — whose husband, Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was killed in the shootings at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — urges municipal elected officials and staff to show leadership.

In the three years since the shooting, Pinckney has established a foundation to continue her husband's legacy of improving the quality of life for all South Carolina residents.

She also urges those in public life to accept that one of the greatest challenges will be balancing the often competing needs and desires of a diverse population.

"As a leader, you're never going to satisfy everyone," she said. "Everyone is going to have their own opinions, their own thoughts, their own feelings on different issues."

'Don't always delegate'
First, listen, says Pinckney.

"When you're serving the public, you basically need to first listen to figure out what's going on and to find out what the problems are before you try to jump in and solve them," she said. "Be more compassionate with people. Get down and work with the people. Don't always delegate."

'Roll up your sleeves'
Go to the source.

"Instead of finding out information from other people, roll up your sleeves and get down in the valley and work with people," said Pinckney. Part of that means connecting with a wide swath of residents.

"You shouldn't always talk to the president or the top tier people because they may not always know a lot of the general problems," she said. "Sometimes you need to talk to the workers themselves."

"And you've got to do the good and the bad side of it. You just can't go to those with the authority — the upper class or the middle class," she said. "You've got to go to the lower class people, too. Figure out what problems are out there and how can we all come together in unity to solve the problems."

'Everyone wants to be heard'
Municipal elected officials and staff know they have a unique challenge: To communicate with residents from all walks of life, who have a variety of needs, expectations and life experiences. But some things draw them together. Start by identifying attributes that all residents share.

"We all want to be heard. We all want to feel that whenever we speak, regardless of who we are, that we are heard and that our opinions are being valued," said Pinckney.

"Everyone should be treated fairly. And everyone should be entitled to give their thoughts and their opinions."

This goes beyond merely going through the motions, however.

"Value people's opinions and consider what people have to say," she added.

'Be with the people'
Pinckney has a special message for municipal elected officials — Get active in the whole city, including places you wouldn't immediately think to visit.

"Go out and visit the schools. Go to some of the parent events that are being held," she said.

"Sometimes you should just show your face to let people know you care, versus the only time they see you is during election time. During election time, you go everywhere. But after the election time you don't see them anymore."

It comes down to social capital. Local government officials, and law enforcement in particular, know that establishing rapport in the absence of conflict is a powerful proactive step.

"I think you've got to be with the people and create opportunities — You can either create them or go to community events that are already out there," she said. "Talk to the people. And not just when you need a vote. Show them that you care."

Pinckney will be the keynote speaker at the Municipal Association of South Carolina's Annual Meeting, July 19 – 22, where she will bring a leadership message of hope and public service to the opening general session. Her vision will set the tone for this year's agenda of learning, public service and inspiration.