In the year-plus since our journey to Austin, I’ve been asked numerous times about the experience.  The questions drive at both the experience itself, as well as the post-Austin endeavor to write the Mansfield Rising plan and the post plan experience related to implementation.  Looking back, I easily point to three main takeaways I’ve had from this experience that have stayed with me and will continue to impact the work I do in downtown development.

Keep the big picture mindset in focus.

In my day to day work at DMI, we balance long term plans with short term needs on a regular basis. We are always thinking long term about goal projects, midterm about milestone marks and short term tasks to get there.  However, the reality is that with a small staff and budget, short term is where we live day to day. Events, marketing, and new business projects have immediate needs that can’t wait. As a result, the short term problems demand more of my attention than is ideal.  

In Austin, with those short term demands miles away, I was able to learn a great deal from big-picture thinkers who work and live globally all the time!  SXSW is packed full of big-picture people who are working globally on intelligent solutions to complex problems. Networking with people with that global mindset was one of the most impactful opportunities.  When we talk about complex issues like housing, equity, and diversity, Austin gave me a great opportunity to see the bigger picture and discuss projects and problems from a global point of view. Rahm Emanuel said, “if you can’t solve a problem, make it bigger.”  This resonated with me. While problems can live in the short term, real opportunity exists in a bigger picture perspective. In the real world here in Mansfield, there is always trash that needs to be picked up, but balancing that with creating solutions for the bigger picture has changed my mindset and reminded me not to miss out on opportunities to find global solutions to local needs. 

Creating and maintaining relationships drive progress.

The team that went to Austin had one thing in common, our love for our community and desire to make it better.  We are a mixed bag of community members with scattered experiences, goals, and perspectives. Many of us had worked together over the years on a variety of projects, but we hadn’t worked together this close and on such a broad spectrum of projects.  It seems like a side note to the actual plan and implementation, but a critical part of the work we did was to build trust and common experiences to cultivate a stronger sense of community within our team. Learning and exploring concepts and ideas together helps us understand the depth of the projects we’re working on, and writing and vetting them through the planning process allows us to listen to each other and understand the variety of perspectives that make the ideas stronger. As we move forward with the project, our collective buy-in helps us accomplish goals that might not have ordinarily had as much broad-based support.  This relationship-building among community members is a critical part of our community revitalization story as we move forward. We don’t all agree; we won’t ever all agree, but what is most important is listening and building better projects because of the diversity of perspectives that we bring to the table. 

It’s going to take as long as it takes; you might as well enjoy it.  

The pace of community development can be excruciatingly slow.  The project development process can often feel like a rush compared to the time-stands-still process of full implementation.  I get it, we all want these ideas that seem the easiest and most logical to happen right away. I do too. When dealing with community and economic development, though, that just isn’t always the case.  There are so many factors involved, not to mention personalities, that time can feel like it’s standing still, meanwhile, we are just wanting it to be completed! I feel that way all the time, especially with complex problems with little to no funding, but money doesn’t solve the problems, either. 

When I was in Austin, I was able to meet people from all over the world who were looking at the same exact issues we are looking at in Mansfield.  These aren’t Mansfield problems or Ohio problems or rust belt problems — these are community problems, and that’s ok. In fact, looking at our community from that global standpoint, our problems, while unique, weren’t as trying as they seem to be close up.  In one of my favorite sessions, we learned about how a community used interpretive dance to sell an important funding issue to their city council. I could feel my blood pressure spike just thinking about it. Who has time to learn an interpretive dance?! I mean, it sounds insane, but it worked! In the rush to get things accomplished, drawing the quickest and shortest line between the two points seems the most efficient, but in reality, when dealing with people, it just doesn’t always work that way.  Sometimes looking at an opportunity and finding your way through it with other humans while tossing in some joy and celebration can have the most impact.  

I don’t know if these are the top three things I was supposed to learn during the SXSW process, but they are for sure the most impactful to me in my daily life and at Downtown Mansfield, Inc.  SO… Who is up for some interpretive dance at City Council?! 

 

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