Members of the Strong Towns movement know that when they join us, they’re not only helping Strong Towns pay the bills. They’re telling the world that they believe everyone—from citizens to leaders, professionals to neighbors, and everyone in between—must contribute to building financially resilient cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
And the best part? Even after they join, Strong Towns members continue to act on that belief everyday, across the nation, in ways that best suit the challenges they face in their unique places.
They run for local office. They join committees. They start Local Conversations groups. They walk around the neighborhood with their friends, observing and explaining why, for example, a certain street is dangerous and is holding back its neighborhood’s potential. (You know you’ve done it.)
Strong Towns members don’t just profess the movement—they live it.
In this article, I’d like to share with you a story of how one member—Kent Hutchinson, primary organizer of the Local Conversation group Connect Nacogdoches—put our work to use in his own city. Inspired by a Strong Towns article, Kent interviewed city council candidates in Nacogdoches, Texas, through the lens of Strong Towns.
As you’ll learn, Kent didn’t need months of planning. All he needed was an opportunity to act—and a Strong Towns article for inspiration.
The Article that Inspired Action
We want Strong Towns to be a mass movement for change, which means that from a content perspective, we want to deliver actionable bits of insight and advice in an accessible, memorable style. Our former colleague Rachel Quednau is an absolute pro at this, and in 2018, she wrote a piece titled 10 Questions to Ask Someone Running for Local Office.
The questions include:
Do you think our main street/downtown is healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?
If you received a $1 million grant to use for the city any way you wanted, what would you do with it and why?
If elected, what three steps would you take to put our city on a firmer financial footing?
We’re not about telling you exactly how to build a Strong Town—but if you want to ensure that you’re supporting elected officials who are asking the right questions and seeking thoughtful answers, this article is a perfect blueprint to interview candidates for local office.
Kent and his peers at Connect Nacogdoches, who interview candidates during every local election, thought so too. As the date for Nacogdoches residents to vote for their mayor and council members approached, Kent discovered Strong Towns and immediately realized how it related to the future of his organization and city:
“Your messages about parking lots, connectivity, scalability, and fiscal responsibility are all germane to what [Connect Nacogdoches] wants to be about. So when we came across that blog post as our election coming up, we knew we didn’t have to ask anything new—these were perfect.”
And as Kent and I spoke more, I realized these interviews would mean more than hearing candidates’ perspectives on Strong Towns themes—it would boost public public engagement city-wide, as well. “We’re not endorsing a candidate,” says Kent. “We just wanted to engage the public, get residents engaged in the process.”
That’s why Kent and his peers decided not to keep their dialogue in a bubble, locked away in email threads and voicemails. Instead, they gave the Strong Towns-focused interview a city-wide platform, allowing residents across the city to engage with the message.
Live Interviews with the Candidates
Armed with his list of 10 questions, Kent interviewed all available council candidates and the mayor at-large. (You can watch one of our favorite interviews here.) “I read the questions verbatim,” Kent said jokingly as he described the experience to me.
However, Kent ensured that the context in which he asked the questions aligned with the issues the City of Nacogdoches and its residents face. Take his conversation with candidate Amelia Fischer, when he asked question #5 on the list (see 17:20): If you could change one thing in our zoning code, what would it be and why?
“We didn’t have an agenda,” Kent says. “I was just saying ‘what do you think about our zoning laws, and are they appropriate for our community or not?’”
Ask yourself this question, and several ideas likely come to mind that are unique to your place: maybe you’d like to reduce the minimum lot size for new housing; maybe you’d like to permit accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Watch the 2019 city council candidate interviews on the Connect Nacogdoches Facebook page and you’ll see this theme of place-based responses really shine.
This is crucial to growing the movement. At Strong Towns, we know our message is not prescriptive: how the Strong Towns message relates to Brainerd, Minnesota (the Strong Towns headquarters) will differ from how it relates to Nacogdoches.
Kent and his peers at Connect Nacogdoches understand that if you want to encourage your local elected officials to build a financially resilient place, you don’t simply push a “Strong Towns agenda.” Instead, you ask the questions that require people to think.
Instead of saying “Fund more projects downtown!”, it’s better to ask “Do you think our main street/downtown is healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?”
Instead of saying “Improve public transit!”, it’s better to ask “How do you feel about the transportation options currently available in our city? Do we have enough options? If not, what will you do to increase those?”
Instead of saying “Here’s how you should deal with traffic,” it’s better to say something like this: “Some people in our community say that we have traffic problems. What do you think? How would you mitigate those concerns or change the situation?”
Once we shift the narrative from blanket demands to thoughtful questions that demand thoughtful answers, as Kent and his team at Connect Nacogdoches have done, then we’ll be on our way to creating strong cities and towns.
Fostering the Strong Towns Conversation Long-Term
As Kent reflected on these interviews, he frequently used a term with which many Strong Towns readers and members are familiar: public engagement.
“We need to demystify public engagement. We need to remind people in Nacogdoches that town hall is for them. That’s another part of the Strong Towns message.”
That’s because, too often, city officials approach public engagement the wrong way. They’re not asking incisive questions like Kent, and that means they’re not eliciting the kind of anecdotes and essential data that truly help us understand how people experience their city. Too often, public engagement is reduced to a list of checkboxes: Column A or Column B; what do you think about a predetermined set of “solutions” to what we’ve already assumed is the problem?
Kent, through these interviews, discovered how the approach to public engagement that he was modeling gave his fellow residents more ownership throughout the election process.
And he’s excited to capitalize on it, long-term.
“We’re hoping to do more of these videos. I’ve already reached out to the City PR chairperson and we’re going to partner on her podcast. I want to get the city manager on. I want to get the city engineer on.”
So what’s the long-term goal that Kent hopes candidates embrace following the interview? “I just want people to start talking about this stuff—have it on their mind.”
That’s how you start to grow a movement.
Join the Strong Towns Movement Today
The Strong Towns movement is a coalition of (approaching 3,000!) change agents: members who understand that the movement needs everyone—from citizens to leaders, professionals to neighbors, and everyone in between—to build financially resilient cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Members like Kent in Nacogdoches, who’s encouraging local elected officials to embrace the hard questions; members like Jordan, Eric, and Nick, who lead Local Conversations that shift their places’ narratives; members like Tim Wright at ReForm Shreveport who actively pursue new projects to strengthen their communities.
Do you, like the almost 3,000 members of the movement, want to contribute your ideas, hopes, and dreams to create a stronger place where you live?
Top photo via Wikimedia Commons.