I grew up attending swim meets in Defiance. I took my drivers license test in Defiance. I even got my ass kicked on an annual basis by the Defiance High School Football team. When I worked as a Main Street State Coordinator, I visited Defiance at least once a year for check-ins, conferences and meetings. Then, last week, I returned after ten years to lead a Civic Pride Workshop.
To stroll through town you wouldn’t think a workshop on civic pride would be necessary. The buildings of downtown Defiance, Ohio are mostly maintained, with a couple of exceptions, presumably from absentee owners. There are a number of thriving businesses on Main Street. The parks are manicured, sidewalks in good shape, and some gorgeous little alley projects have popped up.
On the whole, Defiance is doing very well. Better than most small towns in the Mid-west. So why did they invite me in when it appears they are already ahead of the game?
In their words, “We want to be better.” This gave me the chills. This town is doing great, but they want to do even more. They realize improvement isn’t something you accomplish, but something you DO, something you work at, not achieve. The city leaders were all well aware that while they are getting better, they will never finish.
I loved hearing this. Usually, when I walk around to do an assessment of a town, I start looking for all the things that are wrong so I can hold it up in front of the crowd and ask them, “How did this happen?” and ask them “Why this is acceptable?”. These “before” photos were a little tougher to find in Defiance. Sure, I did find a few, but it wasn’t so easy. Sadly, some towns make this very, very easy.
There was a part of me that was concerned about how the crowd would feel about my photos. People can get pretty defensive about their town and when you consider that this place is actually called Defiance…well, I was expecting some pushback. There is almost always pushback.
So I put the photos up on the projector- photos of weeds in the sidewalk, photos of empty storefronts and trash piled in the breezeway. Heads nodding. Knowing glances. No objections. No excuses. If anything, there was some disappointment that they hadn’t done better already.
This was not what I had anticipated. Usually, someone from the crowd will say that I am not being fair, or offer up the excuse- that they couldn’t force a property owner to tend to their building or make a business to take care of their windows. There is almost always an objection to what is simply a photo. Not in Defiance. They saw the reality and accepted it without complaint.
I explained that what I saw out there on the street was actually pretty incredible and that Defiance should be proud, but I also reiterated that almost everyone will come and tell you what’s good. But getting a pat on the back isn’t always what we need. It’s important to celebrate your accomplishments, but just as much, you gotta be real about your shortcomings.
The more I do this work, the more I see myself as a kind of civic counselor, talking a community through their problems and providing simple, matter of fact solutions. Not the technical stuff- because we all know there are plenty of firms out there that can provide that- because these problems aren’t technical, they are human problems. The issues towns struggle to overcome are more often emotional than anything else. We don’t need to rethink everything, we simply need to talk about what’s not going so well. If you went to your counselor or your doctor and told them everything was okay… well, you would be wasting a visit and an opportunity. You wouldn’t get the answers you need because you are afraid of letting someone see what’s really going on. Not to mention that you would also be wasting time and money, essentially creating even more problems with your tactics.
Defiance was doing great, but they weren’t satisfied with great. They asked me to point out where they can do better. This is the mark of true success at any level. The desire to continue to do better is what sets a person, business or city apart. Even the most successful people in the world have advisors. Even Tiger Woods has a golf coach.
They wanted to talk about how to deal with the empty buildings. They wanted to discuss how to increase local engagement and attract more volunteers. The 40 people in the room made up a huge chunk of local leadership. These attendees were the directors of all the local organizations, but they didn’t bring any ego with them. They weren’t in the workshop to challenge, but instead, they came to listen and learn.
I do an exercise in the workshop which shows how I relate dysfunctional people to dysfunctional places. Making the point, that places behave like the people that inhabit them. So we talked about characteristics of dysfunctional people, and we made a list of their common traits- an unwillingness to learn, resistant to change, doesn’t take advice, does not seek external solutions, poor communication, blames others, and so on. All of these are characteristics of a person you know, and they are also the characteristics of a town you know. If a quality exists in a person, then it exists in a city. We know plenty of dysfunctional people and plenty of dysfunctional towns, and they behave the same.
It’s funny work that I do, and my services tend to appeal more to the dysfunctional towns because they know they need help, but they are also the least likely to be able to ask for or receive said help. Defiance, on the other hand, was not dysfunctional, which made them even more self-aware. They knew they had been doing well, but this had created a culture of continuing to want to do well. They were well aware that they had plenty to work on, that the community still had plenty to learn and that self-improvement never stops.
It was a valuable lesson to me that just because a community might look cute, doesn’t mean that there’s no work left to do. And that highly functioning people and places are aware of this condition. You will never be in perfect shape, but you can work on getting healthier every day. You will never be perfect at a sport, but you can work to improve every day. You can never be a perfect town or consultant, you have to be willing to look at your blindspots, you have to be honest about the warts and be willing to work on the things you don’t like.
As Matthew Petty put it to me in a conversation in Maine two weeks ago- the one piece of advice he leaves every community with is this… “Your work will never be done, there is no completion, you simply have to strive to get better in what ever way possible every single damn day.” This is the only secret and it’s no secret at all.
Hopefully the workshop attendees learned a thing or two because they reminded me of a valuable lesson. That stagnation is decline. The moment you believe you have completed the job, that’s when you start sliding back. Because the forces of nature are at work every day and to do nothing is to succumb to them. To get better is to accept that you are on a journey that will never end, that you must resist the temptation to rest on your laurels and accept good enough because Defiance is just as much a place as it is a state of mind.
*Photo courtesy of Ashbaugh Aerial