To be successful amid jolting economic change, they should re-examine and re-imagine their foundational stories.
All communities share a collective story about themselves: who they are, where they came from, and the values that help them endure. Most communities
Today, however, local narratives everywhere are being disrupted. The conditions that once made many communities successful are changing rapidly. Structural shifts in the economy, climate change
Clearly, we need new stories. Increasingly, community leaders need not only great
Tracy Ward, the executive director of the Economic Development Corporation of Easton, Md., offers one of those examples. I met her recently in Easton, an attractive town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, up the Tred Avon River from the Chesapeake Bay. Ward told me about the need to strengthen Easton’s strategic narrative in the face of changing economic conditions.
The first step for any leader seeking to generate a revitalized narrative is to understand the contours of the current, inherited story. Easton has a strong foundation built in the Revolutionary War era and an identity rooted in agriculture and in the crab and oyster industries. Yet today that identity is under pressure. Technology has disrupted small-scale farming and other industrial-era jobs, leading to a cascade of effects including poverty, under-employment and under-resourced schools.
The second step in revitalizing a community narrative is gathering data on current trends to help understand not only what is happening now but what may happen in the future. Bringing an open mindset and a wide aperture to the task is helpful. It’s important to imagine without constraints: What would a strong future look like and feel like?
For Easton, as in most places, technology and employment trends are critical. So is climate change, which is diminishing the West Coast’s agricultural production. The national lifestyle turn toward healthier eating, along with emerging trends in transportation, food distribution
With these three elements in hand — an understanding of the current narrative,
Easton’s new story may lie in developing a regional “food hub” providing fresh produce for restaurants, stores
In this story, Easton’s farmers and local supporting businesses would revitalize and sustain their foundational identity. They would benefit from emerging trends. They could amplify their marketing power as a single
To be sure, there is some resistance; not all of the necessary stakeholders like the food hub idea. This is a non-trivial challenge that faces community visionaries everywhere. Some people fear that promised outcomes won’t materialize, others don’t think their interests are represented. But the political dramas that surround efforts to bring new stories to life ultimately make those narratives more resilient, and gain strength as stakeholders negotiate their meaning, who has the right to tell them and how they will be told.