You’ve probably heard about it – the new Chrysler ad, which is more about the city of Detroit, than about cars. I often say one of the most important steps any community can take, especially hard hit ones, is to generate stories of self-trust and hope – civic parables, really. Well, this is one of the best examples of such stories I’ve ever seen. When I saw the ad during the Super Bowl, I was in awe, even shock. Finally the right message about the good people of Detroit. Finally, a message about the community I have come to love, and which I talk about wherever I go. Good things are happening in Detroit. It’s a story of a community that is coming together, innovating, and finding a new path forward. If you haven’t seen the ad, here it is; if you did see it, you might want to watch it again. It is two minutes of genuine inspiration.
What makes this ad so powerful is how real it is. By that, I don’t mean it strives to be “down and dirty,” or “gritty,” or any such thing. It’s real because it tells an unvarnished truth – the whole truth – about a town and its people. It acknowledges the trials the community has endured. It speaks to people’s unbowed spirit. It celebrates the resiliency of Detroiters, their love of community, their intrinsic bond to their past and to what is possible ahead. At one point the narrator states:
What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell ya. More than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. Add hard work and conviction and the know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story. Now it’s probably not the one you’ve been reading in papers, the one being written by folks who’ve never even been here and don’t know what we’re capable of.
The day General Motors declared bankruptcy I was in Detroit for our Harwood Public Innovators Lab. The national narrative about Detroit for months thereafter was about how outsiders needed to prop up the city and turn it into a new job site. But, as part of the Lab we went out to talk to people about their community and their aspirations. The people of Detroit wanted something much deeper, more relevant than simply to save jobs or move to another town: they wanted to save their community. They wanted to stay in the community they call home, not flee.
Authentic stories about our lives are like civic parables. They speak to our aspirations, tell of our journey, and never hide or gloss over when we’ve fallen down and the hardships we’ve encountered. They have a way of allowing us to stand up for ourselves, to make claim to what makes us proud, and to show that we will not step aside and give in. They help us to see a path forward. They are infused with a sense of possibility that exists only because we have the courage to face up to reality – to take things as they are, not simply as we want them to be.
Such civic parables are rooted in the truth. They reflect the good, the bad, even the ugly. They also reflect our deepest aspirations.
They signal a belief in ourselves and in one another.
Such stories are in direct contrast to the typical booster spots we so often see, the ones that gloss over our current hardships, or those communications that merely tell us all that is wrong.
Isn’t genuine belief in something real what we all want nowadays? A sense that change is possible, that we can come together and be part of something larger than ourselves? Find your own civic parables of self-trust and hope. Share them with me and others below. It is when we tell these stories to one another, that we can see where we’ve been – but also who we are, what we value, and where we want to go.
Here are just a selection of previous blogs I've written about Detroit and the Institute's work with and commitment to the people of that city .