For new ideas to flourish, for innovations to truly take hold and change our communities, we hear all the time that we in Michigan need to connect and collaborate more and be more civil to each other. But how, exactly?
Collaboration and civility are feel-good abstractions that well-meaning folks use, but often without offering a clear pathway to actually achieving improvement. Instead, we are left with flimsy takeaways that basically say, “Just try harder to be more open” or "Just go meet people."
I felt something more could be done where I live in Ann Arbor. It turns out, all it really takes is a convener and a small group of caring residents to turn the abstract concepts of collaboration, connection, and civility into meaningful action.
A few years ago, I began having all-too-common conversations over Michigan craft brews with friends and colleagues who had great ideas and great energy, but were considering leaving the state.
They envisioned business opportunities, improvements to transit systems, and concepts for cause-driven fundraising campaigns. They craved communities of shared interests. They were just the people we needed to keep here.
Originally from Florida, I had recently made the choice to commit to a life in Michigan and saw these people as smart, passionate, and valuable members of my new community. When people like that leave, it may not show up in any statistic but their loss is felt. So I began making subtle and then bolder attempts at persuading these friends, colleagues, and all-around cool people to stay or come back.
After going on and on about our dreams and desires, the conversations often turned to how they felt unequipped, unsupported, or uninspired by Michigan and its offerings. It was often because they felt they didn't have one or more of the following things:
- Access to enough money to start a business.
- A life partner to make the journey more meaningful and bearable (or prospects for such a partner).
- Resources to navigate insider or "townie" networks.
- A density of like-minded peers able to provide motivation through proximity.
Armed with this empirical research and inspired by author Peter Block’s “The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters,” I came up with the “shur!” series, titled as an anagram of my last name to emphasize the central theme.
Without much of a model to lean on, I went with my gut. First I invited 30 people in my community, which is the Ann Arbor area, whom either I knew personally or who were recommended by others I knew. They were a deliberate mix of longtime community members and area newcomers, folks youthful and seasoned, women and men, all representing a variety of ethnic, ideological, and professional backgrounds. Our 7:45 a.m. meetings happened at a local nonprofit organization, which saw the potential for exposure and agreed to have 30 people take over their space for one hour a week for four weeks.
To grease the wheels of conversation and connection, I put together interactive activities to get participants talking in small groups about who they are and what they do. I also invited local experts and potential mentors to offer advice and tell their stories about saying “Yes!” to challenging situations. Some of those speakers included Mike Finney, then CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation; Ken Fischer, president of University Musical Society; and Christina Kim, financial advisor with Edward Jones Investments.
Much to my surprise, honestly, it has worked. Since January 2013, there have been five shur! sessions and two annual reunions that have produced 162 alumni. The project even received a “special tribute” from Gov. Rick Snyder. Most importantly, the participants really got something out of it. Here’s a sampling of their comments:
- "I thought the series was an awesome way to be inspired and connect with other inspiring people in the community. I loved being able to meet new people and being surrounded by those that I feel truly want to make the world a better place."
- "Shur! could not have come at a better time in my life and I appreciate it more than you know."
- "As a person recently returning to Michigan, the series not only helped me connect to other people, but inspired me to become more active in the community. Thank you."
While the positive feedback and the governor’s acknowledgement are nice, I think they say less about the quality of the program and much more about the desire for people in our communities to feel motivated and connected. This realization makes me believe there is opportunity for something like shur! to work in any Michigan community.
So what's the Next Idea?
As with any grassroots endeavor, it just takes one driven individual in a community to get things started. In addition, I have also discovered, through trial and error, that certain basic fundamental components must be in place for this to work well:
- Gather people regularly: Choose a central and easily accessible location, ideally one that in itself promotes a community asset or resource. Make these gatherings fun (great food helps) and respectful and thoughtful of people's time. Also, work to have participants reflect your community’s diversity and intentionally mix them. A fast frequency of gatherings can facilitate this mixing forming actual bonds.
- Ask and encourage people to be better: Find ways to have people think about their power and skills and discuss ways they can live, work, and play better, using reading materials, motivational speakers, and creative conversation starters as the tools. Have the participants discuss these topics while together and reflect on them while apart. Engineer group projects that allow theory to become action and spark collaboration.
- Create new beacons for the community: Use the gatherings as opportunities to turn certain community members or institutions into beacons for change. Highlight the community assets that can make life richer and more enjoyable and invite them to share their stories and services with the group.
These are not innovative strategies, by any means. They have been fueling churches, Rotary clubs, communities of shared heritage, and fraternal organizations for generations. But that’s just it. These groups, which strengthen interconnectedness and social awareness among their participants, have helped connect our communities in the past. Shur! is just one more way to reconnect with this energy and use it to actually turn these abstract concepts of collaboration and civility into action. It has worked for some in my community, but I can’t guarantee that it will work for yours. What I do know, however, is that for us to create a new Michigan that we all want to live in, it is worth trying.
Omari Rush is curator of public programs for the Ann Arbor Art Center and founder of "shur!" a grassroots program that seeks to foster stronger connections among Ann Arbor residents.