Two recent columns on the Urbanophile, one by Angie Schmitt called “A Culture of Corruption” and another by Aaron called “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?” discuss how the forces of the status quo fight change. But sometimes you can create a new strategy for a place, based on its values, that will better embrace those values than what is happening now. This takes visionary leadership, as well as a “small is beautiful” approach to change as something that happens in the moment.
The Politics of Identity
In Detroit, the main problem is that local people are now being told that they are no longer Motown. This is a hard thing after being the center of the universe for cars for the last 100 years. How humiliating that Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, by old stereotypes an Italian maker of small under-powered cars. That’s why the Chevy Volt was so important when the feds took over GM take-over story: the government might be running things, but at least this new vehicle offered hope of a future in the limelight again.
In Port Townsend, WA, on the northwest corner of Puget Sound, there’s another identity play going on, this one to provide place-based education around maritime themes. Port Townsend is a small town of less than 10,000 people, but it is the wooden boat building capital of the United States. This is where people truck their old yachts to be restored, or refit work boats that go up to the fishery at Bristol Bay . The new schools superintendent talks of “making the city the classroom”, with the community, its surroundings and all things maritime as the subject of study. There is already a program there now, in operation for about ten years, in which seventh graders go down to the waterfront to learn rowing, and into shops at the maritime center where they learn geometry and measurement while building boats.
Now the superintendent wants to expand this program, pushing maritime subjects into every grade and class. Imagine biology students putting on rubber boots and going out on the tide flats to measure how the pH of the water is affecting oyster production, or third graders hiking up over the headlands of the old fort to look out at the lighthouse where the wind, waves and currents of Puget Sound collide. The key word here is “relevance”, of studying things that kids are already familiar with day to day, the beaches and boats they play on, the work stories they hear from their parents and grandparents at the dinner table. This isn’t learning in the abstract, some subject or formula they may or may not use later, but learning up close and personal, with things they can see, hear, touch and know. Imagine a town in western Pennsylvania saying that it wanted to make the study of steel, coal, rock, geology and making things part of its curriculum. If this had been done 25 or 30 years ago, with modern hands-on teaching, perhaps more of those towns would still have core industries in those fields, no longer giant, but perhaps re-oriented to niche markets, with highly trained workers who spoke “steel” or “glass” in their business conversations. In Port Townsend, they still speak “boat” there.
I haven’t met many charismatic leaders in my career, maybe two or three, but this new superintendent is one of them. He speaks in a low-key way that is the exact opposite of the bellicose corporate leaders who sound like high school coaches yelling at the football team. This guy is a former art teacher who still keeps colored pencils in a box in the center of his conference table, but he has a track record of success, both starting up a high school maritime academy in Seattle, and a Chinese language program in northern Nebraska.
More importantly, when he speaks, people listen. He uses techniques outlined by Stephen Denning in “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, techniques like keeping the future stories simple so listeners put themselves in the hero’s role, and think about what they can do to make things happen.
Every hero story involves some kind of Joseph Campbell challenge, and in Port Townsend that challenge is keeping the kids from moving away, the same kind of Pied Piper challenge that so many Rust Belt cities face. Forty years ago this was a counter-culture place young people fled to, a back-water place with cheap housing, a strong sense of community, and a boatyard where they could buy and fix up old boats. Today retirees who have “discovered” Port Townsend have driving up housing prices, and there are not enough good jobs for young people.
That’s where the school superintendent’s vision comes in. For some years the community has had a vision of converting nearby Fort Worden as a “learning center” for adults, and now this new vision extends this down to their own children, putting the city on the map internationally as a place that does K-12 education differently, mixing and matching local institutions together to create “seamless” learning across ages. Part of the goal here is not just to make traditional topics more interesting and relevant, but to create a different world view about how kids can educate themselves and involve themselves in the world. The traditional, conveyor-belt model has kids taking STEM and AP classes in high school, getting an engineering or science or business major in college and then going out into the world, sometime in their early to mid 20s, to interview for a job. The vision in Port Townsend is not only to give kids and adults skills that they can use now, in their own community, but to get them to look around that community for unmet needs and, by age 15, to be thinking about how they can use their own skills to meet these and create a livelihood for themselves. There’s a fundamental shift in this educational outlook, one that kids are not simply charges to be brought up to state standards, but assets to the community, to be prepared for membership in it and contributions to it.
Small is Beautiful
In Washington State, there is no more powerful political group than the teachers’ unions, which fought the idea of charter schools tooth and nail. This may be home to Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon, but most of the young engineers here come from places like Michigan, not the state’s own schools.
That’s why it will take all of the new superintendent’s leadership skills to really make this vision a reality. The first changes have to be non-threatening, incremental programs that do not directly threaten the status quo. How do you do this? With programs that create small and immediate successes. One of these is expanding the partnership with the maritime center to include youth use of its pilot house simulator. That simulator also caused one of the country’s oldest training schools for professional mariners to open a branch operation here. That company was drawn in no small part by the vision of this place as a learning center for all things maritime, and shared use of that facility with youth.
In putting this new strategy forth to the community, both for K-12 education and as a broader economic development strategy, it is important to embrace the values of the community. Some, especially older workers in “heritage trades” like wooden boat building, might say that the community should only encourage the growth of jobs that involve hand crafts, Williamsburg-like preservation trades. In fact, though, the real heritage here is the tradition of craftsmanship and veneration for things well-made, especially those that relate to salt water. The value, then becomes quality, not how or what tools are involved in making something, but of what standard it is made to, and to what use it is put. In Port Townsend’s case, this opens the way to a whole new generation of craft manufacturing, of making things for maritime use out of new materials and with new methods like computer-aided design and manufacturing. We are already seeing a boom in this in places like West Berkeley, South San Francisco, East Cambridge and Brooklyn. It is ironic that these old counter-culture places, the places that people fled to find themselves, have become centers of business change. Why? Maybe it’s because their people now know what they love and value (including their children and grandchildren!), and are not willing to let the status quo get in the way of holding on to them.
Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.
Jeff Gillenwater says
Fantastic to see this piece; it speaks directly to the aims of my graduate program in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College. A former classmate, Michael Vlahovich, is the founding director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance and one of the premier wooden boat builders and restoration specialists in the country. Another Guy Hoppen, is founder of the Gig Harbor Boat Shop. They’re both organizations worth checking out for more of the above.