Accepting our circumstances is key to real change
There are some very smart people in this world. I have been the recipient of some extremely thoughtful commentary over the past week. These seem particularly relevant to the struggles our community faces.
I participated in the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum, a strategic planning program oriented on overcoming the problems created by the current President’s “War on Coal.” One of the panel members spoke about the issues that Pittsburg had faced when their primary industry disappeared. They had lost a generation because of forlorn hope. They kept believing that the steel business would make a comeback. As long as they did so, they continued to stagnate. It was not until they accepted that steel was dead, that it was never making a resurrection, that they were able to truly change. They now have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and become an education and medical service hub.
Our region faces similar challenges. Clearly, coal is dead in Appalachia as an economic driver, even excepting Donald Trump’s proclamations. Yet, there is a latent believe that a change of administrations just might help bring back those jobs. It will not!
I think that Kingsport suffers a similar pathology. Our policies still seem deeply rooted in the past. We make decisions by looking over our shoulder. When Eastman built their new headquarters, some segments of our community believed that this was the start of an industrial renaissance. Likewise, the recent attempts to resurrect the glass plant seemed yet another indicator of manufacturing’s upward momentum.
However, we must alter our mindset. The world is changing. We must accept that the job security of employment with large industry is simply not returning. The agile, lean, ever-adapting world of technology and advanced manufacturing (which is taught within the Regional Center of Applied Manufacturing) is the future. We will not be able to truly embrace that change and adjust to support it until we acknowledge that the “planned industrial community” created by our original founders no longer exists and will not return in the future.
The second profound commentary I heard was from Roscoe Lilly in a sermon entitled, “Better Than.” Basically, we all make decisions based on a simple equation, “This is better than that.” We tend to select the greater of that evaluation. However, what happens when you find yourself on the wrong side of “better than?” How do we react when someone or somewhere appears to be better than us?
How do we make the assessment? Against whom do we measure our self-worth or the value of our community? We tend to look at others for our validation. In the case of Kingsport, we constantly hold ourselves up against other communities: Asheville, NC; Greeneville, SC; or even Johnson City. Somehow our reflection never quite measures up to our expectations and, as a consequence, we feel on the wrong side of “better than.”
The problem resides in our methodology. We need someone else to assent to our desire to be “loved.” It is an impossible task. We want to be the best place to live, work and play. Consequently, we are devastated when someone prefers to live in a neighboring community or chooses to shop across the state line. We feel unworthy.
As a community, we must look to ourselves, not to others. We must decide who we are-who we can be, not how much like someone else we can become. We must evaluate ourselves against the “better” version of Kingsport we envision, not against the watered-down version of some other place we like better than ourselves.
So what must we do?
First, we must acknowledge and accept who we are, our good qualities along with all of our limitations and blemishes. This means our community leaders must sit down behind closed doors and for once be honest with themselves. We are a great community, in a magnificent setting of the foothills of Appalachia with a wonderful heritage, but we are also a second-generation rust belt community with a huge urban industrial complex that has lost much of its manufacturing base. It is who we are. Let’s start with that.
The most critical requirement is to for us to “clearly” define who we are to become. Vague statements like our current vision are simply too broad to be of much use in properly allotting public funds. We must create an image from within against which we can measure future progress.
Strategy is about allocating limited resources to accomplish prioritized objectives. This is how you create governmental accountability. Did you or did you not accomplish your goals within the given budget? We simply cannot continue to raise taxes in a vain attempt to do something to make us appealing.
If we can accept the reality of our circumstances and finally decide who we want to be, we can create a community that really is “better than” other places, one attractive to people who aspire to help us build who we can become.