DK Soapbox: Some Hard Truths To Consider In Community Development

[DK climbs up on soapbox]soapbox

In the past few days I have been at (or witnessed via live stream and live YouTube) a number of conversations/panel/and speakers talking about community and our needs to revitalize them. Big cities, small towns. States and regions, all talked about. As someone who plays in this space, especially in regards to the important role that nonprofits and social enterprises/small businesses must play in this work, I try super super hard to absorb as much as I can – from all sides – to get a clearer picture about where we might be heading or what directions are being presented. And here’s my first take on this…

Yes. We know this already.

I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer here, but these conferences, panels and messages are the same as always: (1) Here’s a study. (2) Here’s some data. (3) Doesn’t look too good. (4) Lots of factors as to why it is that way. (5) You know what would help? Better state legislature. Better political leadership. Better education. Better [inserts speaker’s industry here]. (6) Our hands are tied in many ways. (7) We need to shift our priorities. (8) We need more funding. (9) We are taxed too much. (10) We should do a Study.

Rinse. Repeat.

Look, no one has the perfect solution to anything. LITERALLY to anything. But here’s what years of doing this has shown me.

(1) You cannot say a system is broken and not include YOUR system/industry/tribe as a part of that broken system.

Politicians decry gridlock, but not from their work or out of their office. Local municipal officials abhor local regulatory processes and red-tape filled paperwork, yet never proposal radical adjustment to said processes. School administrators battle unions, unions battle admins. Developers design spaces more in line with their profit margins. The public is never satisfied with what developers create, even when it rises out from literal ashes of past (and usually WAY dead) old buildings. We are in a constant state of “waiting on the other thing to happen first” before we feel like we can leave our comfort zone and move out into the mist.

All of us. ALL OF US. We all must get over our smaller tribes and look at the bigger one. We collectively are our own worst problem, because we talk to one another about finding solutions while we never look to ourselves as needing the largest re-vamp. If we all say “Everyone is the problem but me” than literally no one will feel there’s a problem enough to act (zen on that for a second). Let’s VIBE ON OUR TRIBE, our community as a whole.

(2) “This is who we are”…isn’t.

We are NOT who were once were. We can’t be. Our society is in a constant state of evolution. So must our communities and more importantly our Social Contract with one another. Here in York, we were once a strong Manufacturing base, this is true. But the need for manufacturing has evolved (notice I did not say “changed” or “shrunken” here). Jobs moving oversees, wildly out of fiscal sense wages and pensions are not realistic (I’ll get to this a little later on). What is needed, required, wanted by the general public just isn’t at the same level as once before (Supply and Demand…a funny thing). Recognize and celebrating our future is important. Damn close to essential. Be in no way can our public policy be dictated by want to return to some past time. It doesn’t work that way. The calendar keeps flipping forward, and our discussions must look that way as well.

(3) I don’t think that’s what “innovation” means.

I speak a good deal to nonprofit organizations, social enterprise small businesses and local governmental officials, and I often use the phrase “We believe Innovation begins by kicking the ass of Intimidation.” Why do I say this? Because most people who are speaking about “innovation” are afraid of it, and so it is given lip service. Why are they afraid? Because it just might upset the apple cart too much and cause them – THEM, not the focal point that is the community, but THEM – to lose their way, because obsolete, require a radical overhaul of work and operations, or worse!

It is not innovative to partner with a nonprofit foundation or have three businesses co-sponsor a networking meeting. Innovation requires not just an idea or new concept.. it requires risk. True risk. Risk that entrepreneurs can see, recognize and respect. Here’s an example of an innovation: Imagine a municipality created a ONE-PAGE application for businesses to work in a city. This would trigger some public safety inspections and the like still needed (you know, to be sure the building can stand up on it own and stuff) but still streamlined the intake process. AT THE SAME TIME, the local government would protect this new venture from pushback from the county or state officials crying “this isn’t how we’ve always done things” by holding off threats of fines or work stoppages AND ALSO would spend their energies at the state level to tear down the bureaucracy in the same way. Push for reforming up and down the line. Damn the torpedos and challenge status quo by saying “we’re not waiting…you don’t like it, challenge us.”

We talk about our intake systems as being too cumbersome, but they never -never- get started to be fixed. Each group points to another and says “we can’t or [insert next level department/county/state/federal agency here] will not approve this. Imagine a time when a local government became a true incubator for business and not only keep it warm with easy entry into the community and system to support its start up, but also protected it from outside sources. Imagine if your city FOUGHT for this system, CHALLENGED it in courts, SPOTLIGHTED its work in the media to pick up and share its story. Transforming our community into a true incubator of innovation. That’s a community any business would like to call home.

I truly believe the role of government is the key to this. Government is reviled and often pointed to as the source of our problems. Gridlock, political division, bureaucracy, a lack of empathy, a sense of everyone there is phony or not authentic… my take is that Government is essential, but rudderless because it is running as it “perceives” it should be, not what is needed in this new era. I see government as a HUB. Like a hub of a wheel with spokes or a train station surrounded by tracks running in all directions. It cannot BE the system completely, nor can it be left out of the system. Either way and the system doesn’t work. Governments, especially LOCAL GOVERNMENTS, must be the ones to facilitate innovation, encourage it.. incubate it. Local governments must fight for their turf not be simply requesting grants and budgets, but by actively showcasing new innovations, and then defending them even at their political peril. Government doesn’t need to growth OR get out of the way. It needs to realize it’s place at the table. And that is to BE the table that gathers those in the locality to get this done. To “GET ACTION” as my favorite, President Theodore Roosevelt, once said.

(4) We have the wrong people at the meetings.

This isn’t a slam actually on those who come to these meetings. In fact, those who are active now (whether as business leaders, advocates, activists, political appointees or elected officials, etc.) are to be applauded.. it’s the other people. The others who are not involved. That’s the problem here. Example, a mayor in your town at a “state of the city” pledges to, let’s say, reduce the homelessness by x%. Everyone agrees this is a needed, important, moral challenge to tackle and work hard to hit. Everyone applauds to vision. Then, local government heads back to their corner (aka City Hall) and looks at their two factors: manpower and budget. Then, the work is shaped by those two factors. Who’s missing? Well how about the nonprofit homeless shelter who mission – MISSION – is to close its doors by ending homelessness and therefore no more need for their beds, services, support. And yes, before you quickly say “Wait DK, my town officials come to the homeless shelter and have a “listening session” with the providers.” Yes, but that isn’t what I mean here. The staffing for this project – to reduce homelessness by x% – should be FROM THE VERY BEGINNING not just be government staffers; but rather it should be coordinated by the staffers, and lead by the experts. Want to solved the problem? Bring in experts and passionate leaders in the sector… not because they are “heavy hitters” or “influential” but because they are in the BUSINESS of that particular issue. Literally the first call after a local government pronouncement about something like “reducing homelessness by x%” should be to the homeless organizations and leaders who work in that space daily. Don’t care who you are, I care what you bring to the table.

(5) Pensions… and other unicorns.

Not fun to say but, this is beyond broken. I am sorry to say this, but it is FISCAL TRUTH. We cannot – we should not – honor the pension plans of the past because the math does not work. Breaking a deal, any deal, is not noble. But this is the nonstarter that interferes in all challenges facing the modern community. There isn’t enough in the math of it all to go any more than this, so it must just be accepted. Then – and only then – can we seek solutions or at best the most non-evasive remedy to this cancer. No one wants to lose an extremity when fighting a cancer, but sometimes it is the only way a longer-lasting solution can be found. We must cut. It sucks, but it is truth.

By the way… unions? Yeah, you must reset your narrative too. Unions were important for many many years, especially post-Guilded Age when monopolies and industry barons ruled with an iron fist. Now, you are part of the problem. The problem though ISN’T the idea of unions or collective bargaining. The problem is your lack of BARGAINING because so much of what needs to be reformed you feel is “off the table.” Teachers unions? You have bad actors in your midst, many of them with many years (and union cards) in their pocket. They’ve gotta go. Don’t protect the obvious things because “that’s the role” you fill. It isn’t. You job is to best represent your industry. Bad actors don’t deserve your shield.

Management? Don’t think this is a time to break the union and throw away collective bargaining as a whole. It is a time to put all on the table and find unity solutions to reset our collective. The time isn’t to kill unions, it’s to reset what your relationship to them (and therefore your employees) means.

Many things are promised and many promises often are broken. This system was a promise destined for breaking. Hard to swallow… but like most medicine, needed to cure the patient.

(6) It takes a village (thanks, ‘Hill.)

Short changing our collective impact by dismissing (or worse off not even considering) a healthy diversity of opinions, races, creeds, religions, political leanings, socio-economic levels, education, age… this is beyond bad biz, it’s just plain dumb.

Our strength in so many of our communities is muffled because we retreat to corners. We believe too much in NIMBY and WIIFM (Not in My BackYard and What’s In It For Me) and not enough in UNITY. I’m not going to belabor this point, other than to say REACH OUT.

If you use too many “those people” or “them’s” in your rhetoric.. you need to take a look in the mirror.

(7) Regions Matter.

So you live in the ‘burbs and think those “city people” have their own problems. Conversely, those of your who live in the 6 story flat in the heart of your downtown regard the small towns around you as “cow country” or “the place where at the meth of made in the barns out there” or “Siberia.”

Well congratulations, you both miss the role of community.

A vibrant city as a hub of a spoked county (like here in York County, PA) is essential to the growth potential and health of its sister small towns and boroughs across the region. And without positive small towns scattered about a region, a city can become an isolated island with a built-in perception of overcrowded, unstable feeling of negativity. Our economy is global. The world has shrunk in terms of import/export, the internet, mass communications and the need for multinationalism for security, economics, and resources. Yet, you feel like running four miles “into the big city” is too crazy of a thing for you?

Jobs, places to live, entertainment, education institutions… these all need ALL OF US to thrive, and survive. You think your little suburb could survive without the jobs, industry, clients, customers, branding provided by that major city? Um, no. (just in the most practical, where would all you suburbanite WORK? Most suburbs are sleeper communities.. there’s just not enough jobs in your locale)… and city peeps, you think that city can survive without commerce as a result of people day-tripping and visiting your bars, restaurants, and other Third Places? Nope.

Regions matter that much.

(8) We will succeed.

This feels negative-heavy as I free write, but I do this to remind us all that can – and will – succeed. Two generations ago, my grandparents returned from World War II and felt like the community needed a revamp, and they did it. My parents fought the Greatest Generation who they thought were too square, went to Woodstock to smoke weed and listen to Hendrix, tackled civil rights, lost a lot of great great leaders to the struggle, consumed a ton of resources (i.e. paid for all that dropping out by eventually running the country on a bit of a credit card..hello US debt) but still managed to revamp the community for us. We arrived, got a bit angst-driven created punk and grudge, built an Internet into a juggernaut, consumed a ton of MTV when it actually played videos, lost a ton of great great leaders to the struggle, saw our community needed a revamp.. and started to.

We’re not done, but it is, has, and will be, done… always. Success is determined by many things, but the one thing I always consider myself is positive. Success WILL happen because the definition of success is shaped by the time we live in. In this case, more hard choices are again needed to be done. But we know, with collaboration and a connection far greater than our immediate moment… we can make them. We will succeed. It’s just what we do.

I have high hopes for my community. I love our people, our places and spaces, and the spirit that is brewing up from within and from the imagination coming from outside our borders.

Like Hunter S. Thompson said, “Buy the ticket…Take the ride.”