Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia
Academic Lead, Appalachian Prosperity Project
When it comes to prosperity, what is some advice you can offer to small towns, specifically mayors and town managers?
I think the very first advice is to learn to work together. As I look at towns and cities all over the United States and literally all over the world, those that have done the best have this strong sense of working together and being on the same team. That’s the first thing. Related to that is being able to build your bench. Most small towns are filled with people with good ideas that never are tapped. So being able to put those two things together is really important. And then the third thing is involving young people. So if I had to do three things, it would be work together, build on the untapped assets in communities of individuals and organizations, and bring young people into the conversation early and often.
By “work together” do you mean one town with another? Or people within the town working together?
Both. Both and/or – working within the town to make it stronger. Oftentimes in places or families or whatever, there’s a big challenge. People are at each other’s throat and placing blame on this or that. The idea is to get people who may not agree – get them moving in the same direction. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We came on separate boats but we are in the same boat now.” And so creating that sense of purpose. And then of course reaching out to other towns. Making, not just getting our little slice of the pie, but making that pie bigger for everybody – makes a bigger splash.
What’s a tip you can give for “building your bench”?
The first is ask. Most people don’t know how to get involved. You think in a small town everybody knows each other. They really don’t know how to get involved. Secondly, they don’t know what their talents are. So maybe a mother who’s never worked outside the home thinks, “Well, what do I know?” She knows a lot about child care, about early learning, about organizational skills. And then the third thing, which is the hardest and the most important, is building a sense of hope and possibility in towns, so people want to get involved. They’re not saying, “Ah, it’s no use.” Instead people are saying, “I want to be a part of that.” And that’s how success breeds success. It sounds pretty simple … it sounds like: Well, that’s not a deep psychological theory, but actually it is! That when people get better physically and towns get better economically, socially and physically … people have to feel, first and foremost, that they can.
What a powerful role for a mayor – taking up the bully pulpit. Any mayor could do that?
Absolutely. Mayors, in fairness to each and every one, they are bombarded every day with financial issues, demands that exceed the ability to respond. But amidst all that, still, you find places that actually do move the ball forward and have success. This is not to minimize the challenges, but you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt. And I think in our towns the great news about the hand we have is we’ve got a great geography, we’ve got a great culture, we’ve got interesting small towns, and we have this great resource and reservoir of people – who are still there – who believe in Southwest Virginia and the towns. You can’t beat that combination.