By Scott Meyer
If someone can move to your community and within five years realistically run for mayor, your community is open to newcomers—open to them not just moving there but also contributing to the community.
This openness is the No. 1 reason people move to a city and is identified as decisive in determining a resident’s attachment to the community. Research continues to find tolerance and openness as the key ingredient for a vibrant community, but what do we do to foster this trait?
Open power structures
Too often our local political systems and power structures are closed to outsiders. Someone needs the correct last name to lead (often in small towns) or tremendous wealth and connections to represent (often in large cities).
This is my biggest fear for my hometown. While there is growing diversity in every way (ethnicity, education, occupations, sexual orientation, language), this diversity is not adequately nurtured.
Put simply: Where do people go when they move to town to find people they want to connect with?
Locally, we’re trying three things:
We’ve started hosting 1 Million Cups as a weekly gathering to share diverse ideas and create a regular event with an open-door policy. Anyone can come, and it’s the same time and place every week. We’ve found this consistency and ability to quietly sneak in and join important for attracting newcomers.
We are putting together civic headhunters who are identifying people we need to keep in our community and making sure they know they are valued. We give these people the stage at events like TEDxBrookings so they feel appreciated and can share their insights.
We are discussing international welcome teams. This would be a small number of people with key skills to attract new residents from around the globe. As an example, local manufacturer Twin City Fan can’t find enough people to work in its factory and is planning on expanding elsewhere. By putting together a lawyer, a translator and key contacts, we can attract workers from abroad to move to our community. It’s not just the job they need, but also help getting permits, finding housing in the community and most importantly, feeling welcomed. Who knows, in five years they might be mayor.
Despite the efforts of government or organizations, the task of making a community feel open to newcomers is everyone’s responsibility. A single person or encounter can make a newcomers feel unwelcome, so it is essential to build openness into every event and aspect of community life.
Ferguson and lack of representation
When a system does not represent newcomers, they have the choice to get involved (by voting or running for election) or leaving the community altogether. When a system is not open to change, most people will put their hands up and say, “Forget it. I’m out.”
More dangerously, when a system doesn’t represent its residents and the residents don’t have the ability or desire to leave, protest is the only option left to spark change.
In November, violence erupted in Ferguson, Mo., and communities around the United States in solidarity with Ferguson. In a community that is 67 percent black, the police force is 94 percent white. The anger in Ferguson and around the country is not based on this single incident, but a history of underrepresentation, discrimination and violence. For many, the shooting of Michael Brown showed there was no hope for change without protest.
Our communities may not perfectly represent the residents (yet). Our communities must, however, provide the possibility of change. Without openness to the voices of all residents, new and old, our communities will alienate and anger those who are not heard.
It is easy to create tax incentives, recruit businesses or build facilities in a community. It is much harder to change a
culture. Changing a culture to be more open to newcomers is the most important step to make a community more vibrant.
Before we worry about programs or plans, we need to ask if we are open to people different from ourselves in our town. We have to ask newcomers if they feel welcome.
Most importantly, we need to honestly ask ourselves: Could I be mayor in five years?