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…