Road maps know our destination before we start. They know everything about it. The arterial roads that guide you to and away from the destination, the “back way” where perhaps you’ll see more cows but lose an hour. Some of them, especially the ones on our smart phones, can even tell us where we ought to stop along the way. A simple query such as “coffee shop near destination” might dictate a new turn and we might miss something we will never actually miss. Roadmaps know it all. Kristin Giant

In some ways, people hire consultants and outside experts like they use GPS or roadmaps. These experts know where they’re going, they know all the best gas stations along the way, they’ll advise the freeway instead of the back roads because they were hired for efficiency after all. These consultants and experts are often brought into our community of Fort Wayne from outside. And, like most underdogs, we’re excited about the prospect of a “shiny object” coming from a bigger geography. We listen. We plot out our course with the destination already in mind. We want to be a regional city! A national destination! We want to have one million residents. We want to have venture capital-worthy companies located here.  These goals, like the consultants who can show us the roadmap to get there, are set places in time and space. There are predetermined metrics that will tell us we’ve arrived. Just like Siri saying, “You have reached your destination.”

But I can’t help but wonder what is missed when we know the ending before we start.

I remember the thrill in my heart as a teenager going on daylong “road-trips” with my best friends. We loaded into Bennett’s old Volvo station wagon with chips, candy, and soda and wandered through the backcountry of South Carolina following our instincts and our curiosity. We would often end up somewhere far from where we planned, shocked and surprised by the brilliant beauty we often overlooked in our day-to-day lives. We worked together to decide what was worth exploring, each of our four voices of equal importance.

So, as we look towards the future of our unique city, I can’t help but worry about the cost of using GPS and roadmaps when what we really need is to wander, together, slowly, into the unknown. Encountering each idea for renaissance and innovation with curiosity, humility, and novelty.

There is a temptation to look outward for solutions. What did Des Moines do? How did Cincinnati reclaim that neighborhood? Louisville is a model city for where we’re going! We study, we copy, and we start at the end and work our way back. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars within the nonprofit sector and public sector for strategies and plans, for prescriptions for the symptoms that we don’t yet fully understand.

Everywhere you look there are people and companies selling roadmaps. I wonder if this is what it felt like to drive on Route 66 years ago? There are roadmaps for ending hunger, empowering women, creating a pipeline of affordable housing, and for healthy aging. There are “cures” for symptoms that aren’t even bothering us as a community. I wonder sometimes if anyone asked for a downtown full of murals? I am so glad this art is there, but sometimes it feels like a city planning manual presented a roadmap for a “vibrant downtown” and the beautiful mural was the lowest hanging fruit.

Because ultimately what all these maps have in common is a final destination that is already determined. And we buy this map to tell us exactly the path to arrive there. This isn’t a journey where gut instincts are followed, or soft outcomes are accepted or failure becomes the best part of the story. This is a calculated path, starting at point A, ending with point Z. But cities are living organisms because they are home to humans —imperfect, flawed, longing, hopeful, pessimistic, messy humans.

So my question as I look twenty years ahead isn’t “where are we going.” Instead, my core question is: How do we align “who we are” with “who we want to be” and, more importantly, “who we want to feel welcome.” Because as I look at our beautiful and complicated city of churches and strip clubs, our rough and ready city of parks and inconvenient railroad crossings, our complicated city with a fully occupied new adaptive reuse at The Landing and vacant commercial strips in multi-ethnic neighborhoods around the city, our disparate city where the median family income of white residents is $65,793 and the median family income of Black residents is  $25,230,[1]  I can’t help but wonder if we’re not having the right conversations. 

Who are we? It’s a complicated question. Who do we want to be? I think that’s simpler. I want Fort Wayne to be a city that is aligned with who we say we are. We say we are a Godly city, with a citywide prayer movement. We say we are a city for families and regularly top national lists for those statistics. We say we have Midwestern values. We pay consultants to tell us who we are, and we have lots of shiny reports and websites that echo their findings.  But do we really want to be Des Moines? Or Louisville? Do we want their answers? Or do we just want to be a better version of Fort Wayne?

What if we throw out the roadmaps and we fire the GPS consultants and we look within and talk to our neighbors? I think we’ll discover that not everyone here feels like they can “make Fort Wayne his or her own.” Not everyone here sees themselves in the shiny reports coming out of Chicago arriving on glossy paper.
So why do we turn to GPS and roadmaps? I believe its because in an age of information and short cuts we have forgotten that the journey — as messy and inconvenient as it often is — is worth so much more than the destination.
Roadmaps provide inspiring sales pitches for where we could be. They whet our appetite for adventure, they stroke our egos (you’re just ten simple steps away from being a world class city!!), and they energize us by promising a certain result.

But what I think is best in alignment with Fort Wayne’s past and present, is a future where we all lock arms. We all load into the metaphorical Volvo station wagon. We make sure everyone has a seat. Everyone has snacks. Everyone has an equal say. And we take our time. We drive slowly, admiring the shell of International Harvester — learning from the mistakes that were made betting it all on an outside company. We celebrate that they were here, the livelihoods they created, and we ask everyone who was left in the rubble what they wish had been done differently.

We take a left turn that the quiet voice in the backseat points out. We see a memorial for the Native American lives lost through the colonization centuries before. We don’t speak for several minutes. Some passengers cry. We admire the beauty of the monument and recommit to studying more. Learning from those who were here first. We celebrate the original culture of our city and we commit to not leaving it in the rear view mirror.

We do a U-Turn and head south. Even though the four-lane thoroughfares of Rudisill, Clinton, South Anthony, and Lafayette were designed to speed us through, we resist the temptation. We slow down. We acknowledge the beauty of every home, we take note of every vacant commercial space, and we remember when Southtown Mall was the destination. We reflect on the restaurants, shops, and markets that are only memories now. We decide that we miss them. The chatter in the station wagon picks up as we all share ideas of what could be. No voice more important than any other. But respectful space held for those who have the most knowledge, the tour guides as it were.

In twenty years, I’d love for our city to have the patina of a road trip. The best memories being those that are the least expected: the barbeque in the gas station, the stranger who helped change our tire, the moment we looked around at our best friends and realized that we wouldn’t have picked anyone else to go on this journey with.

In twenty years, I hope we’re more aligned. I hope we’re the city of churches where no one goes hungry or lacks for friendship or mental health support. I hope we’re a city for families where every family can afford their utilities, where every school provides the same quality education, where no possibilities are off limits for any younger person. I hope we’re a city of Midwestern values where everyone has an equal chance to work hard, to stay humble, and to experience the American dream. I hope we’re a city where innocence is always presumed, and criminal justice is more rehabilitative than punitive.  A city where we grow our own food, build our own industry, and invest in one another.

I hope in twenty years we’ve realized that we don’t need to import roadmaps or GPS consultants. I hope in twenty years we’ve learned to trust where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going and most importantly — everyone in the car.

This essay is part of a citizen-led book project in Fort Wayne called FORTHCOMING: Considering the Future State of Our City. To learn more and read additional essays, visit the Foreword and Preface.

Kristin Giant is obsessed with changing the culture around productive failure in the philanthropic sector, specifically as it pertains to white leaders' advocacy for racial justice. She is currently a grant-maker, a grant-seeker, a board member, a corporate attorney, and an impact investing consultant and is working to disrupt power-dynamics in each of those roles. She's fueled by rage, black coffee, and the ardent desire to find better ways. She's a mom to two boys and a mental health advocate -- wearing her multiple diagnoses (depression, anxiety, ADHD) as badges of honor, even as she navigates the uphill climb of visibility and acceptance of mental illness in corporate and nonprofit cultures.

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