This post is authored by Dr. Katherine Loflin, lead consultant for Soul of the Community, a Knight-funded study to determine what factors attach residents to their communities and the role of community attachment in an area's economic growth and well-being. Here, Katherine writes about a presentation she delivered to the community of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Feb. 16.
To be honest, this was the first time I had been a little nervous about a Soul of the Community presentation in a long time. The day of my arrival to Corpus Christi, Texas, an article appeared in the local paper announcing my visit and telling residents that local Mayor Joe Adame was inviting everyone to come out and hear the presentation. Great.
Then, as I always do, I scrolled down to look at the comments to the article. 'Why don't we have a meeting and talk about why we all hate it here,' was among the comments I read, along with criticism of the local leadership and the general consent that the meeting was going to be a major bust. Many readers seemed pretty pleased by that prospect. Of course, other residents tried to come to the defense of the city but even their comments were telling: 'And the Corpus whiners are out in full swing.' It was the most pre-presentation reaction I had seen in the three-plus years of the Soul of the Community project ' and certainly the most negative.
Not sure what to expect, I stepped out off the plane and took a beautiful scenic route along the waterfront to my hotel. Beautiful homes and pristine beaches welcomed me. As I got closer to downtown overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, I saw a new and cool-looking splash park for the kids that I knew my four-year-old would enjoy. Around downtown and close to downtown I saw attractions like the new-looking American Bank Center, the USS Lexington available for tours and the Texas Aquarium.
Later, when I reached the presentation venue, I mentioned the newspaper article comments to the mayor. He smiled apologetically and said with conviction, 'The message of Soul of the Community will be well-received, and we need this message now.' I wanted to do right by him and this city.
So with more than 100 local residents and members of the local press in attendance, I began the presentation.
As I spoke, I constantly scanned the crowd looking for nonverbal (or verbal) reaction to what I was saying. Head nods, smiles and thoughtful expressions greeted me back. Great.
Then came the Q&A period ' always my favorite part of doing presentations. As reported by the Caller Times on the front page of the local section the following day, a resident stood up and asked me something I have never been asked before: 'Be brutally honest ' as someone not living here, what is your first impression of Corpus Christi?' One commenter to the news article retelling this story said that before I gave an honest and tactful response, for a fleeting moment I had the 'deer in headlights' look on my face. I'm sure I did.
The comments I had read in the article announcing the presentation flooded my mind as I stood facing what seemed to be a completely different crowd that night. And I worried about deflating that crowd with my honest response. But I said, 'It seems to me that some of you, and I'm not sure if you're in this room, but some of you are stuck in place.'
The room seemed to collectively exhale back at me in what felt like relief. So I continued, 'And that must be hurting you as a place in some ways.' Heads began nodding again and pensive faces broke into sad smiles. 'But I don't see that here tonight. I see people wanting to find new ways to solve old problems and move forward as a place, and you have a good start.' Then I began reciting all the wonderful amenities (social offerings), beauty (aesthetics) and welcoming faces (openness) I had encountered since I landed. We shut the place down with residents staying long after the allotted time to talk about their community and ask questions about Soul of the Community.
The following morning, I received a message through Twitter from a local resident who said he now had restored hope that Corpus Christi could be better ' and perhaps he and his family would stick around a little longer to see and be a part of that. Additionally, the comments to the article in the paper about the event were overwhelmingly positive.
I couldn't wait to share this with the mayor when I saw him later that day. And when I did he said that he wasn't surprised ' that he felt a shift in the room last night and that 'everyone' was talking about the presentation today ' on local talk radio, in the paper and everywhere he went. It is momentum he plans to build on using Soul of the Community as a guiding framework.
It may not be transformation yet ' but it's discovery. And that's a start.