Sometimes we’re too much alike

I sat at one of those planning meetings, where we all sit at tables and brainstorm about our region’s direction for the next decade or so. I looked around. Nearly everyone in the room fit a pattern: professional middle class, in their 30s to 60s, and white. A few people fell outside the pattern, but not many. The good news was there was a mix of men and women. 

When we get these same people together, who speaks for those outside the professional middle class: the wait staff, the retail clerks, the nurse aids, the mechanics, the truck drivers, the office staff? Who brings the perspective of different ethnicities and cultures? Who speaks with a younger voice about the future?

Not that I think we need more diverse people at the planning meetings. (I’m not that excited about planning meetings in general; I’d rather have doing sessions than planning meetings.)

Community happens when people talk to each other. In your town, how often do people who are different from each other actually talk? Different ages, different colors, different incomes?

People form groups of people like themselves. It’s a natural tendency. So when we start a conversation, we start it inside our group, and we invite our group members to join in. Then we invite the groups most like our own to join.

We are leaving out too many people who live and work in our rural communities. When we leave whole groups of people out of our community conversations, we miss out on better ideas.

A closed network is where everyone already knows everyone else. That may be the stereotype of a small town, but it’s not as true as we think. Small towns are made up of many separate closed networks, and we have only a few extraordinary people who cross over. Some people, including you, belong to more than one group.

You connect people from different groups. You connect online to people outside of your town. You connect people who don’t know each other. The more different groups you know people in, the more you’re part of an open network.

Your open network gives you a more accurate view of the world. It gives you the chance to bring in outside ideas to shape your town. It makes you more likely to develop breakthrough ideas when you put one idea together with another and create something even bigger.

What if we took that idea and applied it to your whole community? What if you deliberately took steps to make a more open network in your town? What if you created places and times when people who otherwise wouldn’t meet sat down together and listened?

Your people would gain a more accurate view of the town and world. You’d see more ideas shared from one group to another, and you’d see more breakthroughs as different ideas collided and generated new ideas. Hybrid vigor of ideas. That’s what I think would happen.

Practical steps:
Broaden your connections

  • Use this Activity to Explore Community Demographics to help you notice all the different groups in your community
  • Hold a festival or event including different groups in your community. Cairns does, in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. “More than 50 community groups will showcase our rich diversity through cultural and contemporary entertainment, workshops, demonstrations, arts and craft displays, and international cuisine.” Hat tip to Advance Cairns for mentioning it. More details here 

One last thought. Don’t expect that people from different groups are going to join in on your existing plans and do things your way. It’s more likely that people will join in, bring new ideas and take things in a completely new direction. That’s part of being in an open network.

Keep shaping the future of your community,

PS – Small spaces are nurturing new businesses in the Front Porch Marketplace in Donalsonville, Georgia  
“When one vendor moves out, we’ll get another vendor and we’ll just keep growing until our whole town fills up with new businesses,” Virginia Harrison of the Downtown Development group said.
It’s a great idea, and one worth copying. Hat tip to the Texas Downtown Association for sharing it.