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THE SPIRIT OF A COMMUNITY

By Michael Strelcheck

As many communities attempt to rebuild after the recent economic meltdown many of them are finding themselves faced with making tough choices as to what they should be. Economic conditions have forced many a city or town to rethink their future, or even to wonder if they have a future. In a good way, the shifting of economic fortunes is forcing communities to sharpen their local flavor or atmosphere so that their “personality” will attract new interest. This may sound funny, for most citizens of a community don’t really think of their town or city as having a type of personality (like a person has) let alone knowing what it is. A good example of this happening is in Detroit, MI where the city struggles with bankruptcy and finding its lost identity.

The idea that a community is a person may remind us of Gov. Romney’s infamous comment during the last presidential campaign where he boldly proclaimed that “corporations are people too!” This statement riled up some people because many think of modern corporations as soulless institutions focused on their own wellbeing and profit. That may be true for some of them, but the idea that a corporation or business is a type of community made up of individuals who work – for the common good of that institution – is a viable one. In fact, if we take a moment to consider some of the most successful and enduring corporations in the land we find that they all have a type of “spirit” within their ranks that makes them more than just a cold ‘business model’ that lives only in an accountant’s ledger.

In the 1982’s book In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., we find a number of corporations that were examined as to what made them a force in our society. One such popular corporation, that most people find still personally endearing today, is the Disney Co. This company has a strong sense of family in it and it’s reflected in its employees and their attitudes. We are all familiar with the Disney brand and the “personality” it exudes in all its products. Clearly, looking at its history, the company has continued to prosper and grow, and to provide a real value to our culture. Although, and rightfully so, some would question if Disney really provides a service or is simply a money machine that manipulates our sentiments for profit? Nonetheless, if we are willing to take a deeper look into this corporation we might find some clue as to the longevity of its good fortune. For me, the thing that helped me see a greater value in Disney was when it, and its spirit, in 1999, helped to restore Times Square in New York City! Having traveled to New York before this transformation, the area was pretty dark and seedy and it wasn’t a place where people could comfortably take their family. But, since Disney’s involvement, Times Square is a bright and vibrant place with an inviting personality or atmosphere. I’m sure Disney has done okay from its investment – but my point is that a certain type of “spirit” can revitalize – and bring life to that which is dying. The question is, how does Disney create its magnetic “spirit” and can that secret be used to revitalize any community?

If we were to try and take the idea of “spirit” and apply it to a community we would have to define it in a way that people could engage and exude it. First off, individuals need to become more aware that the strength of a community (just like a business) directly relates to how much each individual works towards a common goal. Hence, a community improves when more of its members agree on an expression of a common goal or purpose. Just as a purpose can ignite an individual’s life, a common purpose can also unite and motivate a community, or a corporation as well as a country by inspiring a “spirit of cooperation.” One only has to look back at President Kennedy’s goal of getting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s to see how a common purpose united our country’s efforts, inspiring it to a shining achievement.

In our country’s past there has always been a sense of pride in our communities based on their sense of self-reliance. Perhaps this is part of the cause of the current crisis in communities. In today’s economically and socially interconnected society, communities are now beginning to relate more like members of a family than independent beings, and if a community becomes isolated (in its own sense of self-reliance) it can lose the flow of vitality that moves through a state and the country. The modern corporation knows this lesson well and those that stay relevant know how to work with other businesses. That’s why we see so many giant corporations forming agreements with each other. Consequently, when a community goes through significant changes it needs to draw on its relationships with other surrounding communities for support, and not concentrate on doing it all alone. Through an effort to reach out a struggling community opens the door for assistance (constructive ideas or new industry) to be drawn into its process.

Another key ingredient for a community on the mend is to develop its new sense of identity. Again, we can turn to successful corporations for some help. Just like Disney or Apple has done, a community needs to work at developing its “brand.” By that I mean a community in the flux of change needs to sit down and take a hard look at themselves and what they want to focus on as an identity. This process needs to be headed up by the local community officials who go to their citizens and find out their interests and strengths. Through gathering that information a collective “personality” can emerge that reveals what a community can offer that makes it unique or stand out. We can find many communities reworking their nature today, willingly going through a transformation that changes its very atmosphere or spirit. One example of this can be seen in Southern Wisconsin, where the city of Beloit has progressively altered their “brand” from an industrial community to one focused on culture. This transformation has had its difficulties and has taken time and effort, but one thing for sure is that its new “spirited personality” is quite different than it was in the past and has brought a new magnetic appeal to the city – which is revitalizing it.

Perhaps the greatest “illumination” we can get from considering the wisdom of “corporate entities” is that the lessons successful businesses learn can also apply to us as individuals as well. Each of us, like a corporation existing in the business community, live in a collective group where the same rules apply.  When we’re going through personal change we need to reach out to others rather than pull back and stoically “go it alone.” This provides us with the needed sense of support that gives us a chance to catch our breath and ask – who am I becoming? Once we get a sense of what that is, then we can embrace it and center our “spirit,” our identity, on that! In this way we can progressively move through the changes we are confronted with and become new and vital once again.

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