[Recently] I was in Las Vegas where I discovered a community – once on top of the world – fighting to come back in the wake of the Great Recession. What people in Las Vegas are doing offers a vision of what it will take for communities across the country to rebound from this tough economic and social time. It’s not a mere roll of the dice that’s bringing Vegas back, but intentional actions to create real change and community.
The Harwood Institute worked in Las Vegas earlier this decade with the support of the Omidyar Network. In 2004 we produced a report entitled, On the American Frontier. It captured the incredible “can-do spirit, confidence, proven track record of growth, and innate sense of vibrancy” of Southern Nevada. For many people, Vegas was the best, last chance to pursue a customized version of the American Dream. But even then people were starting to wonder if they had too much of a good thing.
Today things are different in Vegas. For starters, the area ranks near the top in the nation in home foreclosures, school dropouts, unemployment and lost jobs, while philanthropic dollars have dried up. And yet, something genuinely hopeful is happening there, something worth paying attention to.
Political and civic leaders, including heads of major organizations, funders, the state senate majority leader, and public broadcasters gathered to hear my speech. In 2004, it might have been hard to gather such leaders for a similar event, and especially one where they so openly engaged one another. But now, despite the Great Recession – or maybe because of it – folks are creating new groups and relationships to get things done.
Many people came up to me during my time there to say that our work some five to 10 years ago had helped to seed the growth of new groups and strengthen existing ones. They told me we had helped them to see why it is so critical to turn outward and to think about change differently. One person even asked how I felt being back in town given that so much current activity can be traced back to our work. What I told her is that the real credit goes to people in Vegas – those individuals and groups that chose to step forward and use our work to innovate, experiment, and are now connecting their efforts to others. And it is an amazing collection of groups, which includes:
- Three Square
- Community We Will
- Southern Regional Nevada Planning Coalition
- KNPR and Vegas PBS
- Nevada Gives
What’s so promising in Vegas is that public innovators are creating a new civic foundation. Each group has its own promising story, and together they represent a major shift in the community. Now, all this movement is still just emerging, but the trajectory is clear.
These groups are boundary spanners, network builders, engagers of the community, and most importantly action oriented. It is this very foundation that is essential for a community to move forward. We all know the Vegas line, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” Well, I want to add a new line today: “What Happens in Vegas, Spreads beyond Vegas.”
More towns across the nation are heeding a similar community call as that of Las Vegas. Bettering the public through our actions now will carve out a path of change that helps guide representatives down the right path for your community. Isn’t it beyond time that a chance is taken on changing community through our own actions?
Does this sound like something already happening your in community? If so, we would love to hear some key concepts you think makes it work. Change only happens when action is taken, so write your thoughts in the box below and keep the momentum going.
Interested in learning more about what happens in Las Vegas? Click here to check out the SOTRU Las Vegas episode to find out about what’s going on.
A dynamic public speaker, Rich Harwood is a frequent keynote for foundations and national organizations. He is an expert contributor on national and syndicated media outlets including MSNBC, NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN’s Inside Politics, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Special Report with Brit Hume, C-SPAN, and many others. He is also the author of Hope Unraveled: The people\’92s retreat and our way back (2005), Make Hope Real: How we can accelerate change for the public good (2008) and numerous studies, articles and essays chronicling vital issues of our time. His most recent written work, Why We\’92re Here: The Powerful Impact of Public Broadcasters When They Turn Outward, is being published and distributed in Spring 2011. You can follow him on twitter @RichHarwood and facebook.com/richharwood.
You can read Rich’s posts every Tuesday on State of the Re:Union’s website.