“While the effects of the pandemic have been felt unevenly across Michigan communities, it has further emphasized the changing needs of our members.”

Over the past year, the League has built out our evolving policy platform on Community Wealth Building. We brought it to our members at Convention in September 2020, at subsequent events, in The Review magazine, and in meaningful conversations with members and key partners. One of our recent deeper dives with members was with Michigan’s small cities and villages, a group united by a common thread of grace, grit, and neighborly pragmatism.

As someone who originally hailed from a small town, I felt keenly that it was important to seek out the feedback of rural communities as part of our statewide dialogue.

So, on a cold March morning, I sat down over Zoom with a cup of coffee and a group of members from all corners of Michigan, ranging in population from just under 2,000 to around 11,000. We were joined by the League’s Strategic Communications Director Selma Tucker and facilitator Sarah Preisser of Mindset Talent. We recapped our shift toward Community Wealth Building and focused on hearing how it resonated with the unique conditions, trends, and challenges of small-town life in Michigan.

This group gifted us with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, eagerly recognizing themselves in the Community Wealth Building model. They cut to the chase with ideas for implementation of best practices in their communities. In our call, we considered the contributing elements of individual and community success. Our members focused on access to education, networks of support, and healthy relationships. We also looked at the elements in people’s lives which compromise success. Barriers mentioned were lack of access to money or resources, racial tensions, miscommunication, division, and apathy. People also generously shared candid feedback on mood and current issues in their municipalities.

Here are other highlights from our conversation:

Outdoor Community Gathering

Community life continues to be carried out in casual everyday interactions, fostering a sense of belonging and connection to others.

Transition from Placemaking to Community Wealth Building

Over the past decade, placemaking has been a big deal for the League. Through genuine knowledge of our membership, we have coached our communities to leverage the backstories of their cities and villages to build great local projects. Oftentimes, what worked was never what was pitched first, but success was always tied to authentic representation of a community’s identity.

Think about it. What is your favorite place in your Michigan community? Why do you love it? Some people are deeply rooted to a place where they were born and raised. Others may arrive at “home” in a different part of their life. Either way, while you may have deep roots going back generations or have just rolled into town, you are a member of your community now. This matters a lot. You are part of writing the future for your community. You are, right now, sitting at one point on the spectrum of history for your town. Behind you is the backstory. You cannot influence that. Before you is your story—and the stories of your neighbors. Your choices now are intimately tied to the utilization of existing and future assets.

Building on that thinking, we explored the role of government in providing, supporting, and promoting the key elements of community life and fostering good human experiences through programs and partnerships.

That’s what brought the League to Community Wealth Building—a natural expansion of our past work. While the effects of the pandemic have been felt unevenly across Michigan communities, it has further emphasized the changing needs of our members. We are broadening our lens to encompass the human experience in Michigan communities.

Tying it Together

Without people, a place is just a physical object. Connecting people who support each other and themselves in a localized way brings a place to life and increases access to community resources and social networks. This part is firmly tied to our ongoing work in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, inviting the engagement of all residents where they are.

Trust in neighbors, local governments, and the partnerships that help communities thrive is essential to achieving community wealth. If we do not trust the information we have, or the decisions being made by our local leaders, our participation in public life is eroded and we do not feel that we have access. Sense of belonging to the community is what strengthens that tie between community members and the place.

While government cannot, and should not, be charged with carrying the burden of all these components, we can lean into the areas which are in our influence and elevate the voices of others who are doing this work well. We can and must proactively use and build partnerships to carry out this important, multi-faceted approach. Understanding that each community has varying circumstances and assets, this model can be flexibly applied.

“We can and must proactively use and build partnerships to carry out this important, multi-faceted approach. Understanding that each community has varying circumstances and assets, this model can be flexibly applied.”

What’s Next

We are working to reestablish our definition of community to include all its parts and the people who reside within them, connected with trust and belonging. This work is expanding beyond the municipal entity alone to include infrastructure, environment, health and safety, arts and culture, lifelong learning, and financial security.

In every conversation with members, we are hearing what problems there are to solve, and how a human-centered approach might shift the work that our municipalities prioritize in the future. Instead of saying “someone should do so something about that,” we’re having conversations that make solutions and learning of programs that embody Community Wealth Building principles.

We will continue reaching out to our valued stakeholders as we identify, develop, and promote strategies that build community and individual assets – and we’ll keep updating here on how it’s going.