Being on the road with Chuck much of the last eight weeks, I watched the Curbside Chat twenty-something-times in various different versions based on audience and time allotment. There are a few lines in the presentation in which the crowd’s reaction are telling of the mood of the group and to what degree the message is sinking in. There’s one that I found most interesting.

For anyone who’s seen the Curbside Chat in person (If not, check out this awesome new recording done by our friends at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver from October), you’ll know that there is a series of charts and diagrams in the first half which depict the trouble we are in when it comes to the return on investment of much of our country’s land use. The moral of that story is things aren’t going so well and it’s only going to get worse for some places. And then comes the magic wand!

In the early days of the Curbside Chat, people would watch the presentation and ask Chuck during the Q&A, “What can we do to change?”  Chuck would proceed to talk about Rational Responses, things we can do to address the complex ecosystem of challenges that are now before us in creating productive places again.

Sometimes, the askers would then become disgruntled. Chuck was not answering their question. While they were saying “What could be done differently in the world?” what they were really asking was “What could other people do differently so that I don’t have to change what I’m doing?” 

Nowadays, when Chuck tells that story to the current audience, he shows a slide of a magic wand and top hat, poking fun at the idea that he, the wise and omnipotent Charles Marohn, has all the answers.  The level of laughter in response is a barometer to how the rest of the session will go.  

The hearty chuckle is the emotional equivalent to watching a cheesy comedy movie from the 1980’s. Even though you know what’s coming, the punch line makes you laugh and cringe at the same time. In this case, the cringe is the acknowledgement that others out there watching may not get the joke.  And/or, the joke is on us…(Ouch).  

The gentle snicker is somewhere on the spectrum of “I can’t laugh too loud because I don’t want to offend my boss sitting next to me who’s likely not to laugh” and “Is he talking about me?”

Dead silence…well, I think you see where this is going.

Change isn’t easy. Especially if you are an elected official or staff member of a town. What you can do starts with you.  The choices you make and, actually, the stories you tell.  

The effectiveness of the current incarnation of the Curbside Chat is partly due to the authenticity of the storyteller.  As in, you see him, you hear who he is, where he is from, what he has done and the message he is trying to get across. All of those pieces make sense together.

People ask Chuck all the time:  “What is your special sauce?” and “What words do you use that are so effective in getting the message through?”  

We are all authentic, but in pursuit of trying to figure out what other people want to hear and tell it to them exactly how the data says we should say it, we often lose track of how the message looks against the messenger.  When the two don’t align, we call BS. This has become so prevalent that folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have full time jobs dissecting the hypocrisy. We are a nation starved for authenticity.

Change and authenticity…How do those work together?   When we stand before a group of our friends, neighbors, townspersons, or total strangers, we have to remember that people are poised with their trigger finger on the BS button.  If we are speaking about things that we are suggesting they change about themselves, we have to start with what we’ve done (or our trying to do) with ourselves.

Perhaps most importantly, if you haven’t failed several times along the way and don’t share exactly how it went horribly wrong, they still may not believe you. Nothing speaks authenticity like publicly admitting to failure. Or that you still haven’t reached where you are going yet.

But nothing is more powerful than the story of someone who has resolved to keep trying until something works.  Those seeking to be converted find the most in common with the person who has walked the path themselves.  

This has gotten me thinking about my path, my story. My dichotomy of growing up in a small rural town and living the past decade in urban neighborhoods of larger cities. How my parents and siblings still live in and near my hometown and how those places have changed since I've left. And how I feel every three months when I go back to visit them and those places.

The Curbside Chat I would give would have to be different than the one Chuck gives. The same points could be made but with stories that jive with who I am. I've even come to the conclusion that the presentation I would give in my hometown village in exurban Southeastern Michigan would be nuanced from the one I would give my new hometown in the middle of South Minneapolis.  It's not so much about the audience being different, it's that I've changed. Neither is better or worse, but the trajectory of the narrative coming from either end of the same point of view.

I’ve been thinking of that old adage “Be the change you want to see” because it's in the name of a small grocery store in Water Valley, MS that Chuck and I visited on our tour of northern Mississippi in November. 

In the coming weeks, I’ll tell the story of the BTC Grocery, those of some interesting characters I met on the road this year and more of my own current struggles to contribute to the places around me becoming Strong Towns.  Because we can’t expect anyone to change the places they live unless we are out there doing the same ourselves.

We need a mindset that listens first and then replies with an authentic story of who we are and who we want to be. When others agree, we'll have the making of a Strong Town.

This year has proved that people are out there doing what they can to build Strong Towns and we feel honored to be a part of the movement. We wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and fantastic start to 2014. We'll see you on the otherside!


We had an amazing fall season of travel and I’m going to be spending the rest of December trying to catch up on the loose ends of files I’m supposed to send people, introductions I’m supposed to make and crazy awesome ideas dreamed up in a car at 9:30 at night in the middle of nowhere that still need follow up.  

If you are one of those people or talked to me about one of those ideas, now until the end of the month is an excellent time to reach out again and say hi.  And if you haven’t already, it is also an excellent time to join our Founder’s Circle by becoming a member of Strong Towns

To those of you who have joined, Thank You!  A much belated update on our progress and what’s to come will be in your inboxes shortly. We appreciate your faithful support while we get everything off the ground.