In recent years we’ve put a lot of energy into changing how people who live in Richmond talk about our city.
If you look at projects like Positively Richmond, A Bright Side, Stellar Communities and the social media feeds of many community leaders, you’ll see it. Great profiles of impressive and exciting things happening here. Recognition of individual achievements. And celebrations of what the area has to offer.
I think that has in turn prompted others to share stories of the positive things they encounter about life in Richmond. More people seem to claim their identity as a proud Richmond resident, at least more than might have just a few years ago. (My essay “Why did I stay in Richmond?” has been one of the most liked and responded to on this site.)
These efforts came about a number of different ways. In general it seems we came to understand that some people here had a consistently negative perception about the condition of their city. And we realized that if the only story being publicly told about Richmond was a negative one, our economic and tourism development efforts could be seriously undermined.
Combatting uninformed negativity is important. A little improvement in self-image can go a long way toward making visitors feel welcome, and maybe even like spending more money. We are making progress, and we should thank the many people who have helped turn this community conversation around.
We also have to be careful with positivity. A negative self-image isn’t something that can only be addressed through a louder, more polished promotion of a positive alternative narrative. A narrow-minded focus on positivity could drown out the need to address real, complicated problems with solutions that require time, money and hard work. Too much positive thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, or drain us of the energy we need to reach our goals.
There are lots of different interpretations to consider when someone says “Richmond sucks.” They might mean “I’ve fully explored everything Richmond has to offer and I find it lacking.” They might even be expressing concern about broader economic inequality, discrimination or a lack of diversity. But more likely, they mean “there’s something in my life that isn’t going the way I want it to” or “I’ve had trouble finding a job” or “I’m frustrated with what I see as wasteful or ineffective government” or “I’m nostalgic for some version of the past.”
Some of those meanings have come about through a long and painful series of personal events – ones that no marketing campaign can undo. A lot of people rightly don’t feel positive or hopeful. They’re not necessarily going to connect short term efforts to demonstrate Richmond’s potential to their own longer term prospects for finding a job they enjoy, having a more stable financial situation, or having access to more/different leisure opportunities. Until we can help make that connection for them, their trouble buying in to a positive narrative will probably continue.
We can’t make life great for everyone with the wave of a hand or a new marketing slogan, but we can keep working on creating an accurate, authentic and constructive understanding of where we are now, where we can go in the future, and how to get there.
And it may turn out that a healthy dose of positive thinking will be essential to our success.