Goals and vision distinguish cities

Forbes magazine recently published a list of “Most Dangerous U.S. Cities for Women.” Pine Bluff came in at number seven. We share the dubious distinction with garden spots like Memphis, Tenn.; Battle Creek, Mich.; Lawton, Okla.; Flint, Mich.; Redding, Calif.; Springfield, Ill.; Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska; and Saginaw Mich. (the leader of the deadly pack).

We can file this tidbit under the same heading as the perennial down-dressing awarded by Morgan-Quitno in their annual ranking of crime- and violence-prone places. To those in touch with reality, these statistical rankings are little more than insult to very real injury. Pine Bluff is awash in violence. We get it.

Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones has publically acknowledged the mounting problem of domestic violence in our community. It goes without saying that domestic violence disproportionately targets women and children. Similarly, it is a vastly underreported crime.

We can compare the dreadful body count du jour with another magazine article, this one from the May issue of Smithsonian, “The 20 Best Small Towns in America.” This list stands in marked contrast to the ones our humble hamlet seems to prone to merit. Readers of Smithsonian page through one picturesque village after another. Cafes, bookstores, theaters, museums, galleries, vital downtown areas, active and inviting recreational areas, concerts and other festivals all combine with low crime, educated populaces, thriving industry, high levels of public health and a genuine sense of community.

It’s not that we don’t have some of those things. It’s that we don’t have enough of any one of them to eclipse the downtrodden horror of our current predicament.

This is a needless position. The people in America’s best small towns are not inherently superior to us. They have simply done a far better job of managing their community than we have. They prosper. We suffer.

One of the primary reasons for the suffering is our lack of a well-articulated, unified and sustained vision for becoming someplace better than we are. In short, we have no communal goals. Certain segments of the community dwell in the realm of glittering generalities, sprinkled with Pollyanna hopes, but that doesn’t constitute actionable vision. It’s more like having a conversation that starts with the sentence, “Know what I’d do if I won the lottery…” than it is any kind of discernable plan with goals and benchmarks. Over a century ago the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote about a social condition called anomie. People often translate the term as normlessness or lack of regulation. Durkheim argued that when people can’t tell what the social rules or goals are, they become detached, despondent and sometimes suicidal. To this point, Durkheim wrote, “All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or — which is the same thing — when his goal is infinity.”

He contends that when we have no goal (or an effectively infinite goal), we turn inward, away from the community. Self-destruction is an invariable consequence.

Take the same dynamic and apply it at the community level. When we have no goals (or unclear goals), the collective turns upon itself. Crime becomes rampant. People flee for more safe or hospitable environs. Neighborhoods disintegrate. Businesses close. Schools fail. We go from being a community to merely being a group of people who happen to live near each other.

As such, when we ask our government, school and business leaders to set specific, measurable goals, it’s not just so they can be dinged when they fail to meet them. It’s so we can have a shared vision of who we are and why this town matters. Of course, said leaders rarely if ever provide concrete goals. The paradox of their hesitance is that having no goals becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure. We can’t tell where we’re going, but we can always tell when we aren’t there.