It is hard for the vast majority of cities to attract new residents. When they come, though, we either have to welcome them well – and consistently – or risk losing them altogether. The good news is that many people who move to a city of 55,000 or so folks generally are interested in living in community with others. If they wanted to be anonymous, they could always go to a massive city and disappear.
But it is not as easy as you might think to be a welcoming community (apologies to my grammar teachers – sometimes I just like to start sentences with conjunctions). For one thing, what does the term “welcoming community” mean? We need to define it. We need to quantify and measure it. For another, who is responsible? Of course it’s our privilege to welcome others here, and we are not going to have the Welcoming Patrol show up at our houses and castigate us for not doing a good enough job. That being said, welcoming communities can be cultivated and encouraged – if someone “owns” this responsibility.
Welcoming communities are built and sustained.
Meanwhile, the broader cultural trends have become an absolute disaster as it relates to building welcoming communities. My wife and I once attempted to watch a show, Lark Rise to Candleford, while we waited for The Blacklist to return from its excessively long break (NBC executives, this is our only show, and if all the other networks are taking the summer off shouldn’t you be rushing in to capture audience market share? I understand you have a challenge ahead now that we know Raymond is Liz’s Dad, but still). Anyways, back to Lark Rise. Basically the show is about these two communities separated by a road. Occasionally some new person passes through town, but generally speaking the deal is that you are going to see and get to know the same 64 people for the rest of your life. Think of that what you will, but those are great conditions to build community! Or run for the hills, depending on your personality.
Lark Rise to Candleford: When you’ll basically see the same 64 people the rest of your life.
Now, our country has grown larger than a village with a road, but broader trends make it tough for most people to build community. People move more. Work doesn’t always start and end at the same time for millions of people. The pace of life is insanely fast. People get hurt and then disconnect. Social media…yeah. Our phones or robots lull us into thinking we are interacting when actually we are further retreating. As a result, the very concept of community, much less a welcoming one, is eroded. Cities and counties become geographic locations where you happen to live, rather than a community where you are welcomed, perceive a responsibility to pitch in, and then look for opportunities to welcome and include others. We’ve seen all this demonstrated by endless stats and stories on isolation in America.
A useful tool, not a best friend
If you’re a community that is happy with your rate of growth, then to some extent it is easy to get complacent because you think people are obviously liking whatever you’re offering. Residents are, after all, voting with their feet. If, however, you are community that wants to grow, then it becomes imperative to build a welcoming culture. The million dollar question, of course, is how you do it.
Anyone who says they have a silver bullet, definitive answer probably…doesn’t. Some of the principles are clear, but their application may look very different in various communities. That being said, in my opinion a welcoming community has to start with a welcoming brand and message that is consistently marketed and reinforced. We have to tell people we want them here! We need to communicate that is the case. This also reinforces a welcoming culture.
Then, one tiny interaction at a time, we have to show them we want them here. Are we opening our homes to others? Are we finding ways to serve them through our churches and civic organizations or neighborhood clubs? Are we telling our friends when we meet someone new and then introducing them? When we meet someone new by chance, do we say hello? Do we include them? If the answer is “yes,” it won’t ultimately matter what our brand is – a reputation for welcoming others will take care of itself and spread by word of mouth. If the answer is “no,” no branding campaign will matter whatsoever.
Houston reminded us of what community is all about.
We then have to scale up these individual interactions. That might mean inviting someone to your civic club and introducing them to others. It could mean starting a Bible study and encouraging everyone to invite someone who recently moved here. You could invite a newbie to One Decatur meetings. You could ask a person to join your walking club. The point is, we need 1,000 different efforts – one of which you can start – to connect new residents to larger groups of people. We need to help them meet as many people as possible and see people enough times to begin building a comfort level that is the foundation of ongoing relationships. The best advice I ever received on building community is to align neighborhood, school, place of worship if you have one, and work. That formula can work, but in modern society it’s very hard to achieve that alignment. We need additional efforts and infrastructure.
We don’t have to do any of this, you know. I mean, life is truly busy. Maybe you already have your friends; you’re good to go. It costs time, or energy, or money. All true. It’s not always smooth – some people disappoint you, or maybe it’s just hard to introduce someone around without establishing trust. Which requires time with that person that you really don’t have. I get it. At the same time, math is math – any city that does not attract and retain residents over time will, at some point, experience a sharp decline. At that point, the people who care for their city cannot ensure it will exist in anything resembling its current form to support their children, because their children will not return. And then the cycle accelerates. Welcoming people is the right thing to do. And the smart one.