What we can learn from Las Vegas

Last week I was in Las Vegas where I discovered a community once on top of the world fighting to come back in the wake of the Great Recession. What people in Las Vegas are doing offers a vision of what it will take for communities across the country to rebound from this tough economic and social time. It’s not a mere roll of the dice that’s bringing Vegas back, but intentional actions to create real change and community.

The Harwood Institute worked in Las Vegas earlier this decade with the support of the Omidyar Network. In 2004 we produced a report entitled, On the American Frontier. It captured the incredible “can-do spirit, confidence, proven track record of growth, and innate sense of vibrancy” of Southern Nevada. For many people, Vegas was the best, last chance to pursue a customized version of the American Dream. But even then people were starting to wonder if they had too much of a good thing.

Today things are different in Vegas. For starters, the area ranks near the top in the nation in home foreclosures, school dropouts, unemployment and lost jobs, while philanthropic dollars have dried up. And yet, something genuinely hopeful is happening there, something worth paying attention to.

My speech last week was to about 100 political and civic leaders, including heads of major organizations, funders, the state senate majority leader, and public broadcasters. In 2004, it might have been hard to gather such leaders for a similar event, and especially one where they so openly engaged one another. But now, despite the Great Recession – or maybe because of it – folks are creating new groups and relationships to get things done.

Many people came up to me during my time there to say that our work some 5-10 years ago had helped to seed the growth of new groups and strengthen existing ones. They told me we had helped them to see why it is so critical to turn outward and to think about change differently. One person even asked how I felt being back in town given that so much current activity can be traced back to our work. What I told her is that the real credit goes to people in Vegas – those individuals and groups that chose to step forward and use our work to innovate, experiment, and are now connecting their efforts to others. And it is an amazing collection of groups, which includes:

  • Three Square, a national model for collecting donated and rescued food that is distributed by more than 260 partners in the community; the group is not only fighting hunger, but helping their partners build networks among themselves to work on other concerns;
  • Community We Will, an initiative that focuses on vulnerable children and families, and which was sparked by an effort to fight homelessness, which also used our work to get going;
  • Southern Regional Nevada Planning Coalition, which, doesn’t run any programs, but serves as a space for those who do to come together, learn from one another, join forces, and leverage each others’ efforts;
  • KNPR and Vegas PBS, the local public broadcasters, who have rooted their work deeply in the community, and whose greatest impact may be in the things they do off air;
  • Nevada Gives, a group that is helping to cultivate an ethos of giving in the region, and which brings people to together to figure out how they can have a true impact. What’s so promising in Vegas is that public innovators are creating a new civic foundation. Each group has its own promising story, and together they represent a major shift in the community. Now, all this movement is still just emerging, but the trajectory is clear.

These groups are boundary spanners, network builders, engagers of the community, and most importantly action oriented. It is this very foundation that is essential for a community to move forward. We all know the Vegas line, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” Well, I want to add a new line today: “What Happens in Vegas, Spreads beyond Vegas.”