True Community Grit

The lesson for today, girls and boys, is that you’re most likely to find the insights you’re looking for in the place where you aren’t looking. 

I have struggled for years with a key question, one that I have never been able to find an answer for: why do some communities succeed in the face of adversity, while others sort of scuffle along and never seem to take control of their destinies?  As a consultant, I have often said,

“If there’s a spark of initiative, a glimmer of can-do, I know how to fan that.  But what do you do about a place where that spark doesn’t seem to exist?” 

 (Like most things involving communities, you can say the same thing about people.  But let’s leave that for another day — the ink on my mail-order psychiatry degree hasn’t dried yet…)

I think I found a piece of the answer… in a movie I haven’t seen.  Actually, it’s in an article that references a movie that I haven’t seen.  One of my favorite magazines is Fast Company, an eclectic publication that ranges across technology, design, entrepreneurship, and other assorted interesting stuff.  One of their regular columns is written by Dan and Chip Heath, brother entrepreneurs who have authored a couple of popular business books.  Interesting, often relevant to my life as an entrepreneur, but not usually a fount of insight for building Wise Economies. 

This month’s column riffs off of the movie True Grit, but the real story is about the 20-year effort to reduce smoking in North Carolina.  The column focuses on the long, slow, incremental process of changing the smoking environment — first in a few schools, then in a few hospitals, then a few more schools,  so on and so on — until most indoor spaces in North Carolina today are smoke free.  Dan and Chip describe this process in terms of an unusually old-fashioned word: the program leader’s “willingness to withstand such a slog…is an undeniable showcase of ‘grit.'”  They continue:

In fact, new psychological research suggests that grit — defined as endurance in the pursuit of long-term-goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity — is a key part of what makes people successful.  In a culture that values quick results — this quarter’s numbers, this week’s weight loss, this month’s click-throughs– grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon….

Grit is tough because you don’t get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction.  You rarely get big wins to celebrate.  In fact, you may never truly win.   All you is … persuade a few more rural school districts to join your campaign.  And that slow, inch-by-inch progress?  It’s called winning.

How different a perspective is this from how we usually think about our communities?   Whether we deal in planning or policy or economic development, how much of our attention do we give to some ideal future state, and how little of our attention do we give to setting in motion and maintaining the slow, inch-by-inch progress that we know it will take to get us there?  That’s not the fun part (drawing the colored circles on the map or launching the cool branding campaign is), but it’s the necessary part if we are serious about real improvement. 

We have to demonstrate grit. both to make the necessary deep changes happen and to build the community’s capacity for grit.  It’s easy to blame the lack of community grit on the political cycle, the fact that elected leadership changes so often and so often fails to live up to our expectations.  But the truth of the matter is that effective Wise Economy communities build and leverage a community of leadership – not every resident, but a critical mass of people who take ownership of their community, or at least some aspect of it.  That’s where the grit will come from — from the determination of a body of people who are committed to the pursuit of long-range goals for the good of the community.  Where they exist, they create a force that lasts long past political cycles.  They create a rock-solid foundation of grit.  And that community of grit can be cultivated through training and through meaningful public involvement.

All fine and well, you say.  But my job is to create plans/administer zoning/land new business/write grants/do what my clients say/serve on the board or commission.  My job description doesn’t say anything about building community grit. 

Ah, but look closer… it does. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that outlined how the practice of planning needs to change to make a dent in the kind of economic change our communities need (Don’t feel left out….I have a version for economic developers in the works).  And one of the things I pointed out is that, since job security in the field seems to be going by the wayside, planners might as well stand up for good planning .  I can’t think of a better way to really make a difference in our communities than to use our planning and management skills to build our communities’ capacity to show grit… by making plans that involve people, and that intelligently and clearly work out the steps to get there. 

Like tunneling out of prison with a spoon, or protecting people from secondhand smoke, the most significant victories we can win are seldom won in one grand measure –just like we know that one flashy construction project alone isn’t going to reformulate our economies.  If we are going to build Wise Economies, we as communities need to build and display the determination, the long-term focus — the grit — to make real change happen.

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