Of Cynics And Strawberries

by Chris Majer

Over the course of the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of articles, columns and letters in the local press that have demonstrated a profound lack of understanding about the purpose, process, status and results of One Spokane.

The first and most important point that needs to be made is that One Spokane is not a poverty initiative. Poverty is the brutal and obvious symptom of a much deeper issue facing the region, which is that our economy is not built on a sustainable, equitable foundation. We have too much unemployment, underemployment and dependence on a few consolidated industries. Our venture community is weak at best, and we have yet to find a coherent way to promote and market our region on the world stage. To his credit, Mayor John Powers saw early on that hosting a summit on poverty was only going to generate more calls for social services and "alms for the poor." Every bit of our history tells us that these alone are not solutions. Instead, we need to look at the more important challenge of designing a sustainable, equitable, regional economy. That is the declared purpose of One Spokane -- the transformation of the regional economy.

Transformational change is what is required if we are to design and deliver a new future for the community. We cannot wait for evolutionary change, and we cannot settle for incremental change. We are already too far behind the rest of the West; we must hold ourselves to the higher standard of transformation.

Here is a bullet-point look at the basic elements of the process of community transformation.

1. We must acknowledge that we have a breakdown and commit to transform ourselves. Communities do not take change seriously unless they are faced with a breakdown. The purpose of the community forum at Lewis & amp; Clark a year ago was to bring to life the reality that what we have produced over the last 100 years is not what we intended. We need to take time out and do a serious re-examination of our intentions, commitments, strategies and actions. We simply cannot afford a future that is a mere continuation of what we are currently doing with some incremental tinkering here and there.

2. Guide the generation of a new vision.

This is what the all-day design session at Whitworth, which followed the LC event, was all about. The purpose of the day was two-fold: First, to get the various elements of the community talking to each other. Never before had Spokane seen people from the business community, elected officials, neighborhood activists, social service agencies, the faith community, labor, education, tribes and voices together in the same room at the same time talking to each other.

The second part of the day was intended to begin the process of generating a new vision, a new sense of direction for ourselves. This process is most powerful in the aftermath of a breakthrough, which occurs when we experience a dramatic departure from our normal way of thinking. It enables us to see possibilities that we could not previously see. Attempting to create a vision with the same old thinking is a waste of time. The reason that we had Bill McDonough make the presentation was that we needed a breakthrough in our collective thinking, and that is exactly what he provided.

3. The third step in the process is that vision must be turned into action.

Vision in the absence of action is just dreaming, and we are way past the point where we can afford to sit and dream. There are two aspects to the action phase. We need to see short-term wins to keep momentum moving, and we need a long-term strategy and plan if we are going to succeed at designing a new economy. We need to retain the industries we have, expand the ones that are in alignment with the long-term vision and recruit or generate the new companies that we intend to become the foundation for a new economy.

These are long-term actions that are key to the project. Just as important are the short-term actions that have already generated success. Here is a quick sample of results that have been generated to date:

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

Project Access

Increased City Human Services Funding

Foundation for Early Learning

Office of Economic Development

To say that nothing has been done or that little value has been realized is a huge misstatement of the facts and a disservice to the people who have put in the time and resources to accomplish these goals. This is a long-term process that has already generated benefits for the community far greater than its costs.

4. We must have unified leadership.

This one is easy to explain and more difficult to realize. In every instance where transformation has taken place, it required unified, focused leadership. The leaders of every segment of the community must be willing to put aside the usual small differences and distractions and focus the political will of the community on the realization of the new vision.

Leadership in this case refers to much more than just the elected officials. It is the leaders of every sector of our community. It is all of us. If we want to see transformation take place, then we must all become the leaders who keep the agenda of change in the forefront.

5. We must be rigorous in managing our own mood and the mood of the community.

It has only recently occurred to many in town that much of our malaise is due to our own long-standing cynicism and distrust. These moods have become so pervasive that we don't even bother to question them much anymore. Instead we just accept them as "the way things are in Spokane."

Communities that thrive are the ones that live in a mood of ambition and confidence. They look for evidence of success and focus their attention on what is possible, not on what is wrong. This may be the most difficult and, at the same time, the most critical step for Spokane.

6. We must put in place a structure for inclusion, feedback and calibration.

The process of transformation requires a core of people who are committed to a new vision for our future. They must be receptive to new ideas and at the same time focused on mobilization not conversation. Less than 7 percent of the population was actually involved in the American Revolution. The rest sat on the sidelines taking pot shots, complaining or waiting to see how it would all turn out. That dedicated core of what we now call patriots didn't wait to see if everyone agreed with them. There is no record of anyone calling them elitists.

Feedback is an ongoing part of the process and essential to both maintaining the mood and focus of the efforts.

The final element is calibration. The next step here is to benchmark ourselves against cities that have been down this road. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Providence, R.I., are two good examples.

Finally, a few short words about strawberries. Out in the rest of the world, it is both a standard practice and basic good manners to thank the people who put up the money to make an event like Bill McDonough's presentation at the Opera House possible. Yes, if you put up $5,000 to help host the event you get to spend an hour eating strawberries with the speaker. Small minds call this elitist; the rest of world knows it as normal. The companies that paid for the event know that they also paid for their own reception. The only thing that is newsworthy about any of this is that the whole thing only cost $450. The real story here is that we are too cheap with our gratitude. The "alms for the poor" crowd bemoan the strawberries and Bill's fee and in so doing miss the bigger picture and purpose. The evening wasn't about getting cans of food for the food banks. It was intended to get the community thinking differently about our own future and generating a willingness to take actions that would eventually render the food banks unnecessary.

We have a formidable task in front of us. It will take time, political will and an ongoing commitment. We have two choices: We can keep sitting on the sidewalk, watching the parade of progress go by, or we can get up and get into action.

Chris Majer was class president at Lewis & amp; Clark High School in 1969. He earned an MPA from the U of W in 1976, and in 1981 started his own firm, the Human Potential Project. He has been involved in large-scale transformational projects with companies that include Microsoft, AT & amp;T, Intel, CitiBank, James River and Capital One. Majer helped organize last year's One Spokane series of events.

Publication date: 07/10/03