Civic Therapy

November 16, 2023

I was warned it was going to be a strange question. I braced myself. “Do you ever see yourself as some sort of civic therapist?” she asked. Most likely the first time my colleague had ever asked this question of someone, but not the first time I had been asked, in fact, it’s something I think about all the time. I responded with an emphatic “yes.”

I did not set out to be any sort of civic therapist, it just kind of happened. I also can’t find any openings on Indeed for such a position. I hope that changes. I think it is extremely useful to reconsider our work in the field of community development, thinking more like a counselor would benefit a lot of communities.

When I got my start, I applied all the lessons I had been taught in graduate school and what I had learned from reading and talking to other people in the field. I approached revitalization in a very technical manner. This is what we men do. There is a problem so clearly we can use numbers and acronyms to solve this problem.

It only took me a decade or so to realize this approach wasn’t working. Scratch that, not working isn’t quite right, but it had its limits. Technical solutions could help communities that had already established success and had the ability to execute the ideas. A lot of the communities I was working with were just not in this position.

I would return to certain towns every year offering up the same technical advice and leaving with the knowledge that this time I had fixed them. This time they would listen to my amazing words and make the necessary changes. A year later I would return and nothing much had changed. They weren’t heeding my incredible guidance.

Later I realized that they just weren’t in a position to take on certain aspects of the work. Sure, real estate development matters and grant applications matter, but these towns were dealing with a more fundamental issue that had to be addressed first. They were never going to get to updating the zoning code or passing vacant property legislation when community leaders were struggling with the very basics.

Throughout this process, I figured out that our cities and towns behave just like the people that inhabit them. A town full of confident residents will have an heir of confidence about it. A town that is known as an outdoor adventure Mecca will count a lot of outdoorsy people amongst its ranks. A community that by all accounts appears to be apathetic, will be full of residents dealing with apathy.

The communities I was struggling most to help, were the ones dealing with issues of apathy and low self-esteem. The hardest ones to help were the ones who just weren’t prepared or capable of taking technical advice. They needed emotional help.

Low self-esteem is not a technical issue, it is a human issue. Apathy cannot be cured with grant money. A lack of care or concern requires some emotional thinking. Most every town I work with is dealing with some degree of civic apathy and low civic self-esteem. This is no indictment of them by the way, residents are simply responding to a series of choices nearly every city made over the last half-century that has left them with very little to care about, very little to be proud of. So a town full of residents with very little care or concern for the community is going to be an apathetic community.

The point is that progress in such towns is going to require something quite different from what we were all told in our classrooms, by the experts and in the textbooks. A community that is struggling with trust, with trauma, with rampant apathy and devastating low civic self-esteem is not going to respond to the usual tools. This is the reason every big new investment failed to make a difference, why every economic development jobs windfall failed to make a dent, why the new tourism numbers didn’t matter. Its because the average resident just does not give a damn about those things. And why should they?

Those numbers might make some officials excited. They might make the CVB or economic development office happy, but they don’t affect the vast majority of residents. I hate to have to point this out, but it seems incredibly necessary, a community is just made up of people and if those people aren’t happy, the community is in trouble. If residents are miserable, so is the town. If citizens are apathetic, so is the city. So any effort that is not geared towards residents, is trivial.

Cities and towns that are struggling with these issues would do well to find a civic therapist.  Or better yet, the community development people working in these cities and towns would do well to consider their work a little bit more like therapy. Consider what it takes to lift people up, what does it take to cure an individual of their apathy, how do we boost a friend’s sagging self-esteem.

This is the job and the good thing about it is, it only requires an understanding of human nature. It is not technical it does not require an advanced degree. Experts don’t hold any secrets, so dispense with that idea and the concepts you have learned from them.

Try this instead. If people don’t care much about their community, ask yourself, what would make you care more about your community? If people aren’t very proud of their town, ask yourself, what would make you more proud of your town? If people don’t feel good about the place they call home, what would make you feel better about that place?

The answers to the above are the actual answers. By just being a human, you have a pretty good understanding of human nature, therefore you have all the insights you need. Go forth civic therapists! Your community needs you.

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