New Stories for a New Economy
Dear Stakeholder Leader,
Thank you for joining us for the first program in Birth2Work Radio’s “Telling Your Story” series. A good story is something treasured, certainly in novels, movies, or film. By “good” I don’t mean upbeat or positive, but coherent, thorough, and with an original voice. Where fiction is involved, we hold story creators to a high standard of originality. Why when dealing with reality then, do we continually tell the same old stories of how things used to be over and over again?
For example, you know that one location in your city that never seems to be able to sustain a shop longer than six months? (I’m sure every town has a location like this.) In good times and in bad, no matter what kind of music store, restaurant, or tire shop goes in there, it seems to be cursed? So that one plot of land gets a bad reputation, people tell each other the same stories of how one thing after another opens and closes there and, soon enough, the place sits empty and falls into disrepair because no one is willing to try to make things work there anymore. Consider that one location as a microcosm of the thousands of small towns, particularly throughout the Midwest in our country, that are constantly telling each other stories about how all the young people are moving away; the factories are closing; the local government is corrupt; the media doesn’t care; and on and on and on until sure enough, the towns are virtually empty and then, slowly fall into disrepair. It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it? You have certain beliefs based on the stories you’re told, either by parents or leaders or media, and you take action to better your situation based on those beliefs. The stories we tell affect our outcomes.
Listeners to this program will recall a past interview we did with Vicki Haugen, President and CEO of Vermilion Advantage in Vermilion County, Illinois. Since 1982, Vicki has been at the helm of Vermilion County’s venture of mass transformation. The area, once prosperous from agriculture and heavy industry in the region, was forced into massive layoffs and closures in the 1980s thanks to globalization, threatening to leave Vermilion County as a dying part of the “Rust Belt.” Refusing to passively let their county die out, however, the county’s Chamber of Commerce merged with the private Economic Development Corp., of which Vicki was President and CEO, thus creating Vermilion Advantage, and starting the process of transforming into a sustainable community in which its citizens are engaged and thrive.
Part of that undertaking meant encouraging stakeholders (and by virtue of residency, everyone in the County is/was a stakeholder in its success) to change the stories on auto-repeat about “how things are” there. The root of changing the stories wasn’t about asking the local paper to simply start reporting “good news” in order to make people feel better though. Changing the stories meant bringing together stakeholders from every sector, and to recognize and bring leaders from all the sectors together took Birth2Work’s help, and having them agree on common language and a common vision that everyone could begin working toward. Suddenly, the stories that started to be told among citizens were in relationship to positive new goals, instead of past failures. And today the stories people tell about Vermilion County are igniting new action and enthusiasm towards the achievement of shared goals in the community. Vermilion County’s recent success story though, is similar to a lot of “overnight success” stories – it took 20 years to get there! Stakeholder leaders have come 180 degrees from the point of looking into the abyss of a local economic depression in the 1980’s, to a picture of economic and cultural sustainability today thanks to the entire community’s commitment to working together over the long haul. Sound like a timely and encouraging story that has deep relevance to our country’s circumstance today? We at Birth2Work and those in Vermilion County feel like it is. We care deeply and passionately about helping other communities, like Vermilion County, across the U.S. to come together and work collaboratively to become thriving portals of commerce and culture.
Bearing witness to the stories of these communities is the first step towards understanding the unique forces that shape them. Today, we talk again with Vicki and bring in Vermilion Advantage’s Workforce Development Specialist, Kim Kuchenbrod, to discuss this real life shift that’s gone on over the past year. And in the weeks to come, we will continue to explore this idea of telling your story in a meaningful, actionable way.