Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Optimistic Realism: Hoping for Change in the Valley

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a couple of energetic, committed young professionals who have recently moved to this area, people who seem to want to get involved in the community but are also looking for reasons to feel good about being here. They asked me some rather blunt questions: Why am I committed to this place? Do I think things are really getting better?

Part of my response is rooted in the things I discussed with Bill Mullane in this week’s interview – a general sense that there’s been a shift in how people are working to improve the economy, neighborhoods, and quality of life the Mahoning Valley. Like Bill, I’m not blind to the real problems we face, including those that we create ourselves, nor am I the cheerleader type. I can’t pretend that everything is fine, or even that we’re clearly on the path to fine.

At the same time, the work that Bill and his colleagues at the Raymond John Wean Foundation are doing is one of the reasons why I feel more optimistic than I did a decade ago. Wean’s approach to creating change has been significant. Not only did the Foundation change its way of operating, offering hyperlocal models that are strengthening neighborhoods and developing new leaders, it has also played a leading role in helping local non-profits to do their work better. Wean’s projects aim to foster grassroots work while also facilitating the efforts of long-standing organizations. The Foundation has been realistic about the need for grassroots efforts to be connected to larger structures and processes.

We are making progress, slowly. Wean’s work has not led to sweeping changes, at least not yet, but the atmosphere for community organizations in the Valley has improved, I think, as Wean has brought people together, offered practical support as well as a different vision, and pushed for new ways of doing things.

After three years of very active work, Bill suggests, Wean is ready to move into a “maintenance phase,” to let things settle a bit. They’re hiring a new director, and that, too, will bring some change. I look forward to watching what Wean and its related enterprises do over the next few years.

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