If you looked only at the big picture, you’d have to say we live in deeply troubled times. It seems we’ve never been more polarized. Political discourse feels more like a war zone than a thoughtful national conversation. But what happens when you zoom in closer?
That’s the question I ask myself as I reflect on the past year spent exploring dozens of small and mid-sized communities across America. I’ve talked with hundreds, maybe thousands, of mayors, chamber of commerce members, new entrepreneurs, business owners and citizens of all ages. I’ve sat down to great meals in downtown restaurants, listened to fabulous bands and attended some of the world’s coolest festivals. And what I’ve found is that the America one sees “up close and personal” bears little resemblance to the America one sees on the national news.
I’m not saying we don’t have real problems. We do. But we have more bright spots than dark — more courtesy than incivility — and often that good news flies under the radar. I’ve always been a believer in shining a light on the positive until it overcomes the negative. Gratitude is more powerful than griping. And what I’m grateful for today, at the turn of the year, is America’s communities.
Real life doesn’t happen nationally. It happens locally. And at the community level, I see people partnering with their neighbors to solve problems, working hard and playing hard, listening and compromising and — quite often — making sacrifices for the good of others. Locally is where we’re at our very best. It’s where we can use our influence and our gifts to make our communities strong and to make life better for everyone.
I view communities through a lens of revitalization because that’s the work I do. As things have gotten more dysfunctional at the national level, the by-product is that people on the local level have kicked in. And what I see is that citizens aren’t counting on government to “save” them. They’re doing the hard work of revitalization themselves. They’re owning it. They’re investing in their cities and towns. And they’re starting new conversations: How can we make our community the best it can be? How can we reinvent ourselves, start and grow local businesses, and transform into a great place to work, live and play?
This mindset has kicked in everywhere: big cities, small towns, communities of every shape and size. And no wonder. The chaos and uncertainty of the past few decades have made us crave personal connections with our friends and family. We want our children and grandchildren nearby (with good jobs to keep them there). We want lively downtowns with great restaurants, funky stores, cool living spaces and plenty of fun things to do. And we’re making it happen.
In Thomas L. Friedman’s book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” he talks about how rapid accelerations in technology, globalization and Mother Nature are disrupting our lives and leaving people feeling destabilized. He says these forces are like a hurricane, one in which the winds of change are swirling so fast that families can’t find a way to anchor themselves.
Friedman makes the case that the only answer is building healthy communities, ones that are flexible enough to navigate this hurricane and provide stability for the citizens within them. He quotes the words from a ballad by Brandi Carlile, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” Our communities are that eye. They provide a firm place to stand and find stability while all this change is swirling around us.
My hope is that 2020 will be the Year of the Community. We can make it so. We can hold our families close. We can reach out to neighbors to connect with them, to help them, to engage them in the work of making things better. We can shop local. We can partner with government the right way. We can smooth the way for entrepreneurs. We can galvanize our small business communities to drive positive change. And we can act as ambassadors for our communities so that others want to invest, live, work and play here too.
Won’t you join me? Celebrating all the good in our communities, and working together to make them stronger, will make for a 2020 that’s even better than all the years that have come before.
Quint Studer is author of “Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America” and founder of Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community’s quality of life, and Vibrant Community Partners, which coaches communities in building out a blueprint for achieving growth and excellence. www.studeri.org