Remarks (or some variation thereof) prepared for “Why I am Going to BIF7” Community Presentation, September 15, 2011.
MojoCoWorking, Asheville, NC
I work in community economic development. Several years ago I was working in Prince Edward Island, Canada, facilitating innumerable community public processes and keynoting a conference on the rural creative economy. In the midst of a hurricane. Over a meal with community members, I commented that the past, present and future were colliding in remarkable ways. A young leader from a native tribe responded to my comment, “In our tribal lore, those moments where the past, present and future happen at the same time are certain to portend the future.” Today, September 15, is one of those days where my past, present and future are colliding.
First, I would like to introduce my dear friend, kindred spirit and sister subversive, Chris Krauss, visiting from my home state of Maine. I first spoke with Chris in the middle of September 1998 when we shared our ideas for regional entrepreneur development. Our first face-to-face meeting had an ironic Asheville connection. We both attended a presentation by Western North Carolina’s Becky Anderson whose powerful storytelling captivated our imaginations and introduced us to the renowned HandMade in America and the power of place-based community economic development. That meeting began a friendship that has taken us from innumerable regional convenings, the Maine Governor’s Cabinet, graduate school, Washington, DC to where we are today in Asheville.
Today also marks the first anniversary of my Grandfather’s death. Saul Collins was a humble and hardworking man. He lived his entire life in a mountain town in rural Maine. He was, first and foremost, committed to family and community. The line between the two was often nebulous. He and my grandmother had their lives deeply woven into the fabric of the community, the dynamics of which absolutely fascinated me from a young age, and probably explains my passion for community today. When I would laud their efforts, my grandfather, ever humble, would say (with his thick Maine accent) , “Deah, I’m just trying to do good work.”
I smiled when I saw how I was described in the announcement for this presentation. “Economic development expert and public intellectual”. First, in this day and age of dynamic change, anyone who would describe themself as an expert in anything is bullshitting you. While being called a public intellectual” is an honor, I’m not really certain what that means or if it matters. As the granddaughter of a humble Maine man (who was never impressed by titles or labels), I’m just trying to do good work.
Also, two years ago today, my entire life exploded. The kind of spectacular detonation that left me alone, disoriented and shaking in a corner. Mute and wide-eyed with terror. In the aftermath of such cataclysmic devastation, first thing is first- assess the piles of debris for anything salvageable. For me, that meant looking at the assumptions that were the foundation of my former life. To keep things relevant to our discussion, I will focus on my work.
One of the guiding principles of my practice in community economic development had been “You control the trajectory of the rocket by being in the control room.” I had spent years influencing the trajectory of the rocket- writing white papers for federal and state policy makers and agencies, writing and presenting policy briefs for anyone and everyone. Designing regional development projects. Participating in political campaigns. Consulting for national and regional non-profit organizations. All in the role of a community-level advocate- what does this effort really mean to people within the community? A voice from the ground who could converse with anyone at any level, and influence the trajectory of the rocket. My little period of “creative destruction” (I’m an optimistic pragmatist) has taught me one thing. At this particular time in history, my approach was misguided and about as helpful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In fact, I was complicit in the processes which have created this mess.
What do I mean by this? About that rocket- ah, it’s a dud. I mean that the systems and institutions which are the foundation for our lives are the very ones which have created the detritus of our current existence. These relics also thwart the very dynamics required for our revitalization- innovation. The institutions functioning within these systems are void of the leadership, vision, fiscal and human capital capacity to transform themselves. Our leaders can’t decide what the real issues are, let alone figure out actionable initiatives to address them in any semblance of a timely manner. This abject misguided and anachronistic approach to development is being applied globally, nationally, regionally and locally, in perhaps the only example of “Trickle Down” theories actually working, albeit in a stunningly negative way. From this point forward, I refuse to contribute to this mindless incrementalism. In the words of my grandfather, “You can’t push a string”.
What does any of this have to do with why I am attending BIF7? Bif7 is all about the future. I am looking to transform my approach to my life’s work. I am also seeking others who value my perspective, who honor what I am trying to do. Kindred spirits, partners in crime, fellow subversives and those curious enough to explore alternatives with the same driving urgency I feel. I am seeking new ideas for building communities and regional economies. I need to connect with other intelligent, passionate, curious people who are committed to making the world better.