Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #091. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 23, 2015; in print Feb. 24

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, the marketing department is reporting to the boss: "Our brand is about talking about our brand."

Someone eavesdropping on the Feb. 11 Community Priorities Forum at River's Edge Convention Center would have heard 350 people "talking about our brand," but would have been mistaken to assume that "the brand" was simply "talking about the brand."

For a long time I was skeptical of branding. It seemed a kind of manipulation, a sleight of hand with words and images to trick an unwitting target into having to have whatever was being marketed. I suspect that in some cases it is.

But in most cases, that is not the case, and certainly not in the effort to brand Greater St. Cloud. We were informed of many conversations in a variety of venues, and how "growth" precipitated out as a common experience and expectation. "On the Grow" captures what we are and what we want to be. Granite used to be St. Cloud's identifier. Munsinger Gardens and Clemens Gardens serve better now.

Mixing talk about the brand with presentation of the newly conceived and ordered community priorities was like adding a catalyst to a chemical solution. Conversation bubbled up, and the energy in the room was palpable.

I believe a generation hence the citizens of this area will honor a tale of growth, improvement and vitality — a story they will trace back to the 2015 priorities forum.

There are three reasons for my confidence.

First, the nine priorities as newly formulated put theory and practice in the right order. Strategic planning can sometimes seem esoteric, but in this case its application is clear — and that's why I think the nine named pillars will support a strong, sustainable community structure instead of being scattered across the landscape like so many fallen Roman columns.

The pillars — housing; community engagement; education; arts, entertainment, and recreation; transportation; green environment; economy; safety; wellness — are all required to hold up the community structure, and they are sufficiently specific for anybody to figure out what they mean.

But they don't determine what is to be done. They leave it up to people and groups and institutions to associate their activities and initiatives with one or more of the pillars. And if you're alert to what's going on in this region, you know there are dozens, probably scores, likely even hundreds of programs and projects that already so align. There's room for many more.

Second, the pillars are subject to quality control. At the forum there was forthright and unrelenting attention given to accountability and measurement. Each priority working group is responsible not only to say what they will do, but how they will assess it. They will stand by the principle enunciated by my father's good friend, the late Dizzy Dean: "If you say you done and you done it, it ain't braggin'."

Third, a note that sounded throughout the forum is a word that appears often in the description of the pillars: "All" — "all people," "the entire community," "all community members." And the "all" works both ways: Everybody supports the pillars, and the pillars support everybody. Diversity is celebrated.

I've often quoted the late Sen. Paul Wellstone: "We all do better when we all do better." I believe this is an economic truth, a political truth, a moral truth — and a truth that is always under siege by greed, special interests, myopia. Our life together is too often cramped, squeezed, even asphyxiated.

The new (and ageless) community pillars are both grounded in and support a compelling, creative vision: "Greater St. Cloud Region is a proud, vibrant community where talented people live, work and prosper with purpose."

Coming generations will thank us for not just talking about our brand but for really being "On the Grow" — together.