It comes down to welcome

I was in Hurley recently, participating in a conversation about community inclusivity. As the talk unfolded in this Northern city of 1,300, it became clear that there are a variety of definitions of inclusivity. It’s a diamond with many facets. It seems to me, however, that they all relate to the same thing: making “those people” feel welcome. It really doesn’t matter whether “those people” are oldtimers, newcomers, millennials, immigrants, natives, Hispanics, African Americans or Viking fans. Inclusivity is an attitude that this place is a place for everyone. Specifically, it is a place for you. C’mon in; sit down. Have some coffee.

The conversation was led by Eric Giordano and Dave Anderson of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS). WIPPS is in the initial stages of a new project on this topic. The League and the Wisconsin Counties Association are helping to support their work, which will culminate next April in a conference on inclusivity. Think of the Hurley meeting as a “warm-up exercise.”

One thing I noticed right away is that people often tune out of conversations on inclusivity. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the labels. That’s a fair criticism; the word “inclusivity” sounds like one of those terms you hear tossed around in a UW class on sociology, but never at an American Legion hall in Hurley. What does it mean? Who are we talking about? Why should I care?

The other reason people, particularly current residents of a place, will go blank when this conversation comes up is because it feels like they’re being blamed for something. If you’re asking how my city can be more inclusive, you’re implying that we’re not already inclusive, which, in turn, suggests that I am a bigot of some sort. Most of us, me included, are a mixed bag of goodness and badness. We like being recognized for our goodness and hope that our badness doesn’t show in polite company. It’s embarrassing.

We naturally feel more comfortable among people we know and less so among strangers. Put me in a room full of Packer fans from the Green Bay area and I’m happy as a clam. But put me into a room full of Minnesota Viking fans from St. Paul and I’ll disappear into my clam shell. When I’m called out for not talking to Viking fans, rather than defend myself, I will just move away from the conversation.

Using a football analogy is, I will grant you, a cheap and easy way to skirt very sobering issues of race, poverty, immigration, religion and age. I’m not doing it to trivialize the need for an honest discussion about these topics; I’m doing it to make the point that there is a simple human concept that applies to all of them. That concept is welcome. People can sense when they’re welcome. They can sense when they’re not. It doesn’t take long for a stranger to pick up the signals. What signal is your community sending?

I first heard this discussed in my church. My wife and I volunteered to serve on one of those committees, and the topic of gaining and keeping more members came up. After talking about it for weeks, reviewing the literature and searching high and low on the internet, we kept coming back to a single topic: welcome. Did the people who walked into our particular church feel welcome? Were they greeted? Were they asked to participate in this or that committee; maybe bake a pie or judge a talent contest? Did they sense that the people around them were glad they showed up?

If they got the sense of welcome, they were more inclined to come back the next Sunday. If the vibe they picked up was indifferent, maybe they were a little less inclined. If it was hostile or cold, well, you get the picture.

As we move into this new era of minimum population increases, Wisconsin’s communities need to do everything we can to seek out people. As we age, the temptation among many of our retirees will be to move to a warmer (in all senses of the word) climate. Every employer is facing a worker shortage; we need to bring every able-bodied soul into the workforce, regardless of the blemishes that may appear on their rap sheet. We need to open our doors to people who may not look or talk exactly like us. And yes, we need to have an honest discussion about immigration reform. The need to be welcoming is not a “warm fuzzy.” It’s an economic imperative. The community that welcomes will be the community that succeeds.