Last week I was in the small town of Corning, N.Y. to give the keynote speech at the United Way of the Southern Tier’s
Annual Dinner. The trip reaffirmed my belief that small towns can – and should – be engines for the kind of change the country yearns for today. But first we must see them as the assets they are.
Whenever I work with national funders, partners, and others, there’s nearly always a desire to “Go Big” – that is, to focus on the largest cities and markets possible. Oftentimes there are solid reasons for this, including that these places hold the vast majority of people in the country, and that strategically to move the needle on a particular issue (say, the graduation rate) most of the people affected may live in these communities.
But here’s the deal: at issue in America is not simply the need to “solve” a particular problem via one initiative or program, or even a collection of them; right now, people do not believe that’s possible given current negative conditions in communities and the larger country.
Instead, what people yearn for are clear signals that we can get things done together; that we can set goals and achieve them; that it is possible to rebuild trust between and among people. It’s not “big change” people are looking for; it’s the restoration of belief that we can do things together and put our communities and the nation on a better trajectory.
The reason small communities are so important is that these places tend to be more nimble, the scale is a doable, and demonstrating results relatively easier. Imagine if scores of smaller towns and communities dedicated themselves to become beacons of such change; they could help lead the way in America.
In the Institute’s work, this is happening across the country – from Battle Creek, MI to Santa Fe, NM to Grand Marias, MN, Lafayette, LA, Anderson, IN, Champaign, IL, among others. With the leadership of Ron Hatch at the local United Way in Corning (along with others) that community has been swiftly moving in this direction, too, and their efforts are promising. And there is any number of groups that have been working in this area, such as the Orton Foundation.
As I think about our common challenges, there are many substantive issues that desperately need attention – from raising graduation rates to bullying to environmental concerns. And when it comes to these and other concerns, we often seek to take action in “big communities” to get “big results.” But let’s not forget the role smaller towns and communities can – must – play. People are seeking to believe in themselves and one another; they want proof points that change is possible. They want to start small, and locally, because it’s closer to home, and something they can do. Ultimately, they want to see that these efforts can spread in a community so that they do not exist simply as small pockets of good works and so that the civic culture of communities can change.
There are all sorts of reasons for working with different-sized communities when trying to make a difference in people’s lives. As we make these choices, my hope is that we add into these deliberations what will help to kick-start greater change and hope throughout the country. For that, smaller towns and communities are a good bet.
But first we have to commit ourselves to look in their direction. And then we must not simply start new initiatives, but focus on people’s deep yearning to kick-start a very different trajectory in the nation.