Your Welcoming Little Lie

By Doug Griffiths, Community Builder

If I were to visit your community, attend a town hall meeting of average folks, and pose the question, “Is your community a welcoming place?”, I have no doubt the answer would be a resounding “yes” from the crowd. Unfortunately, that is likely a lie. It may be a deliberate lie you tell yourselves so you don’t feel shame or guilt, or it may be an accidental lie because you simply aren’t aware just how closed off your community really is to outsiders and newcomers, but regardless, it’s likely to be a lie.

The first problem is that what most of us think of as being welcoming is just being friendly. There are a lot of friendly communities out there. I have been to many places where people smile when they pass you on the street. Some even say, “Hi”. If you are lost, they will even point a finger in the direction you should head. That is being friendly. There is nothing wrong with just being friendly, but admit that is all you are, and stop telling yourself your community is welcoming when it takes so much more than being friendly.

I remind you that you don’t have to be a welcoming community, but be aware of the consequences of your decision to not be welcoming. Outsiders bring new energy and ideas to your community. They bring money, and they spend it too. They bring kids for your school. They bring volunteers for community events. They start businesses. They buy houses. They grow the economy. They add an adaptability to communities that have grown old and stagnant. They bring fresh perspectives to old challenges. If you aren’t a welcoming community you likely won’t get much, if any, of those great things.

Most communities are not deliberately unwelcoming, even the ones that regularly label newcomers as FOBs, newbs, or come-from-aways. Communities most often aren’t trying to deliberately chase people out of town. They simply don’t know what they’re doing, or the consequences of the attitudes that create those words. Being welcoming is what draws people in, and most importantly it is what makes them stay. If your community wants to have a prosperous future, it is going to need more people, which means it is going to have to be deliberately welcoming, and try to create a reputation for being so.

When I refer to communities in this column, most people will be thinking of the town in which they live. That is valid, but community goes deeper than just our town. A community is a group of people with a common purpose which is often based on shared characteristics. We all belong to many communities. I belong to a community of parents with pre-teen boys. I also belong to a sub-community of parents with pre-teen boys who play soccer. I also belong to a community of small business owners, and consultants, and former elected officials. None of them are official groups with membership dues, but they are communities of people with common elements.

The smaller the community, the harder it is to gain access as an outsider. Small towns are notorious for being cliquey and unwelcoming to outsiders who can’t seem to gain access to the communities whose purpose and characteristics they share. Imagine how lonely it can be when a newcomer to a community can’t gain access to those communities that we all need to be a part of as social beings. It can be horribly lonely, and can drive many families and individuals to re-evaluate their choice in locations, and often drive them to move. If you really want to ensure your community has a bright future, you are going to need new people, and there is a very effective way to ensure they come, and stay.

Being a welcoming community means deliberately going out of your way to make newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants feel like they are part of the community. It means introducing yourself to someone new, and offering to help them get acquainted with what the community offers. It means finding out what sports or activities their kids are interested in, and connecting them with those services or sports. It means having them over for a barbeque to introduce them to your community of friends. It means seeking them out and making them feel like your community is their home. That is what being a welcoming community is all about.

It can be challenging to find a path to becoming a welcoming community. Success requires a community-wide initiative. It requires ensuring community members understand the real value to everyone in being welcoming. It’s hard work, but the pay off in terms of community success is worth it.