Updated: Dec 26, 2019
In 2016 I had a crazy idea. It stemmed from my coursework from finishing my anthropology degree at Arizona State's School of School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Many of my classes focused on developing strategies and mitigations for towns and cities with limited resources such as water, energy, or technology, and it got me thinking: "How can I apply these strategies to small towns, like the one I grew up in?"
I proceeded to drill my mother for the better part of 18 months about challenges small towns like ours faced. After countless arguments about all the ways in which I may fail (and her refusal to speak to me for three months out of sheer exhaustion), she pointed me in the direction of few concerned citizens like myself.
During this same period of time I was engaged with a local university in teaching their startup accelerator program the benefits of focusing their business strategies on the populations they would serve. From their customer's perspective. AKA: The Customer Experience.
It occurred to me that I could apply these two philosophies (and a third - flip the political agenda in America on its ugly head) towards revitalizing small communities around the country. Let's be honest, small communities that have little to no voting authority, or financial capital, and often are often economically pushed off of the map. Unless, of course, a small group of engaged citizens decided to change the game.
A couple of friends and I decided to take a stand. For the past six months we've engaged in a revitalization effort in the foothills of the Sierras. It's been a slow burn so far. Many meetings about how we might approach the community and how to do it with inclusion. All around creating an exceptional experience for both residents and visitors alike.
Auberry is home to around 2,500 people and lots of cattle, horses, and mules. All stubborn. We have two neighboring communities within five on either side that are home to around 1,800 and 2,100, respectively. Though, census numbers are always spotty because no one in these foothills really wants anyone else to know what's really going on. We like to keep people guessing. Let's call it around 8,000 secretive and skeptical people.
Revitalizing communities like these are notoriously difficult because of the vast differences of opinions on how one should go about doing so. Would it serve everyone to rely on tourism to stimulate our economies? Perhaps partially. I think it's safe to say that we view outsiders as a sort of scourge on the natural beauty of the areas. Few respect nature the way that we do, and at the same time, we don't like to share.
We held a community meeting on a Friday night with a response from 25 people. One or two said they'd bring others, so we set the number of chairs, food, and beverages at 40. Turns out, we underestimated our little community.
Over 100 people came to participate in the discussion that night, many standing for the entire 90-minute presentation, and most remaining for an additional 45-minutes to share their thoughts and ideas. The common theme was a deep-commitment and love for our communities.
Many came to hear about the Facebook group rumors of 'outsiders' and 'government officials' that were clearly there to put meters on their private wells and steal their god-given rights to property ownership. Some called us a Trojan Horse.
Many faces I hadn't seen in 30 years, including my high school Drama teacher that I'd shafted as the lead in the school play, when I didn't show up due to leg cramps from that weekend's volleyball tournament. I was nervous, to say the least.
Our team presented on challenges that rural communities faced and ways to make our communities more economically stable and resilient for future generations. Though I expected pitch forks and torches, what we got was sincere community concerns and some great ideas on how to move forward. I left that night, 45 minutes past the scheduled time along with more than 100 others, proud as hell to be from places like these.
We're now in the process of forming subcommittees with more than 80% of the crowd offering their services. Our inclusive nature of acknowledging the wonderful people who make up these beautiful communities, and allowing everyone to have a voice - whether we all agreed or not - created an experience. One that people appreciated.
My closing remarks on the subject are these: How you make people feel is more important than what you're trying to sell. It crosses all boundaries in life. Whether you're trying to start a new business, a new personal relationship, or revitalizing a small town - your success depends on how your audience perceives you and your intentions. Inclusion, collaboration, and continuous measurement of efforts, remain the best markers of success and failure.