I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.' - W.B. Yeats
East of Eden
Earlier this week I was invited to share with a local group what I saw as issues and trends current in our city. The group would also be briefed on DMC, demographic projections, and some other targeted economic data. I was to address - broadly - anything of everything else that might be pertinent this group's purposes.
With two exceptions the group was comprised of Rochester residents and, as I looked over the list of whom to expect, residents likely to be well-informed on the issues facing the city. That being the case, it did not seem a good use of the time to catalog the all too familiar and growing list of challenges that demography, growth, and urban living pose for us. You know: affordable housing, transit, transportation, income disparities, immigration, workforce skills, arts, sustainability, sharing economy, infrastructures for communication of all kinds, inclusion, healthy living, recreation, jobs that pay well, jobs that refuse to pay well, persistent gaps in achievement, opportunity, wages, access; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The list is long, gets longer, and nothing will ever get crossed off of it. These issues are the permanent concerns of living and living in a city. They are not necessarily in every case bad problems to have but they will remain problems - or if you prefer, challenges; or, if you prefer, opportunities. Whatever term you use, these are the distractions that keep us mortal. A partial catalog of how in the 21st Century we till the ground from whence we were taken. No matter how many lists of the best this, that, or the other thing Rochester tops, we still dwell east of Eden after all.
Though sometimes the long view can be helpful, I did not contextualize my remarks by referencing either Yeats or Moses on Adam's Fall. Going back to those days just prior to the passage of the DMC legislation seemed far, fall, and frame enough.
There is good news to be found there in those days and in the days that have followed. In those days began an important trend that is not reducible to demographics or economics or the long term growth of the local "medical business entity" as Mayo Clinic was referred to in the DMC legislation. It is a trend that is expressed in a question and exemplified in four groups that have erupted into our city's life since 2013. Groups that did not exist three years ago. All four born in a bit of angst but quickly embracing participation, accountability, and possibility.
Who wants to know?
The question each of these groups asks in their own way for their own reasons is this: "What is the future we want to create together?" If there is a trend across all the issues any can list, it is how quickly this question came to be asked; how it burst into a broad community conversation about a shared future; and, how new groups demanded of themselves that the question be asked by and of and for so many.
Community Networking Group
The first of these groups formed early in 2013 even as bill that would establish DMC was moving through the state legislature. Now called the Community Networking Group, this informal assembly of mainly private and public social and human service providers came together initially try to sort out what was happening and what it might mean for their organizations and the people they served and supported. They saw early on that the growth toward which DMC focused our attention would bring with it increasing pressures upon our community fabric, increasing demands upon community services, and increasing stress upon community infrastructures. Like the rest of the city, the Community Networking Group spent months trying to sort through the hoops and hoopla that preceded and followed the passage of the legislation. What they sorted out they shared with each other. Over the months they have grown more clear on how better to provide service and support. When they could they have tried to speak in common and in concert about the concerns they share and the opportunities they see.
The Community Networking Group is now driving an effort to create a set of shared community-wide indicators that identifies measures of community well-being.
Journey to Growth
The origins of the second group to form are also found in 2013 in the Market Street study initiated by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and Rochester Area Economic Development Incorporated. The resulting report issued in January 2014 lead over the following months to the formation of Journey to Growth, a five-year economic development plan created to ensure the future economic viability of our region. Their goal is to diversify and grow the regional economy comprised of Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Steele, Wabasha and Winona counties. They have identified five target sectors for development and expansion: computer system design and production, food processing, manufacturing, convention and tourism, and medical technology. Ten "journey committees" have formed around the issues they believe are vital to expanding and diversifying the regional economy, optimizing the regional talent base, and becoming a cohesive, connected region.
Journey to Growth is now moving into its second year of its five year journey tracking and sharing their progress in quarterly meetings throughout the region.
Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative
A third group formed in September 2014 at an evening meeting in the library auditorium called to create an action plan for arts and culture in Rochester. They were pretty adamant about not being interested in more "input." Even then engagement fatigue was setting in among Rochester residents and many were growing weary of convening without consequence. The Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative was an invitation to "output." As have other groups, they identified areas where they might get some needed traction and maybe even make something happen. For two years they have been doing just that. When news that the Chateau Theatre would become vacant surfaced, this group began the earliest planning for its possible use as a multi-function performance venue. They are now part of the task force that is working to realize that very same vision. The Collaborative has before the city council an Armory Re-use proposal to create at that site an arts and multicultural center. The "major public art project that would represent Rochester in an iconic way," that was on a potential To Do List at their very first meeting, is now realized in the Arts4Trails project that has placed five sculptures on the trail between Silver Lake and Slattery Park.
The Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative has in less that two years contributed in substantial ways to develop a vital arts infrastructure in the downtown, address some long-standing needs of our multicultural community, and lay the groundwork for a continuing major public art project.
In the City for Good
All these groups formed before the DMC Master Plan was presented and approved in 2015. The final example is a group that formed just as that planning phase was being concluded. Its voice was first heard at the DMCC board hearing on the approval of the plan. A voice that raised the same concerns about living in the "in shadow of growth" that others had. With its origins in the social justice missions of local communities of faith, In the City for Good arose quickly over a series of three community forums in June, October and November 2015. They organized themselves around the priorities those forums identified. Now "action groups" meet regularly to bring those issues to the fore and press for results that promote growth that brings its benefits to all without those least able bearing its costs (e.g. here, here, and here).
In the City for Good now holds regular forums to bring the work of these groups and the concerns they address to the broader community. Their next forum in October will invite candidates for city offices to respond to this work and those issues.
The dancers are not the dance
Though organizations and people that comprise these groups have been around for a while, the groups themselves did not exist three and half years ago. They have come upon the scene quickly. They are making a difference quickly. Formed in response to the big changes they each in their own way saw coming, they are perhaps the most important change we have seen so far. These groups may well represent the most significant change we will see. Along with other groups like The Commission, and We Bike Rochester, these groups represent a major local trend: asking the question, "What is the future we want to create together?"
These groups were not elected or appointed or created by an act of any governing authority. They are all bottom-up groups, grassroots and grass tops. They are more and less organized; more and less formal; driven by volunteers and dependent upon voluntary associations. None of them have any money of their own to speak of and most would speak of having none at all. Increasingly they supersede groups that preceded them. As observed above, even though these groups may form initially in an anxiety arising from uncertainty and complexity, all four quickly embraced participation, accountability, and possibility.
Participation: These groups all expanded quickly by actively inviting others in and keeping that invitation always an open one. By doing so they benefit from the gifts and capacities that only others bring, and by seeking out those on the margins they can harvest new gifts and capacities.
Accountability: These groups formed around a founding sense of accountability understood here as Peter Block defines it: a willingness to care for the well-being of the whole. Participants find themselves among those with whom they are connected in shared interests and broad purpose. The groups they form actualize the potential collective these connections always held. Bringing a kind of soft power to local and regional affairs.
Possibility: These groups all placed before themselves what only questions about the future can make possible: possibility. Embracing as essential that the well-being of the whole depends not upon what comes next but what they do next. They must ask what is it possible to do and then what else is possible and then what else. Not surprisingly, as participation grows and accountability deepens, more possibilities emerge as possible.
These four groups will succeed some and fail some. Three years from now they might not exist. Maybe they accomplish what they set out to accomplish and disband. Maybe they morph into something else that carries their question forward. Maybe they collapse. Frankly, for different reasons in different ways, they are all pretty fragile. But they need not last. Their impact on the future they create together will not happen in the future, it will happen - if it happens - now. Besides these four examples are not the only examples of this trend. They represent the trend. They are not the trend itself. They are the dancers not the dance.
A better answer than the best one
Walking out of the meeting afterwards, a member of the group before whom I had presented ask me where I thought the city would be in five years. The best answer to questions like that is always "it depends," but this was someone literally helping to build a future Rochester, her question was serious and deserved a better answer than the best one. And this is no answer really anyway, just a reply to a query.
I said in essence but not in these words that I thought in time a shared horizon may emerge. All the asking of the same question may give rise to many hands gesturing in the same general direction toward that shared horizon.
Issues are shared, but interests vary. The answer is certainly not some group of groups, some parliament of all interests that will sort them all out. The answer is definitely not some ill-conceived attempt to "adjudicate" among these groups and their interests. Better we seek alignment toward that shared horizon if we can discern it. Better that we seek a resonance among these groups. We can expect some dissonance along the way, but sympathetic vibrations born of earned empathy will serve us all well and better than any zero sum balancing. Resonance and alignment will not happen of its own accord. It will be another labor these groups take on.
Asking what is the future we want to create together depends most of all upon the coming together to do so. So far, we seem to be doing that and upon that it depends.