I find no value in telling a community what they want to hear. There are plenty of people in this line of business who are happy to fill that role- but it won’t be me. I just find no value in it, except maybe that it would make me more likable.
It is not that I am opposed to being likable, I am sure a couple people must find me pleasant. The problem is, if I tell a ‘client community’ that everything is great, when in fact it isn’t, aren’t I doing them a disservice? Aren’t I denying the community an opportunity to recognize their shortcomings and address them accordingly? Yes.
When we refuse to recognize our problems, we can’t possibly begin to work on them. This is a strategy for stagnation, but we must want for more. I find communities tend to tell themselves the same story over and over, even when there is no proof of it. “We are on the upswing”, “our town is almost there” and “We’ve nearly reached a tipping point.” I get it. I am an optimist to my core, and as Winston Churchill said, “I am an optimist, it does not seem too much use being anything else.”
It makes sense to be an optimist.There is value in assuming tomorrow will be better than today and studies have demonstrated that optimists actually do fair better in life, but having a rosy outlook doesn’t mean one must ignore the facts.
Many communities aren’t on the upswing, plenty of them won’t have a better day tomorrow. Too many of them aren’t being truthful about current conditions. It brings me no pleasure to have to be the bearer of bad news, but there is value in truth and the path forward requires an honest assessment.
Not everyone wants to hear it and it certainly does not make me popular. Mayor Barker of Hattiesburg said that when he found out I was coming to town it was like having your priest stop by the house announced. While hysterical, I would not call it a ringing endorsement. I applaud those communities that are willing to admit that things are wrong. The mayors, managers and council members that recognize the problems and aim to do something about them, these are the courageous ones. Anyone can rant about the issues online, but far too many city leaders like to pretend that everything is just fine.
It’s perfectly okay for things not to be okay. They can’t be. A handful of cities have reaped all the rewards from an economy that favors those already on top. The advice most communities receive is terrible and has only served to exacerbate an already bad situation. If all the advice your town has received for the last 30 years hasn’t worked, don’t feel obligated to keep listening. Use your own eyes to decide how things are going.
Your community doesn’t need a cheerleader, it needs a counselor. Anyone can tell you what’s right, but you need to know what’s wrong. You have to find out what isn’t working for your town, why residents are unhappy and why kids leave when they graduate. These are the real issues and they aren’t being discussed.
But don’t be scared. Don’t shy away from the ugly truth. Embrace it. Own it. Then you can deal with it. Accept that things aren’t all right and stop pretending otherwise. There is no world where ignoring your problems will improve them. You can only get better when you admit the problems exist.
There is plenty to be optimistic about and lots of reasons to be thankful, but true improvement is only possible when we come to grips with our problems. Be bold, be brave and take a long hard look at your town and ask what’s wrong. Take photos of the empty buildings, notice the buckling sidewalks, pay attention to the broken windows and weeds. This is your town, not the one from the tourism brochure, or from the local website that got the lighting just right. Face your city in all of its flaws. Acknowledge it and accept it. Then change it.