When talking about a topic, our thinking is confined by the language we use. The words provide the framework for how we view an issue. When we talk about communities, we rely on the language of business. We talk about growth, attraction, and investment. We are so economic development obsessed, we try and force every subject into an economic framework and it has been a disaster for our cities. A community is not a business, will never be a business, it should not be treated like a business and should never aspire to be a business. A town is a collection of people and when we adopt the language of people, when speaking about our places, we can start having a real conversation.
Communities are made up of people, so we should talk about them like people. People in a city will likely own businesses, but that doesn’t mean we should conflate the two. I own a chair, but no one speaks to me in terms of chairs. No one ever mentions upholstering me. Communities contain businesses, and they are important, but a community is not a business.
When we think about people, we think about wellness, health, and happiness. Place is no different, and the sooner we change our language, the sooner we can make a meaningful difference. By adjusting our linguistic framework, we will have a more useful context to discuss issues of place. Instead of focussing so much on growth, we can start to focus on well-being.
I have had a tough time understanding what my role was in helping cities, because I had grown accustom to using the language of business. A city planner writes a business plan, but that is not what I do. An economic developer seeks to increase profit, but that is not what I do. A tourism official tries to attract more customers, but that is not what I do. I was confined by business language and it didn’t fit my work.
I have long joked with colleagues and family that I see my job as a community counselor. “Dear city, please lay down on the couch and tell me what happened when you were just a village.” Cities, like people, are infinitely complex and have lots of needs and problems. Places have people problems, but we only treat business problems. People have endless resources to seek out when they need assistance with in their own life: nutritionists; psychologists; doctors; trainers. But when a community is struggling to turn things around, when a community is suffering from a lack of trust or rampant apathy, when no one is engaged and no one cares, who does a city have to turn to? City planners? Grant funders? Dr. Phil?
So, my funny idea of being a community counselor isn’t funny anymore. Maybe it never was. It makes so much sense to me now and I realize why it kept coming up. When visiting struggling places time and time again, I would see the same behaviors and characteristics repeating themselves. Towns want to think their problems are unique and special, but they simply aren’t. They are repeating the same mistakes of a thousand other towns. They need people help, but they keep getting business advice. No one talks about healing or recovery or wellness. Their options are simply to buy what everyone is selling, but everyone is selling business solutions.
Because the industry lacks the proper language or means of thinking about how we help communities, we continue to throw the same resources at the problem, hoping one day, those resources will stick. Well…funding isn’t working, planning isn’t working, tourism isn’t working and economic development isn’t working. It’s not that these other areas can’t be useful, but they can’t be useful until the basic issues have been addressed. When apathy is rampant, a 10 year plan doesn’t help. Grant funding will not make people give a shit. We aren’t making a difference, because we keep treating our places like businesses.
The business approach to community is no longer working. Many communities desperately need a counselor. They need someone who has held the hands of other towns through tough times. They need someone to tell them the hard truths when they don’t want to hear it. They need someone to provide guidance and assure them that some day, it will be okay. I always struggled with naming my work, because maybe the name for it didn’t exist.
I am a community counselor. It may be difficult and frustrating work, but it is the work that drives me and I HAVE and I WILL counsel communities back to good health. The process isn’t easy, but it can be done. It’s challenging, but everything worth a damn, is challenging. Not every community will succeed, but trying is what matters.
I know it is scary, and I know change is hard, and I realize you want to run, but we are going to have to walk first. We have to address the internal issues before we worry about what others think. Let’s talk about self-esteem and if you even like yourself, let’s talk about the relationship you have with your residents and if it is healthy or toxic. Let’s talk about whether or not you are making the types of decisions that will make you a better community and if not, why the hell not. Please sit down, lay back. Make yourself comfortable. Tell me what’s wrong.