Community isn’t what you think it is

shadow_shakeAs we learn more about East Chicago, we’re developing hypotheses about what the city can teach us about the relationship between narrative and community. Jeff Leitner, Dean of Insight Labs, shares one here. Comment on the post to help us develop the idea further.

Community is not what you think it is. To be precise, you probably don’t jeff_portrait_bwthink about what it means at all. You probably just use the word, like I do, to mean something vague and collective.

Community is too important for that. Community is too essential an institution, too valuable an idea be rendered meaningless by constant use.

Here’s what it means…it is the white space between us, where we negotiate our relationships and balance our individual interests.

People do not necessarily comprise a community. Cities, college campuses and planned developments aren’t necessarily communities.

Communities are where negotiations happen, where relationships form, deepen and break apart. Communities are wherever and whenever city residents, college students and neighbors come together to work things out and make things happen.

Here’s why this matters: we can and must design for community. We can and must design for spaces and times people can come together and negotiate their relationships.

Consider East Chicago, Indiana, where we’re doing this work. Of course, East Chicagoans must be central to the effort to re-invigorate their city.

But that can only happen in a community, which we’re going to have build out first.

Myth over matter

shades_loc_0015-580x792In our efforts to better understand the relationship between communities’ collective self-image and their collective well-being, The Narrative Renewal Project reached out to friends and colleagues with relevant expertise. Here’s what we learned from Josh McManus, Lead Inventor at Little Things Labs. McManus has led innovative projects in a number of America’s post-industrial cities.

Looking back at the projects you’ve undertaken with various communities, what seems to be the biggest misconception about how communities work in the U.S. and what makes them successful or not? Could a different role for narrative in the health of a community help to make up for this misconception?

I think the biggest misconception about how communities work is the perception of power as static. My observation is that power is used much more well in a relay form — there is a baton of leadership and power that can be passed around. Sometimes in a community, you’ll find it in the hands of government or a dynamic leader. Sometimes it will be with the business community or a dynamic leader there. Or sometimes it is in the hands of the philanthropic sector or a foundation. And occasionally, you’ll find that baton just laying on the ground with no one willing to pick it up. I think that kind of dynamism of power is incredibly important.

As far as a role for narrative in the health of a community, I think myth is incredibly important to community. By myth, I mean the generalized sense of what the community’s story is and how it’s owned by individuals who call that community home. Is that myth one of scarcity or one of abundance? In my work with post-industrial cities, that’s the biggest difference I find between those communities that have turned themselves around and those that haven’t. Those that haven’t have often maintained a myth of scarcity. Those that have turned around have projected a myth of abundance.

Please share the story of one community that inspires you in your work. What role does narrative play in that community? Is that part of what inspires you?

A community that inspires me is my adopted hometown of Chattanooga. The role that narrative has played in that community is certainly one of abundance. It turned to abundance in the late 70s or early 80s, when a few inspired leaders decided that they would not let the backslide of post-industrialism go any further. They were able to inspire a billionaire who had a foundation to fuel a culture of abundance there. He had to repeatedly convince other people that a rising tide would lift all boats, which meant funding for non-traditional things like street-scaping, the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, and the restoration of bridges and public park spaces. He had to convince people that funding things like that would not take away from things like the children’s home and the United Way. That’s certainly something I learned about while becoming a part of the story of Chattanooga.

Think of a community where you have seen the collective self-image change over time. How did it happen? What were the consequences?

In Chattanooga, the change was really fueled by people working together on problems they thought they could take on better together than they could apart. This is where I was really able to identify and run with Insight Labs’s notion of transcendent interest, which creates empathy and non-traditional networks and a sort of connective tissue that lasted in that community for the duration of those people’s working careers, which in some cases was 30 or 40 years. I don’t think there was one particular asset or one particular community development play, but actually that network connectivity across disciplines, across vocations, across the public-private divide. That led the city into full recovery mode.

Put the people first

broadcastersIn our efforts to better understand the relationship between communities’ collective self-image and their collective well-being, The Narrative Renewal Project reached out to friends and colleagues with relevant expertise. Here’s what we learned from Tyler Hurst, a writer and brand evangelist for SKORA.

You recently relocated to Portland from Phoenix. What are the stories that you hear people tell about the place? What do they tell you about this community?

The Portland I know from friends, Portlandia, and the tech industry is one of a community bursting at its seams with both potential and achievement. It felt like an inclusive town hell bent on not being like anywhere else.

Most of the stories I hear are about companies being recognized by bigger companies, startups being acquired and businesses receiving funding, whether through private VCs or government accelerator programs.

Not that these stories were wrong, but they seem misplaced now that I’m here. I realized I know very little about the actual people here, which I suspect is because this town is far more Eastern thinking in its collectivist attitude (fantastic public transportation and lots of bike lanes are good examples), rather than a what I thought would be a launching pad.

What is a common mistake people make when trying to construct an effective narrative?

We often forget, usually in a rush to get exposure, the importance that people play in our stories. Hell, I’d put people — individuals or small groups, but each person MUST be recognizable — FIRST and foremost in any tale, but that hasn’t happened here yet. Maybe this is an opportunity to me.

Tell us about an innovative storyteller who you admire. What can we learn from this person and how he/she works? What could a community achieve if its members had the same narrative abilities?

Not sure if this qualifies, but I can’t escape the writing and podcasting of Bill Simmons. He’s an unabashed Celtics/Red Sox/sports fan who has so far refused to, at least publicly, champion anything he’s not extremely interested in. Portland doesn’t have someone like that yet, but it needs to if it’s really going to be as inclusive as a) it would like to be b) it thinks it is and c) what we all want for it.

A third path after graduation

graduationAs part of The Narrative Renewal Project, Insight Labs convened a group of education experts to discuss how communities like East Chicago can refresh their collective story. Here’s what Andrew Benedict-Nelson, the Labs’ Director of Content, had to say after the session:

In the classic board game “Life,” albn_insideplayers were asked to start out by choosing between work and college. This Lab showed us we need to think about a third path.

In our visits to East Chicago, we discovered that the people with the most optimism about the future of the community were juniors and seniors in high school. Older folks might love their town, but even the best of them tend to say, “Let’s make this community the way it used to be.” As a group, teenagers have a better read on the situation. They say, “Let’s make this community whatever we want it to be.”

But that discovery led to a more sobering corollary – in East Chicago and thousands of cities like it, that hopeful energy is being squandered as soon as students cross the stage at graduation.

Consider the typical mix of students who graduate from high schools in economically depressed communities. Because of their age, nearly all of these students can still imagine many different possibilities for who they will be and how they will live their lives.

For the small percentage of students who leave home and go to four-year colleges, this process of self-actualization continues, as it should. But the majority of students enter low-wage jobs (or if that fails, the welfare system) leading to a sudden collapse in their imaginative possibilities.

This Lab proposed that we create a third path that directly connects young people’s optimism and imagination with the community’s needs. This path could take many forms. Here’s one version:

After high school, a group of about 20 high school graduates would leave home, living for one year in a dormitory-style building. Using community-organizing techniques, a trained staff would help the young people answer the question, “How would we make this town different if we were in charge?” The students would then spend the rest of the year designing and implementing a major initiative to make that change happen. The students would also operate a business or other venture that contributes to the program’s sustainability.

The first cohort to take this path would be the most motivated and responsible students who (for whatever reason) are not headed to college. When they leave this program, these students would still enter a world with a real lack of opportunity and no lack of danger. But that world would also include visible signs of hope that those students had themselves created. Those signs could inspire them to launch further community projects or start new businesses rather than malinger in dead-end jobs. Of course, some students would likely choose to use their new skills to head to college, but they would do so with a sense that East Chicago was the place that inspired them, not the place they escaped.

With each year’s cohort creating its own community initiative in the city, it’s not hard to imagine the ripple effects this program might have for adults in East Chicago. But an even more exciting possibility is the way it could re-align the aspirations of children in high school and middle school. Many students who fall behind become even more discouraged because they do not see a path from their present state to a brighter future. This program would provide an ever-changing cast of role models who had made something of themselves even if they weren’t academic all-stars. Eventually, we anticipate that many students with a good chance of making it into a university would defer for a year to participate.

And that wouldn’t be a bad thing for East Chicago or for any community. When young people turn 18 in this country, they’re told to head to college and build a life for themselves. But many of them would be well-served by an option that lets them first spend some time building something in their own communities. This new kind of institution could benefit many – and it could get its start not in the nation’s showcase school districts, but in East Chicago, Indiana.

To inform and to affirm

newsstandAs part of The Narrative Renewal Project, Insight Labs convened a group of media experts to discuss how communities like East Chicago can refresh their collective story. Here’s what Andrew Benedict-Nelson, the Labs’ Director of Content, had to say after the session:

You know you’ve done it. You’ve made a sweeping, over-generalized complaint about “the media.” In fact, albn_insidewe all do it. It seems like it’s just one of those funny quirks of post-modern life.

In this Lab, we think we may have learned why. We sat down with a group of Chicago’s most interesting media minds to ask how they would use the tools available to them to change a community’s narrative of itself – in this case, East Chicago, Indiana.

In the process, we discovered an interesting distinction. In contemporary life, the news media serves two functions: information and affirmation. Much of our anxiety about the media results from confusing the two.

In towns like East Chicago, the rap on the news media is that they only cover the bad stories. Why, they ask, do camera crews show up to cover crimes but not the achievements of local students? Yet citizens rarely blame the media for their actual gaps in knowledge. Instead, they are upset about the way in which, while informing some, the media fails to affirm the community’s real value.

We asked our assembled experts what news offerings might look like if the two functions of the media were completely separate. They noted that in affluent communities, the affirmative function is rarely performed by the stories on the front pages. Instead, it’s a daily trickle of real estate listings, little league scores, photos in community newsletters – to say nothing of the constant stream of affirmation and aspiration achieved through advertising. While often unrecognized in the national conversation over the future of the news, these stories are an essential part of what people mean when they say “the media.”

But there’s a problem. The business models that sustained both the informative and affirmative functions of the media have become unreliable. Reproducing them in struggling communities when they are barely working in rich ones is not an option. So what could we do with the resources we have to achieve the same affirmative effects?

Our media experts suggested an initiative that has almost nothing in common with a traditional news organization –  a kind of mentoring system built around stories.

Traditional mentoring programs focus on the transference of skills or experience. This program would be something more subtle, affective, and open-ended. Imagine a system that allowed any person in a community to connect with someone who had achieved the most immediate step necessary for that person’s ideal of success. That person would not be a millionaire or major-league quarterback, but perhaps someone who had earned a GED, operated a profitable business, or kept their marriage together. Every member of the community would be paired with such a person who could help him or her imagine a future story. At the same time, each of those people would serve as a story-mentor for someone else – perhaps someone who is trying to do something as simple as hold down a job or spend a day without using drugs.

Do some existing mentoring programs fulfill such functions? In some cases – members of the Lab cited precedents such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. But imagine how the impact of such programs might be multiplied if they were extended through an entire community and supercharged by technology. After all, the latest generation of content producers is already spending most of its time thinking about how to leverage the power of the stories we tell each other (a.k.a. social media). With a little re-direction, the energies currently being spend to sell ads on Facebook could be used to save a community.

What would be the long-term effect of such a story-mentoring program? We imagine that over time, East Chicago would come to be known as the town where griping about the media went to die. It would become the nation’s first city to take full responsibility for its own stories. Now that would be news.

Speak for yourself – and others

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In our efforts to better understand the relationship between communities’ collective self-image and their collective well-being, The Narrative Renewal Project reached out to friends and colleagues with relevant expertise. Here’s what we learned from Ayesha Mathews-Wadhwa, founder and creative director of Pixink Design.

You’ve had the opportunity to observe the way stories are told in many different cultures. Pick two communities that seem pretty different. What are the differences in the ways members of these communities tell their own stories? What are some similarities?

I spent the first two decades of my life being influenced by the culture and community in the South of India, with the largest span of time in Bangalore (80’s and 90’s). The past 14 years have been influenced by equal parts New York and San Francisco with a defining year in Paris.

Here’s an observation on personal storytelling in India and America and how it differs:

In India storytelling with the focus on oneself was frowned upon. In fact, most things to do with the importance of “self” was discouraged to pursue the importance on the “other” – family, social interactions, acts of service … the “self” most definitely came second. Who you were was less important than what you had done, and if what you had done bore any significance whatsoever, someone else would be extolling your virtues. Often “self-actualization” got muddled with “selfishness.”

In America our sense of “self” is continually celebrated. Who we are leads more of the narrative rather that what we have done – no one tells our story better than we can ourselves. Personal feelings, preferences, thoughts all take precedent over the other. We are the protagonists of our stories. Independence trumps interdependence.

To sum up – in America it’s the “I feel, therefore I am” narrative and in India the narrative was “I do, therefore I am”.

While culture and community may influence the narratives we tell others , I’ve discovered it has no bearing on the unconscious narratives we tell ourselves. Narratives that we use to frame the world and shape our sense of identity. These are all quite similar – as in often leaving us unhealthy emotionally and physically. So rewriting /editing the stories we tell ourselves and replacing the central theme of fear with the theme of love is a narrative all of us can share in.

When you are working with clients, what are some of the main challenges people face as they attempt to tell their own stories? Have you seen something similar happening to any communities in which you have lived or worked? 

This happened last week with one of our clients based in India. When it came to talking about himself and his personal “brand,” the self-made successful Indian businessman completely relied on his Indian-American colleague to do the talking for him. This was less an issue with language (he spoke English just fine) but more a sense of discomfort with personally narrating his story and success.

Having grown up in India, I struggle with this all the time. I hate talking about myself and even then always prefer being asked specific questions about my story rather than launch into a prepped spiel celebrating “me.” I’m often in awe and a tad envious of my American and Indian American colleagues who seem to be able to make themselves sound really impressive with their compelling, succinct stories of “self.” However, helping elicit personal stories/values/character from people or businesses with a goal to make them “visible” (so they effectively mirror what they aspire to be) inspires me no end. It’s one reason why I do the work I do.

Think about the community where you live now. What are some of the key stories this community tells about itself? Would you change any of them if you could? How?

New York? San Fran? Given my bicoastal life… I guess I get the benefits of a blended community or the muddle! The differences in narratives are subtle in some ways and glaringly different in others.

As I’m physically in San Fran contemplating this question, I’ll go with the Silicon Valley stories. Pretty much all of our key stories here fascinate or irritate me! Here’s three:

Come, “start-up” and conquer - I love this story in spite of its lottery nature. Entrepreneurship layered with design and branding has been a journey of self-actualization for me.  The one thing I would add to this story is a theme of sustainability – i.e support, maintain and manage all resources (people, planet, profit) responsibly.

Scale! Scale! Scale! – I’d change this story because as Ricardo Semler says “only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors.” I’m a big fan of growing “small” – “small” steps taken slowly and strategically based on good old-fashioned business principles of creating value, taking care of employees/customers and fair pricing. It’s probably why most of the businesses I admire and trust have very few that’s based on the Valley’s scale-and-burn mentality.

Social Enterprise – The story of entrepreneurial principles creating positive returns to society is the kind of story I want for my bedtime reading and anytime reading actually… this is probably one context where “scale” might be worth pursuing.

Tell stories to find people

minerIn our efforts to better understand the relationship between communities’ collective self-image and their collective well-being, The Narrative Renewal Project reached out to friends and colleagues with relevant expertise. Here’s what we learned from Courtney Klein Johnson, co-founder of SEED SPOT.

Tell us about the community in which you live now. What stories are important to the self-image of this community? How would you change them if you could?

I live in Phoenix, Arizona. The stories that are important to the self-image of Phoenix relate to progressive and creative solutions to problems. Arizona has been slammed, rightfully so, for having some really bad policy makers and policy decisions (immigration being the most highly controversial) but there are other policies related to historic preservation, education, and social welfare that would pain any PR agent to cover. If I could change the dialog around what Phoenix is known for, it would pushing for far more creative solutions to social problems and opportunities.

Think about a community you have seen emerge in your lifetime. What role did narrative play in its emergence? What can we learn from that?

Boulder, Colorado. They have become known in recent years for their rich entrepreneurial ecosystem. I walked the streets looking for random storefronts and offices to pop into just to get a feel for what new ideas were coming out of the town. The story of Boulder led me to explore the city in a different way. I wanted to find entrepreneurs, talk with people about the latest product launching out of their hometown, etc.

You’ve launched projects that have contributed in some specific ways to the health of your community. Let’s say you were asked to achieve the same effects only by telling stories. What kind of stories would you tell? What are some of the stories you might need to compete against?

I would tell stories about people. We can blame government and corporations and institutions all day long but at the end of the day, all of those entities were built by and lead by people. So, I would tell stories about people that are doing incredible things. Individually or collectively. Resparking individual ownership is the first step to creating change. We all have a role to play.