Public work still crucial, Clinton tells black forum

Former President Bill Clinton took the stage Saturday evening in downtown Little Rock with a message of hope to a national group of black public administrators.

He told them to continue to find solutions to issues facing their communities -- including economics, race relations, health care and education.

"If you listen to the news and you listen to all the stuff that gets said over the past couple of years, you would think that America was going straight to hell in a handbasket," Clinton said. "We are not. We are on the rise thanks to people like you."

Gathered before him was an elegant crowd from the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, which was holding its annual conference at the Statehouse Convention Center. The group, which has 2,500 members, is composed of black public leaders in local and state governments. Hundreds of its members gathered in Little Rock for a six-day conference that included workshops and networking opportunities.

Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore serves as the president of the organization. The city's fire chief, Gregory Summers, serves as the Arkansas chapter's president.

On the evening of the conference's final full day, besuited public servants sat in thrall of Clinton during his half-hour remarks.

"Follow the trend lines, not the headlines" was his reprise, a phrase he's grown fond of using in speeches over the years -- one that encourages people to look past pessimism and instead focus on the headway made toward building a "more perfect union."

"We're not perfect, we'll never be perfect, but we can always do better, and we better do better," he said.

He was introduced by Carlotta Walls LaNier, a friend of 40 years who was the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Until then, segregation laws barred black students from Central.

"It's an honor and a challenge introducing a man who needs no introduction," she said, before remarking on the proximity of their lives 60 years ago: She, a new sophomore in Central High; he, a sixth grader in Hot Springs.

"How could you not reflect back to those days when an earlier governor ordered the guards to cross their guns and not let us get to school, for which our parents paid taxes," Walls LaNier said, referring to the integration of Central High.

When Clinton arrived onstage -- without notes or prompters -- he emboldened the audience of public workers.

"Most of you will never make a headline in your life, but you make a trend line every day," he said. "The trend lines reside in public service in two ways: One, you help people seize their opportunities and solve their problems and do their business on a daily basis. And you help build out a better future.

"You won't get a headline for doing your job."

The title of this year's Black Public Administrators conference was Vital Times: Planning Today for Tomorrow's Success, and in keeping with that theme, Clinton focused on unity: between left and right, between rural and urban, black and white, immigrant and native-born.

The white working class without a college education -- the segment of U.S. society experiencing a declining life expectancy because of higher rates of drug use, suicide, alcoholism, diabetes; the people who Clinton said are dying of hopelessness -- "you got to lift these people up, too, because if you don't then there's a drug problem coming to a neighborhood near you. Because whether you like it or not, we are all in this together."

Clinton went on to emphasize the importance of public workers -- "the people who make the trains run on time" -- who are necessary for lifting up their communities.

Metro on 04/23/2017

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