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Sturgeon reflects on stint in prestigious Harvard program

Matt Sturgeon
Staff Photo |

Rifle City Manager Matt Sturgeon recently returned from the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program in Boston. The three-week program was both necessary and fulfilling, he said.

In the race to catch up on three weeks of municipal business, Sturgeon took time to answer some questions on the experience and what he learned.

Citizen Telegram: How was it?

Sturgeon: The experience was necessary and well worth the three-week commitment. It was professionally fulfilling and one that I will carry with me for my career.

CT: Did you have any sort of sense of what it would be like before you went? How did the actual experience compare?

Sturgeon: I spoke with a couple of participants before I left and the common description was “intense.” When one hears intense you think workload, and it was a lot of work. However, the intensity was really around the subject matter.

By participating in this program and exiting the community for such a substantial period of time, I got to look deeper into the diversity and complexity of problems facing local government. The experience exceeded my expectations.

CT: What do you think was the most beneficial takeaway from the event?

Sturgeon: There were so many takeaways, to choose one is difficult. I think the most beneficial takeaway was really being able to see the relevance of local government in our nation, and being able to stop and think about how that relevance was created by design when the framers of the Constitution put forward a new method of governance.

Sometimes I think citizens and leaders have lost sight of the grand design of our governmental structure, and a lot of that is because information moves so quickly and we work in sound bites. The messy, incremental method in which we solve problems is perhaps the most unappreciated part of our system.

Local government is a place where elected officials and the general public are in touch — this system was purposeful. Council is elected in a non-partisan way, councilmembers work and live in the town they serve, the public can find them and interact with them whenever it is convenient for the public to do so, and they share in the experience of living in the same community.

There is great opportunity in this system, and I think when time is taken to make this observation the simplicity and effectiveness of this design can be appreciated more.

There were two other moments that I have to mention that touched me deeply. Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen Square activist in 1989, shared parts of his life story with the program participants.

Jianli’s experiences growing up the son of a Communist Party leader in China and revolting from that idea and his father were incredible, but there was a part of his story that I wish everyone could hear him share. After coming to the U.S. he founded the Foundation for China in the 21st century and was blacklisted by the People’s Republic of China and lost his passport.

Jianli returned to a China on a friend’s passport and was immediately arrested and imprisoned for five years. While in prison, he met a 21-year-old young man who was sentenced to death for stealing two motorcycles.

Jianli shared with us that on the day of this prisoner’s execution, he told Jianli, “I do not want to be born again until I see the colors red, white and blue.” Jianli then proceeded to remind us, while in tears recalling that day, that the United States of America continues to stand as a beacon of hope for freedom and liberty to countless millions around the globe.

The second moment came at the end of the class when one of the program participants who was foreign born shared that when he was a child he was present when a man ripped a cross off his uncle’s neck and shot him dead in the street for being a Christian.

His family then immigrated to the United States not because it’s a Christian nation, but because the United States affords individuals the right to be Christian — a subtle but important distinction.

CT: Any items specifically applicable to Rifle?

Sturgeon: It all applied. There were no specific “silver bullets” that came out of the course. I went thinking I wanted specific solutions, but after going through the program, I appreciated it providing a broader framework to apply when searching for solutions. I also met 46 very talented and dedicated individuals I now have in my “black book” and will call when I have specific questions about a topic the community is facing.

CT: What fun things did you get to do in Boston?

Sturgeon: I walked the Freedom Trail, toured Fenway Park and visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, so I got a little taste of Boston. It’s a great city that oozes American history. I highly recommend people put it on their list of places to visit.


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