Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.


I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!


  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.


  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.


  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.


  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.


  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.


If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…



New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.




Another selection from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book: Why This Work Matters

As we continue to tie up the loose ends on the next Wise Fool publication, I wanted to share with you one of the great essays from this collection.  As you may have seen, Why This Work Matters features 11 essays from community professionals of all types, from all across the country, writing about their personal (and sometimes painful) experiences, frustrations and discouragements — and what they draw on to keep going when it would be easy to give up.

I know enough about the situation that Joe Lawniczak has been in over the past few years to understand where he was coming from when he wrote about the frustrations of the state bureaucracy in which he works.  And I know how beloved he is by the communities that benefit from his efforts.  Joe is a class act, a dedicated community servant, and just about the nicest guy you’ll meet, too.  Here’s a selection from what he very kindly wrote for inclusion in Why this Work Matters.

In September, 2001, I became the historic preservation and design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program, a statewide downtown revitalization program. I had finally arrived at my dream job, and now had the privilege of working with building and business owners across the state, helping them restore their historic building facades. It was not an easy road to get to this point, and it was not an easy decision to make the changes necessary to accept it.

Prior to taking this position, I worked at a private architectural firm for over 12 years, with a few of those spent attending college full time as well. I started out at the very ground level, and slowly worked my way up. For six of those years, I was an active volunteer for a local Main Street district, providing preservation and design assistance to a handful of local building owners. In a short time, I had made a name for myself locally and at the state level.  I was the one the firm came to rely upon for most historic restoration projects.

I was in a good place.

When my predecessor at Wisconsin Main Street decided to leave, he called me to encourage me to apply. After much soul searching and advice from friends, I decided to take the leap. It was a decision that has changed my life for the better in so many ways.

But when I first arrived, I was far from impressed.  I loved my job, and I believed strongly in the downtown revitalization approach that Main Street programs follow, as I still do to this day. But the fact that we were housed in a state agency full of bureaucracy and incompetency at many levels was just about more than I could handle.

I remember my first week of work. I arrived at 7:30 AM and was almost the only one in the office. At my previous job, people would have wondered why I was so late.

I remember asking a co-worker how I could obtain a building access card so I could come in to work on nights and weekends. He said he didn’t know because he would never work overtime.

Over the years, I saw  countless times when upper management would have us reevaluate each of our programs in an effort to create more efficiency. Each time, we spent countless hours and endless meetings discussing it, and never once did they implement any of our recommendations. To me, it seemed like they merely wanted to make changes so they could say they were doing something, whether the changes were necessary or not. Ironically, because of all the bureaucracy, not much ever actually changed, but the waste of time was excruciating.

Hiring freezes and budget cuts took their toll as well. When I began in 2001, Wisconsin Main Street had five full-time and three part-time employees. Eventually we were whittled down to three full-time staff.

After my first year, whenever someone would ask how my new job was, I would simply say I love the job, I hate where it’s housed.


Thankfully, after I got to know more of my co-workers and more of the programs, I discovered that I was merely focusing on the few bad apples. There were dozens upon dozens of hard working, dedicated, passionate people in our division, nearly all of them employees, not management. Most of them knew their programs inside and out, were experts in their fields, and considered the people they worked with in the field to be friends and partners in community development.

None of them were in this for the money. They could have made far more in the private sector. They did it because they believed in what they do.

I began following many of my co-workers’ leads, devoting my energies to serving the communities first and foremost. Making the communities happy rather than trying to appease management made sense, since management would only be there for a few years anyway. This took a huge weight off my shoulders, and gave me a newfound energy and motivation. I valued the feedback from the business and building owners in the communities far more than any feedback I’d ever get fro  m management, which was almost non-existent anyway.

As of this writing, I have worked with over 950 business and building owners to come up with appropriate designs for the renovation of their buildings exterior. Not one of them has ever intentionally wanted to do something inappropriate to their building. Most often they just didn’t know the best solution.

In the past 12 years, I seem to have earned the respect from my counterparts and other downtown development experts across the country. I have been able to travel around America providing speaking and training sessions, and design charettes,, and I’ve written several feature articles in national publications. That level of respect has given me confidence and motivation, without question.

But more importantly, I’ve earned the trust and respect of the communities that I work in day in and day out.

I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am today if I didn’t learn to accept and cope with the adversity that comes with working in a bureaucracy. Because of that, I’ve been able to weather many of the storms I’ve faced, including turnover with some of my key co-workers. And I continue to have a passion for what I do, as long as I remember who I’m truly working for…the communities.

Thanks, Joe.  You rock.

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…