When you pull up to a friend’s house and knock on the door for a visit, there’s a lot that can happen in the next minute or two to set the tone of your time together. Do they greet you warmly at the door, or yell “WHAT DO YOU WANT” from another room? Do they offer you a place to sit and maybe a beverage, or do you have to fend for yourself in getting comfortable? Do they engage and make eye contact, or are they distant or distracted by other things that seem more important?
If your friend isn’t welcoming, you may not feel like you belong, and you may not want to spend very much time there. If they let you know that they’re glad you’re there, it can be a completely different experience.
If we apply that same kind of test to our city, we can reflect on how newcomers might experience Richmond, Indiana when they visit.
Whether they’re seeing a friend who lives here, considering going to college here, looking at locations to start a business here, or thinking about moving their family here, what they experience in the first few days, maybe even in the first few hours of their time in Richmond, could make all the difference in whether they stay, and for how long.
I suspect people who live here would generally agree we’re a pretty welcoming place. We have a great mix of Midwestern friendliness, an easy-going pace of life, neat neighborhoods, interesting small businesses, pretty straightforward navigation around town, and beautiful green spaces. Apart from the occasional “pet food smell” days, there’s not much off-putting about Richmond, is there?
Maybe, maybe not. More importantly, I don’t think we can take being welcoming for granted. I also think it’s worth asking if there are ways in which we are not welcoming to everyone. Such as:
If we don’t have well-maintained sidewalks across the city, are we welcoming to those who want or need to get around by walking?
If one of the most noticeable parts of the landscape at a key point of entry is a giant Christian cross, are we welcoming to people who are not Christian, who feel uncomfortable with evangelical Christianity, or who are not religious at all?
If we don’t offer curbside recycling services for office paper or cardboard, are we welcoming to those who consider care for the environment a top priority in choosing where to live?
If we have large food deserts where you cannot easily find affordable groceries or healthy food, are we welcoming to lower-income neighbors who want to provide for their families on a tight budget?
If elected officials and business owners don’t seem to care about adopting and enforcing broad non-discrimination policies for employment, finance and housing, are we welcoming to people who have experienced real and hurtful discrimination elsewhere?
If we don’t offer childcare at important community events, are we welcoming to parents of young children who want to be fully involved in civic life?
If most of our highest profile community leaders are older white men, are we welcoming to younger people, women and people of color who have energy and ideas to improve the city?
If our key city websites are not mobile friendly or don’t pay any attention to designing for accessibility, are we welcoming to people without a computer at home, or differently abled people who might use assistive devices to use the Internet?
If we describe ourselves on a prominent water tower as an “All-American City,” are we being welcoming to people who are not Americans, or who are worried about racism and xenophobic attitudes toward people who don’t look or act like the majority of the population?
If we don’t offer reliable, expansive public transportation options, are we welcoming to people who cannot afford or prefer not to have a private vehicle?
There are probably many more examples. These are hard, uncomfortable questions. And these are not just theoretical; each one comes from at least one conversation I’ve had with someone who didn’t feel welcomed to Richmond in some way.
Maybe most, or none, of these questions have ever occurred to you as an issue of being welcoming. But there are other people encountering Richmond for the first time who are noticing these things. They’re reading the signs, literal and figurative, and trying to figure out if our city is a good fit for an investment of their time and money. They’re deciding if they’ve arrived to be among friends who want them there, or if they should move on to some other more welcoming place. And if we’re not thinking about the same questions from these other perspectives, we’re going to miss out.
Whether you care about the question of welcoming-ness as a matter of economic development appeal, quality of life, social justice or some other perspective, it’s an important one to consider as we think about how to make Richmond a better place.