Getting a response from local leaders

Sometimes our community leaders don’t do what we want them to.

When we’re frustrated about this, it’s easy to generalize and say, “people in power don’t listen, they just do what they want.

It might even be tempting to think this is always true based on our worst imaginings about people who hold office, lead departments/organizations, or who otherwise have influence over the world around us. We see powerful and corrupted villains all the time in movies and on TV, and indeed there are some prominent people around the world right now who seem to be living out incredibly harmful versions of leadership and holding power.

But leaders with truly villainous intentions are probably pretty rare in Richmond and Wayne County, Indiana.

I suspect most people who have sought or been placed into positions of power — especially at the local level — are not sitting around thinking about how many people they can oppress or rubbing their palms together while laughing maniacally about their latest evil plan. They are probably not looking for the darkest, smokiest, most back of back rooms in which to devise new ways to make your life miserable.

They might have the wrong priorities, bring the wrong qualifications, or just be ignorant, but they are probably not malicious in their intent. And for better or worse, they are in a position of influence or power that affects you.

So what do YOU do when they’re not doing what you want?

If you disagree with local leaders, or have questions and concerns that you want them to address, it’s important to follow through on that and actually work to engage them directly on the issues you care about. If you assume they don’t care, or that others have tried and failed to get them to take action, and if everyone else assumes the same, then nothing will ever change for the better.

If they truly are abusing their power or not listening to the people they represent, it’s important to get that on the record sooner rather than later.

Not sure where to start? Here’s one path of “escalation” for getting a response from local leaders:

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Community calendar fragmentation

In any given week it seems there are many different kinds of events happening in Richmond and Wayne County. Sports games, lectures, art shows, educational events, government meetings, not-for-profit community meetings, outdoor adventures, book clubs, theatrical performances, events for kids and families, neighborhood meetings, block parties, live music, festivals, fairs, fundraisers, bingo, club events, sales and specials at local businesses, worship services, and much more.

There is a lot going on here, and that’s something to celebrate!

The challenge is that someone casually looking for “something to do” might have to search several different places before finding an option that appeals to them, and to get complete information about all of the events going on. If they don’t look in the right place, they might miss out. Doing a thorough search of all the local calendars could take hours, and each one has strengths and gaps in the info they provide.

For example, the Pal-Item events calendar has a lot in it and is the main source of info if you search online for “richmond indiana events,” but because they highlight regional items at the same level as local items, the “Popular Events” listings all take place outside of Wayne County. The WayNet calendar tends to be frequently updated, but only allows non-commercial events to be posted. The City of Richmond’s “things to do” calendar mainly features city government meetings. On some of these sites it can be very difficult to share the event details with friends and family, even just to generate an email with a link, let alone to re-share it on social media with all the needed details. And as you search through calendars hosted by our various not-for-profits, colleges/universities and other entities in Richmond and the surrounding cities, the trend continues.

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Richmond, Indiana Podcasts

I’m always on the hunt for new and interesting podcasts that help me learn, understand and laugh.

Most of the ones I listen to regularly tackle national or global topics, but it’s been great to see a small resurgence of podcasts that are local in origin and explore local issues and news. (You may remember that from 2006-2008 I hosted a weekly podcast called The Richmond News Review, one of the first local podcasts around.)

Unfortunately there are no results if you search on “Richmond, Indiana” in popular podcast directories like the iTunes store. But, if you’re a podcast listener (or can consume audio in some form – no fancy Apple device is necessarily needed) and looking for some local flavor, here’s a list of podcasts around Richmond Indiana:

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Alison Zajdel on transition, politics and sustainability

Alison Zajdel, Executive Director of the Cope Environmental Center, recently announced that she would be stepping down from her role there to pursue new opportunities. Alison is someone I consider to be an incredible model of leadership, hard work and creativity when it comes to community-building and organizational development, and while I’m sad that Cope is losing her talents as ED, I’m excited to see what she does next. I talked with Alison about this change, what it means for her, and what stands out to her as some of Richmond’s strengths and challenges. (Full disclosure: I’m a financial supporter of the Cope Environmental Center.)

Chris Hardie: Can you give some context on the transition you’re going through right now with stepping down at Cope?

Alison Zajdel: This is my sixteenth year at Cope. I started off as Resource Coordinator working with membership, then moved into the Development Director role, working with fundraising and marketing. Then I moved into the Executive Director role, coming up on five years now.

I’ve been here for a long time, and it has been a wonderful ride. There’s just a ton of stuff that we’ve gotten done, and it’s certainly had highs and lows as every organization goes through. Everything that we’ve done has come to a nice transition point with getting through the campaign and finishing the new building – we’re ready to dedicate it in a month now. It felt like a really good time to pass the torch to somebody else for a different style of leadership, and that will be needed with the new opportunities that the Center has. I keep saying I was meant to be a “chaos director,” and that’s what I am, that’s what I did. I was Director during a chaotic time. I was trying to figure out how to navigate the Living Building Challenge, campaigns and Bicentennial projects all while managing the Center. I think it’s ready for somebody that can steer the ship straight and keep moving toward our mission.

I’m excited to turn over the reins. It’s going to be very sad and it’s certainly bittersweet. I’ve just grown to be completely head over heels in love with this place. It’ll be a difficult move, but I think the Center is ready and I’m ready.

CH: Sixteen years is a really long time. What stands out to you as something that’s been the most rewarding part of your work at Cope?

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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.

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Legislating neighborliness

The recent headlines about a proposed change to Richmond’s barking dog ordinance highlights a lesson that I think many communities still have to learn: if you’ve come to the point of legislating neighborliness, you’ve already lost.

The moment after we codify specific quiet hours and acceptable barking durations into law, someone will point out a scenario or an exception where the law doesn’t make sense. What about someone who works third shift and is sleeping during the day? What about parents desperately trying to get a young child to sleep for a mid-day nap? What about…

It’s probably important to have some kind of ordinance on the books that empowers the City to handle the most egregious offenders. But I would hope that before turning to the legalistic imperatives of a law in order to get someone living near us to reduce the noise their dog (or lawnmower, or leaf blower, or party guests) is making, we would start a little more simply: with a direct conversation.

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Marketing in Richmond

It seems all too common for local businesses and organizations in Richmond to confuse marketing and advertising. I wonder if that confusion is affecting our ability to effectively market this community as a whole. Here’s why.

Advertising is mostly about the mechanics of getting the word out. Advertising is buying space on a billboard, taking out an ad in the paper, airing a spot on the radio, or posting about sales and promotions on social media.

Marketing is more about crafting the message that you’re sending (though advertising and other means) about what you do and why it matters. Marketing is telling a compelling story that people can see themselves as a part of.

Some Richmond organizations and business owners seem unwilling or unable to truly invest in promoting their offerings. They may not think they have the budget, they may not see the value, or they may just assume that word of mouth will send clients/customers charging in. At best they have a hard-to-read sign, an outdated brochure or a broken website. Even for the ones that do invest, they sometimes don’t seem to understand that good marketing is about more than just advertising.

Very much related, there’s a dearth of professional marketing experts and services available in Richmond. If you search for marketing firms here, you’ll mostly find folks who do it as a side business to some other primary offering (usually related to technology or advertising). So even a business owner or not-for-profit director who is thoroughly committed to investing in their marketing might have a hard time creating or following through on a marketing plan without turning to experts in Indianapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati or beyond, and at a price that might feel out of reach. Most probably don’t bother, and instead rely on college interns, retired journalists or their IT staff.

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