Dear "Mr. Auto-Community Recovery Czar"
Today, "Mr. Auto-Community Recovery Czar," President Obama will announce your appointment as director for the recovery of auto communities and workers. That's good news. Simply providing yet more financial aid to auto companies alone is not enough. But in the process of taking this new step, I can only hope we keep the ultimate goal in sight. Here's what I hope you consider as you undertake this job. Many communities tied to the auto industry are reeling. Lost employment, plummeting tax revenues, empty storefronts, deteriorating neighborhoods, and other maladies ail these places. I know these hardships first-hand after working in Flint, MI for many years, and with people from Youngstown, OH, St. Louis, MO, and many other auto industry-based locales. This June, we're launching a new initiative in yet two more Michigan communities, Detroit and Battle Creek.
According to news reports, the new recovery effort will help communities find ways to create jobs and attract new industries, retrain workers, and deal with health-care insurance. These are all important things to do, and there is little doubt that such efforts are necessary for stabilizing communities. But alone they will not do the trick.
My own research and on-the-ground initiatives show that for communities to rebound they must re-grow the very conditions for change that enable communities to create and innovate. This involves generating the necessary relationships, leaders, organizations, and norms that give rise to effective and lasting action.
Indeed, no single program or initiative will turn communities around, or give them hope. Instead, it is always a combination of elements that both sparks and sustains change. Some of the key elements for change include:
- Focus on people's aspirations - often when recovery and rebuilding efforts begin, we end up focusing on "wish lists" which can never be achieved or people's complaints about what hasn't happened. Instead, our focus should be on people's aspirations - those notions that sit in people's gut about what they seek in their lives and what they're willing to go to bat for. With the wrong focus, we'll end up on the wrong path.
- Create and support Boundary-spanning organizations - communities must develop organizations that help engage people across dividing lines, incubate new ideas, and hold up a mirror to people so they can see their shared reality. We've worked with public broadcasters, United Ways, community foundations, and even arts institutions to realize their potential to become boundary-spanning organizations. But too many communities lack such organizations, and existing groups are often underutilized or overwhelmed.
- Grow Public Innovators - communities need to cultivate these change agents who hold a passion for change, know how to practically move ideas into action, and understand the realities in which they are working. It's possible to actually grow and support public innovators, and I urge you to do so.
- Find the "Sweet Spot" for public action - it is essential to take actions that meet two criteria: they are focused on a specific public challenge AND they literally create community conditions for change. It is possible to find this sweet spot that leverages resources and builds the community's capacity and strength at the same time. This is how we can accelerate progress.
- Be ruthlessly strategic - times like these require us to make clear judgments and choices, something the President speaks about often. Indeed, not all ideas are good ones, and nor should they be undertaken. If we wish to create hope, we must show signs of change; this requires growing a new culture in communities of making hard choices - of being ruthlessly strategic.
- Focus on pockets of change - change typically does not happen through one or two large actions, especially in hard-hit communities. Rather, what's key is to develop pockets of change that demonstrate lasting progress and that offer people real hope. Even in tough environments, such change is possible.
Of course, there are no quick fixes for helping communities that seek to recover and grow, but there are steps we can take to make a difference. Today, people in communities all across America are searching for authentic hope - a reason to believe that they can shape their future and create the communities they seek.
My hope is that your efforts help to create the conditions for such change.