GUEST COLUMN: Colorado Springs is writing a new story
Last month, I spent time in Colorado Springs, and while there I heard a story of renewal about the community that's worth following. It's about a community taking action to place itself on a new path. How people are doing this is as important as what they are doing.
In April 2014, I spoke in Colorado Springs. My host was Pikes Peak United Way. The goal was to sound a message that it's time to make community a common enterprise again.
Over 250 leaders turned out - a sign of just how hungry people were to take a new direction. The Gazette ran a story at the time with the headline: "Political hostility hurts Colorado Springs, many say." Indeed the narrative of the community was that change wasn't possible in part because of leaders and groups refusing to work together.
A few weeks ago, I returned to Colorado Springs to keynote the United Way community celebration. In just 12 months, the community is making its way down a new path.
There's a growing spirit of collaboration; you can hear the beginnings of an alternate "can-do" community narrative. No one action has brought about this emerging shift; rather, there have been separate efforts pointing in a common direction. For instance:
- Nearly 50 organizations are working to provide mentoring to the community's youth.
- The effort to address homelessness has shifted. Community conversations have confirmed that those experiencing homelessness share common aspirations with the community. Initiatives have begun to address the priorities: increase shelter beds; create a day center to deliver services more effectively. And all have accepted the challenge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
- Different segments of the community are coming together to find ways to make the community more business friendly and vibrant.
These actions build on previous efforts, including an initiative to ensure that all third-graders can read at grade level - a key indicator for a child's future success in life.
Pikes Peak United Way has played an important role in helping the community move forward. Last year,it launched community conversations to ask residents about their shared aspirations for the community, the challenges they saw in achieving those aspirations, and what progress could look like. The point of these discussions was not to educate the community or sell a predetermined plan. Instead a space was created for people to articulate the kind of community they want in the words that have meaning for them. As CEO Jason Wood said, "We are excited that Pikes Peak United Way can contribute as a convener and mobilizer and we are optimistic that our Cradle to Career community conversations are making an impact that will ultimately move us forward."
None of these moves happened magically. They came about through people recognizing frustration with the status quo and deciding enough was enough. Now, many leaders, groups and residents are finding common ground for taking action and choosing an alternate path - one of possibility and hope.
The community is now at an important juncture. A conscious choice that leaders and residents will have to make is whether they will continue to push forward or take the far easier path of business as usual.
Colorado Springs is in what I'd call the "catalytic stage," where there's new energy emerging, pockets of change are taking hold, and various leaders and groups are stepping forward and willing to do business in new, positive ways.
So what should a community like Colorado Springs do to make sure it stays on its current path of possibility and hope?
It should start by strengthening existing pockets of change, finding ways to support them and grow new ones. Next, it should forge networks where individuals and groups that have chosen to step forward can learn from one another. It should also seek to continually make room for others in the community to engage.
And they must pay attention to the growing competition between narratives in the community - between the long-term, dominant narrative that change can't (or won't) happen here and the new emerging can-do narrative.
The people of Colorado Springs are writing a new story. They have set out with intention to build a new path forward. This is a story worth watching as it unfolds and gives hope to those who make Colorado Springs home and to those who aspire to making progress in their community.
Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.