What makes us feel invested in a city?
Last month, I was honored to lead a workshop at the Yale Civic Leadership conference.
My workshop focused on one question:
How can folks who are in a city for a short period of time (like Yale students) feel invested and responsible for the city (like New Haven) they are in during and after their stay in that city?
I want to share what I learned.
The workshop was broken down into four sections:
- Visualize — where we would answer some quick questions as a group
- Reflect — where we’d each have the opportunity to share our stories
- Strategize — where we’d take those reflections and turn them into a plan
- Apply — where we’d take the plan and implement
During this section, I stood in front of a big sheet of paper and asked the group three questions:
- What words would y’all use to describe how you / the average Yale student might feel about New Haven?
- What words would you use to describe how New Haven feels about Yale students?
- What words do we want to be able to use to describe the relationship between Yale students and the New Haven community?
Their responses were fascinating.
Here are some of the words they used to describe how the average Yale student might feel about New Haven:
- “a project”
- service opportunity
Here are some of the word they used to describe how New Haven feels about Yale students:
- superiority complex
And here are some of the words they said they want to use to describe the relationship between Yale students and the New haven community:
- mutually nurturing
- mutual learning experience
One theme I saw in the words Yale students wanted to used to describe the relationship between Yale students and the New Haven community was mutual responsibility.
This struck a chord because many of my most rewarding experiences in New Haven have stemmed from these feelings of symbiotic, mutual responsibility.
For example, for the past couple years I have been working with an incredible group to organize New Haven Bike Month. When I first asked Doug Hausladen, former Yale undergraduate and current Chief of Transportation at the City of New Haven, whether I could organize a Bike Month for New Haven, he told me a resounding “Yes!”. This “yes” had two effects:
- It made me feel like I could organize New Haven Bike Month — like I had the ability and the support.
- It made me feel like I should organize New Haven Bike Month — that I was positioned and therefore responsible to organize New Haven Bike Month.
During this part of the workshop, I had the students share different they have had where they felt a sense of responsibility or investment in a place, person, or organization. Students said some incredible things:
Darby talked about going to Sunrise Cafe every morning to serve breakfast — and how seeing familiar faces on the street fundamentally altered the way she thought about caring with not just for a city.
Holden shared how purchasing a bike and having an hour-long conversation with John Martin from the Bradley Street Bike Co-op made him want to not just live in New Haven, but know people who live in New Haven.
Jinchen talked about her connection with her brother, 7 years younger than her.
The main theme we found from our stories was that it seemed as though central to feeling responsible for a place was feeling valued by that place. In other words, feeling valued begets feeling responsible.
This makes sense. If folks feel like they can make an impact or contribute to a mission, organization, or community, they are far more likely to invest or take responsibility for that mission, organization, or community. On the flip side, if folks don’t feel valuable, they may, in turn, feel less responsible. For example, recycling. Many folks cite as the reason they do not recycle because they feel like “it doesn’t make a difference” — because they don’t feel like their contribution matters, they just don’t do anything!
This idea resonates with me in the work I do everyday. I work for SeeClickFix, a company that provides a mobile and web tool that empowers citizens to report potholes and graffiti to their local government. SeeClickFix proves every day that feeling valued begets feeling responsible can been seen on both an individual and collective level. SeeClickFix was built to show users tangibly how their input is valued:
- In small ways: citizens can vote up issues, comment, gain civic points, and “thank” their government after their issue is fixed.
- And in big ways: there is a communication feedback loop to the citizen at every point along the way and the issue belongs in the hands of the citizen (they can reopen a closed issue if it hasn’t been fixed).
Because of these reasons:
- There are few people that report just once on SeeClickFix.
- There are few people that exclusively report but do not vote / comment.
- And, returning to the words Yale students listed as the words they want to use to describe the relationship between Yale students and the New Haven community, SeeClickFix users often feel respected, collaborative, and mutual responsibility because they feel valued on the platform.
Strategize + Apply
After these discussions, we had some time to explore how SeeClickFix could be a tool Yale students could use to feel more empowered to be invested in and responsible for New Haven. In particular, we discussed different take-aways from the workshop that felt valuable for the students.
Francetta wanted to partner with more New Haven organizations for her education initiative called The Future Project.
Diksha planned to bring these insights back to the Yale College Council to make structural changes in the language the Yale administration uses to talk about New Haven.
Darby and Holden wanted to do their work in a coffee shops in many different neighborhoods throughout New Haven.
Burgwell, in his new role as Yale Dean of Student Engagement, wanted to ensure partnership with New Haven was a part of all his future initiatives.
So, I learned something huge during this conference from these students:
If feeling valued begets feeling responsible, then if we want folks to vote, recycle, or act, we must show clearly how essential they are to our movements.
This is not only extremely true, but a motivator for the sustainable, continual action and change we all need.