What's in a name: All-America City?

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Mayor and Firetruck 1This is a hard post to write because a lot of people who I care about and respect are very invested in and excited about the recent news that Richmond is one of the winners of the National Civic League's "All-America City" award.

First, I want to say that I do offer my genuine congratulations to the youth, their mentors and supporters who put together Richmond's application and saw it through to the win.  To achieve national recognition for our city is commendable, and I know that the passion, time and energy you put into this effort comes from a deep love of this community and its potential.  Richmond needs more people like you who care enough to act, and who do so with a bright future in mind.

Now on to the harder part:

My fellow blogger Jean Harper has written a critique of this effort that raises some very worthy questions about the value of spending our time trying to win this label.  Other people in other candidate cities are asking the same questions. The recurring theme: "why should we put all that time and money into competing for a title that is just a title, when we have real problems to solve back home?"

I think it's a good sign that these questioning conversations are happening, but I have a difficult time with some of Jean's more biting comments:

I would like to take the community leaders aside and say this: Look. Quit lying to our kids. Quit filling their heads with boosterish nonsense. Quit leading them on these exhausting exercises which result in virtually nothing.

I posted a response to her entry on her blog, but I thought I'd share it here too:

Thanks for putting out some challenging thoughts about this award news.

I've been cogitating on similar ideas for a while now, and while I share your concern that the return on investment for this effort might not be justifiable, I'm not sure I can follow you all the way to the point of calling it lying to the youth involved, or to saying that a community improvement effort that doesn't necessarily directly engage the homeless is one to eschew.

This comes from my general philosophy of community improvement, which I think fellow commenter Aaron touched on: "There is no one right way to make Richmond a better place."  That is, it just won't work to say that there's a single plan of action for helping this community solve all of its problems, and then execute it and hope for the best on the other side.

We do need to engage all of the disenfranchised populations you talked about, and re-think our education system and notions of meaningful employment.  But we also need the rallying and the parades and the vague award titles and the hype.  We need all of it, and we need anyone who has a bit of passion and energy for this place to manifest their care in whatever way they think they can bring the most to the rest of us.

Richmond has suffered recently, I think, at the hands of those who preach homogeneity and "one right way, there is no alternative" when it comes to community improvement and economic development.  So I just can't begrudge the successes of someone who is willing to say "well, what if we try something else?  What if we go a different direction and see what happens?"  I may have serious concerns about their particular choice of direction (as I do in this case), but until there are more people taking Richmond's future into their own hands, until there are so many "shovel-ready, high-impact" projects for people to plug into that we don't know where to start, I don't think we have the luxury of criticizing those who are making a go of it in their own way.

Even with limited resources, even knowing there are those with other clear and pressing daily needs that are not being met, I still think there's value in diversity of approach.  We don't know what might spark the kinds of revival and rejuvenation that really will make a big difference.

Thanks again for calling us all out on this, not allowing for unquestioned or unconditional glee when we know reality demands more of us.

5 thoughts on “What's in a name: All-America City?

  1. I agree that there is a huge hype component to the award. But it seems to me that the effort itself might have been the prize -- particularly this time around where the kids have apparently done a lot of the heavy lifting.

    Maybe I don't fully appreciate the resources expended, but I can't see where there was a particular downside to this effort -- would the time and energy have gone elsewhere? Or would these folks have just watched more TV in the past year?

  2. I remember back in the 80's when Richmond won last time. As someone in Elementary school, I was extremely excited about it for about a week, and maybe a little more when they painted the water tower. I was too young to understand that Richmond wasn't simply singled out from the many thousands of American cities, but instead applied.
    Not knowing what great accomplishments are necessary to qualify or to win, I feel like this is an almost completely hollow kind of award, and only worth to the community what it put into the effort.
    What are the costs associated with competing for the award? Are they in the hundreds, thousands, tens-of-thousands? That seems like a pertinent question in weighing whether it is a good idea.

  3. Hi Chris -
    Yes, I suppose my blog post was a little biting. But I'm with Dan R-M: this is a rather hollow award. You do apply for it, you compete for it, and frankly I'd love to see an analysis of the cities that have "won" this over the years, and what their per capita income was at the time of the award, as well as graduation rate, crime rate, and other telling statistics. And whether, in the wake of the award, anything has substantively changed. THAT would be an interesting portrait, I suspect.

  4. It's interesting to see what the award makes other people think of Richmond:

    My guess is that this is a town that cares about its people and goes all out to keep the lines of communication open. Must be a nice place to live...


    What is great is that the Richmond “adults involved showed kids that they mattered and that they cared about them and what they think.”

    What a novel idea - involving others, especially youth, rather than having the “powers that be” be the presenters! [Our] officials could learn from this...

  5. I think this was a good project for the kids, and for that alone it was probably worthwhile. There are other potential projects that this Richmond youth could work on that might have a more lasting impact on the community. Basically, the adults got a group of kids to engage in boosterism. I can understand why some people would criticize that. I have a problem with that, also.

    Those kids also had to consider the problems in teh community as part of the project, if I recall correctly, which could motivate them to become involved with solving those problems. There could be some good that comes out of the project. Will there be lasting, substantial change in Richmond as a result of being designated an All American City? It is doubtful, but I don't want to say that the project was a waste of time.

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