Back in Your Own Hometown
Empowering Communities & Those Who Make It Up for Security, Purpose, Success, Prosperity, Civility Integrity and Decency in an age of Acceleration
Oh my – what times we find ourselves living in.
Many have sought words to best capture this moment. Myself, I think the term tumultuous works.
It’s an age in which our lives are being fundamentally transformed by powerful forces in multiple realms in ways previously unfamiliar to us.
Some like to say it all started with the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Others point to the demise of the Soviet Union, or the more recent Great Recession. Still others cite culture/gender battles, political polarization, and three 21st century Presidencies that have elicited strong opinions, be they positive or negative. Then there are systemic and societal structural changes such as globalization, digitalization, climate change, a more mobile society leading to spread out communities, two-working spouse families, the advent of social media, a 24/7 news cycle and fluid notions of community and the common good.
Many believe that in our preoccupation for maximum productivity, efficiency and profitability, we have lost sight of the essential human aspect – connectivity to one another, person to person.
We have seen the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions and the decline of citizenship and neighborliness.
Whatever the trigger, as this all has unfolded, familiar anchors have become unmoored. Things and beliefs that used to hold us together as a society no longer do so, and it is uncertain just what is there in its place.
And, it is all happening in accelerated pace at breakneck speed. So fast, in fact, that it has left many dizzied, disoriented, baffled, unnerved, and more than a bit overwhelmed - with an urge to hunker down for shelter until the turbulence has passed, or at least until a more familiar sense of normalcy resurfaces.
However, we are being told that this age of acceleration and its accompanying sense of chaos and disruption is unlikely to disappear any time soon. For better or for worse, it is being described as embedded in our world – part of a New Normal.
“There is a space between yesterday and tomorrow where one can easily lose one’s way – a waste land with no safe corners”, recently wrote Elisabeth Asbrink in her book “1947-Where Now Begins”, describing Germany in that post War year.
As individuals and as a larger society, we seem to occupy such a place today, facing a similar challenge – specifically how to proceed in the face of these accelerated threats to our well-being that seem to surround us. There is a New Normal, but it remains one that has yet to be defined.
In this message, I speak about the community aspect to this challenge we face.
Sociologist Kai Erickson, describing the devastation of West Virginia mountain culture in the aftermath of a monumental flood in 1972 defined the role of community as follows: “ It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides context for intimacy, the community that represents morality and serves as a repository of old traditions”.
Over the past few decades economic and political challenges have in a similar fashion eroded ties that bind Americans together in communities. This has weakened our ability to act in common while threatening social cohesion.
One of our challenges as communities and as a nation is to create and build on a vision during this time in a manner that does not overlook or marginalize those strengths that used to characterize a robust civil society – those things rooted in a set of shared understandings and purposes that bring us together.
I am here to tell you that you are up to the task. In fact, you already have all you need not only to withstand the challenge but turn to it your advantage. You and your community can thrive offering clarity in a time of chaos and disarray; social cohesion in the face of isolation; calm and steadiness in the midst of the tumult. This can be accomplished by journeying into who you are and where you have come from. In doing so, you can “access the tools, anchors and framework to reimagine and redesign your community to keep pace with society’s accelerations are reshaping us – and generate more stability as we shoot through the rapids of accelerated change” (Thomas Friedman In Thank You for Being Late – An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations – See Below)
Above we made passing reference to social and societal anchors that for a long time held us together, and that today are no longer serving affectively as they once did. But it is in those very anchors that the solutions going forward are to be found – solutions based on a basic instinctual trust among neighbors that allows good things to happen.
These anchors, vital yet overlooked, provide a social scaffolding of sorts that protect and reinforce what is important to a community (decency and trust for example) and serve as a guiding presence to inform growth and success for the future. It is the place where our past and present meet the future (“Where the future is past”).
These days trust is a commodity all too rare. Many have stopped waiting for those in Washington and elsewhere on a national level to get their act together. They feel let down and disconnected to those institutions, and the unifying symbols and tenets that once seemed beyond reproach – what used to help us define ourselves and what used to represent to us the best of what it meant to be a citizen and an American.
So, as we gaze into our societal mirror, many of us find that we do not recognize (or like) what we see. There is a feeling that we cannot have an impact – that what we do or feel does not matter.
But one need not succumb to a sense of resignation that “it is what it is”. There is an alternative.
The idea is a simple one. It is not complicated, but it is one that is achievable, well within reach and empowering. You can make a positive impact. It all starts back in your own hometown and those anchors.
It involves a thoughtful look inside your hometown, at its history, social history, culture and values. It is a look as your community’s shared identity and norms – those aspects that make for positive connections to the community and to those who comprise it. This look entails defining all that makes you unique, different than all the rest and the uniformity and standardization that characterize so much of the contemporary landscape. By identifying it, polishing it and leveraging it, it can work for you to provide security for the future through projects that build and reinforce a town’s identity – simultaneously reinforcing economic security and psychological sense of well-being anchored in the community. While reinforcing pre-existing neighborly notions of trust and respect, it also provides the tools and social capital to get the job done in this changing land and changing world.
The idea, while taking on more prominence today, is nothing new.
It was Robert Putnam who new some years back wrote of it in Bowling Alone. There he spoke of a decline in social capital since the early 1950’s. He described a fall-off of in-person social interaction upon which there used to be enriching social fabric (i.e., bowling leagues, civic organizations).
More recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and singer- songwriter Dar Williams have weighed in with significant contributions in books touching in part on this issue. Both speak to how communities can reimagine and redesign notwithstanding the forces that lend to the chaos, and disorientation.
Williams points to “growing from one’s roots” through “positive proximity” by, inter alia, the use of history as a way-finder (identifying and unveiling a place’s history and social history identity). In turn, Friedman speaks of tapping into the “it’ of a community – the values, mores, traditions priorities and aspirations embedded in its community DNA, an “it” which makes so places special and helps some places succeed (like where he grew up) while others places do not. To Friedman, communities with a strong sense of its own ”It” - feeling embedded in a community protected, respected and connected - are more also likely to have economic security and a psychological sense of being anchored in a community.
While deeply informed by Friedman, Williams, it is my own experience of over 30 years coming from a longstanding passion and inspiration that drives me to reach out in this effort. Over that time I have chronicled gems of America (offbeat off the beaten path, overlooked and forgotten) through various media for travelers and armchair travelers alike. But during the course traveling, researching and producing these “Journeys into Hidden America” narratives, this journey also provided me the opportunity to see how communities large and small have made these narratives work smartly for them – not just as a feel good story of the past, but also as a way by being citizens together at their best in a shared identity and as a foundation for economic growth and psychological well-being for the future.
I have seen when people are able to act together based on these embedded and accepted principles and aspirations. Just as Dar Williams saw it in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and Thomas Friedman in his hometown of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, I too have seen it in places, big and small, ranging from villages in Maine to big-city neighborhoods in Chicago; Iowa to Alabama; Nova Scotia to British Columbia – I have even helped make it happen in my own hometown. They have ranged from large scale public-private partnership endeavors to simple community-friendly and citizen-driven grass-roots efforts. These are places where a healthy community prevails and continues to produce positive results – places possessing strong anchors to sustain and propel people/ place through the challenges of these uncertain times. On a more basic level, these are places people want to be - whether to visit, to live or call home because they feel wanted, heard, respected, trusted. It’s where they feel secure (at least as secure as the world today will allow).
So, looking at your community, you want to ask what is your “it” your value set/aspirations/priorities and where did your “it” comes from. And make no mistake every community has their own “it”. “It” is to be found in a community’s authenticity; its generosity of spirit; the humanity of its people; its connectedness – a civic, if not political or social consensus that bounds neighbor to neighbor.
Knowing what your “it” is, how to amplify “it” and how to translate “it” to your neighbors and beyond will anchor and propel you for the future. In this instance your “it” can be history/social history, a concrete, tangible and easy to create portal into the community and its future. It is truly a case in which the future is in the past – your past.
It’s now more than 30 years since I began journeying into “Hidden America” to chronicle the offbeat, off the beaten oath, overlooked and forgotten – those gems over Americana to be found beyond the interstate that reflect the best of the American spirit.
It is a tumultuous time indeed. It’s a time of volatility and uncertainty for us as individuals, as a community and as a society. The world gives us so many reasons and tools to hunker down and disconnect, writes Friedman. In the midst of it all, a positive spirit is still there and relevant to today’s challenges and the solutions to be found from them.
These days the best of who we are is hidden, not just beyond the interstate, but also beyond the chaos, disorder and impersonal mean-spiritedness that characterizes too much of our daily lives – a bellicosity, belligerency and divisiveness that has eclipsed and marginalized so much else to the edges.
As a college student recently opined to a questioning columnist, ““We’re more connected but we’re more apart”.
In the face of the pervasive presence of these debilitating forces, we are best to ask how we can better counter those forces and instead make the most of what we are and can be.
Change is inevitable. But change can be somewhat managed - in a way that works for us – not just to survive but to thrive – even in the face of these tumultuous times.
There is an “it” unique to you and your community. It is an “it” that already anchors you without you appreciating to what extent (It’s your community DNA – in your bones). It is an “it” that represents the best of who you are (have been) and what you can be. And at the same, it is anchor that very well can be your secret sauce – giving your community an instant burst of perspective and extra distinction. It is a social scaffolding of the best of your place – what matters to you as it comes from your history, traditions, cultures, values, basic decency and integrity.
It is also a key to help you through these tumultuous times and into a more secure future – not just letting another place with any future but rather “a place taking on the future with a strong sense of identity emerging from a well-preserved past embedded in its buildings (if it has them) and embodied in its population” (Williams).
It was the late actor Steve Hill, who once put it so well when he spoke of why he felt his role as district attorney Adam Schiff in the program Law & Order was so important. ”So much is negative”, he said. ” The positive must be stated to rescue us from pandemonium”.
There is positive in your community. It is there. And, it can be re-discovered, rescued and re-stated to not only rescue us, but also serve as a portal into future stability, growth and prosperity growth.
In a recent work on the national political scene E.J Dionne Jr., Norman Orenstein and Thomas E. Mann, addressed this issue invoking the connection between community and the common good. They noted that the word common comes latin root communis which evokes “shared”, ordinary” and”public” all at the same time, meaning common good is “the shared welfare of all citizens who have responsibilities to the community, and who in turn look to the community to protect, defend and uplift”. It is this ability to uplift through shared collective identity, and common purpose that will reinforce the aspiration for a secure, stable and rewarding future for the common good.
So, how do you do so ? How do we come together to accept, across all of our divides, that there is still such a thing as a “common good” that can benefit us all?
It all starts with you and your hometown. Where I come in is to help you understand what you have and how you can make the most of it (based on who I am and what I have seen). Let me show you how.
You can succeed by journeying back into your true self. Your future is right there in your midst.