How do you describe your community to others?
Because it's contagious, you may be helping to drive the success or failure of the community, former Duluth Mayor Don Ness told a large group gathered Wednesday at the AmericInn.
Ness spoke about the value of a community building a common identity and sense of purpose that can lead to a common and positive story. A question and answer session followed.
The large turnout Wednesday, an August evening signaling little time left for summer recreation, is a testament to the many local people who want to improve the community and create its own destiny, he and Falls Mayor Bob Anderson said.
Ness' eight years as Duluth councilor and another eight years as mayor, culminating with a 91-percent job approval rating, have helped him develop strategies and tactics to help a community tell honest stories that create pride and optimism. He's shared the presentation with other communities, also.
"The place where we choose to live is an enormous part of our identity and our life story," Ness said. "And yet, most of us just passively adopt the conventional wisdom about our town. Too often, that dynamic is cynical and self-defeating. At a local level, a different way is possible - the smaller the community, the greater the opportunity to develop those ideas and stories that bring people together and hopefully inspire folks to contribute in small ways to a success story that they're now a part of."
On Wednesday, he said a change in the language we use when talking about the community can make a difference in the way the residents, visitors and other communities see us.
When someone asks how things are going in International Falls, what do you say? he asked.
"That answer is really important, and if not deliberate in what that answer should be, people go different ways," he said. "And it often falls back to conventional wisdom, and it's too easy to be cynical."
He pointed to conventional wisdom about Duluth in the 1970s and '80s when the federal government identified the city as one of 10 most distressed cities in the nation, because of the industrial decline there.
That wisdom, he said, was so ingrained a business leader put up a billboard saying: Will the last one to leave Duluth turn out the lights?
The story changed when leaders did not accept that fate and turned their attention to Lake Superior and redefined the nature of its workforce from heavy industry to skill manufacturing and aviation.
"And it started slowly, but surely to change the perspective of our community," he said.
In reaction to a news story that compared Duluth to Fargo, Rochester and other cities, leaders said we are not Fargo and never will be, he said.
Instead, they looked at places like Flagstaff, Ariz.,"places similar in size, but defining success through quality of life instead of urban growth. We took pride in proving them wrong and creating our own destiny."
Often, how we describe our community can be a self-fulfilling destiny, he said. For example, Duluth business people often said that Duluth was a bad and difficult place to do business, and they were probably right, he said. It was part of their own personal story, but when it was said often, it was heard by Twin Cities people who shared the story when Duluth came up in conversation. And when a Duluth person heard the story from a Twin Cities resident, they believed it was proof.
Meanwhile, he said politics have been changing for the worse. "There is more narrow, self serving, zero-sum mentality in our nation's politics and we're seeing the emergence of both populism and identity politics," he said. "At the core of both of those is a desire by residents and citizens that they want to matter, to not be ignored and it's coming out in devise ways. We live today in both a cynical and decisive time."
That desire to be a part of something larger and to belong must be cultivated, he said, adding that's best accomplished at the local level, where government works best.
"See a problem, come up with a solution and implement it," he said.
After leaving the mayors office three years ago, he said he wanted to further the discussion about a more constructive way of practicing politics, and found that it's easier done in small towns.
"There is a huge separation... in how people feel about their town, based upon their sense of ownership," he said. "Large cities have economic engines with money looking for purpose. Smaller towns need to be more deliberate and roll up their sleeves and do it."
He showed photos of a business before and after fixing up the store front. It may not have increased business directly by the investment, but it made a difference in how the business owner, customers and passing residents felt about the community. Same goes for someone painting their house, spurring neighbors to do the same.