Working together is beneficial

Published 11:22 am Wednesday, June 29, 2005

By By Michele Gerlach
"When the people banded together to make this a better place to live, it became a better place to live."
The Southern Growth Policies Board held its annual conference, themed "Rising Together: Summit on the Rural South," in Pt. Clear earlier this month. If you followed coverage of this event in the Mobile media, you know that the group has reached the conclusion that the South's prosperity depends on the prosperity of the Rural South, and that small communities in our region should focus on getting better rather than getting bigger.
Former University of Alabama president Dr. David Matthews gave a keynote speech, also downloadable from the board's website, Matthews, who has had a long association with the Kettering Foundation, talked about the importance of getting input from stakeholders.
"I had the good fortune to co-chair the first Commission on the Future of the South and later served as chairman," Matthews said. "I confess that we laid out a future for the South without consulting the people of the South."
A series of Southern issues forums, he said, are demonstrating to the original group the errors of their ways, demonstrating how to understand "public thinking" rather than "public opinion."
He used this example.
"I recall the story of an economist who told a group of farmers that it was better to rent
than to own land. Perhaps the economist was technically right," he said. "The farmers, however, told the expert that their ancestors didn't come to this country to be renters. Their reaction illustrates the point I am making; people have deeply held convictions about what is truly valuable, and their concerns color the way they approach issues."
He talked about the positive effects forums, i.e. listening and seeking stakeholder input, can have on communities.
Among the most discussed examples is Tupelo, Miss., cited in economic development literature as a "high achieving community," or one that's accomplishments exceed its resources.
Once the poorest town in the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation, the city is now among the most prosperous in Mississippi. How did they change?
"In Tupelo, small, rural neighborhoods began making collective decisions and acting on what they had decided – using their own resources and the political will they generated. Eventually, these groups joined forces to attack problems that affected more than one neighborhood. As small groups of citizens in Tupelo began acting on local problems, their efforts eventually changed notions about what the people could do," Matthews said. "New rules and attitudes took hold: see everybody as a resource; never turn the work over to agencies that don't involve citizens; build teams."
Matthews went on to say that, research shows that even communities that have tried this without the success Tupelo enjoyed have become better communities for their efforts.
We saw this on another level post-Hurricane Ivan. Rather than wait for city, county and state crews to clear streets and highways, people worked with their neighbors, pooled their resources, and made huge differences.
We live in a wonderful community. But we, too, will become better if we listen to each other and work together to make it even better.
Michele Gerlach may be reached at michele.gerlach or 251.867.4876.

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