The Fort Wayne community lacks gumption. And we know it.
While Fort Wayne has made impressive strides in the last decade, changes have been largely structural. Fort Wayne is willing to change its buildings — although even that took time — but we are unwilling to examine how our culture is holding us back. We talk a good game about the need for talent and population growth, but lip service without courage and intentionality will not move the needle. Courtney Tritch
Some may remember Jim Clifton, the chairman of the Gallup organization who the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership brought to Fort Wayne in 2013 to challenge our community leaders and to speak about his book, The Coming Jobs War. Clifton’s focus was on creating good jobs, but he also emphasized what cities need to do to attract those jobs — and the talent they require. He was very clear that not all cities will win the “jobs war.”
To win, we need to have the gumption to make some striking changes. I believe there are three core factors that must be met to ensure a strong and vibrant future for Fort Wayne.
Practice What We Preach
- Practice what we preach: the courage to not just say we are welcoming but to openly engage and support diversity of all types in our community.
- Hold leaders accountable: When no measurable progress is being made, we must have the courage to call it out.
- Leapfrog the competition: If we simply copy our competitors, Fort Wayne will be perpetually 10 years behind. We must have the courage to stop playing Midwest checkers and start playing global three-dimensional chess.
Six years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with community leaders who insisted we were welcoming and that people just did not understand. Indiana was in the middle of a firestorm created by the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a bill that allowed business owners to discriminate on the basis of religion and largely targeted the LGBTQ community. As someone who was tasked with promoting Northeast Indiana at the time, I was assured that we just needed “better marketing” to explain that we are indeed welcoming to all. I said, “I agree wholeheartedly!” and pulled back my blazer to reveal a shirt featuring the state of Indiana covered in the LGBTQ rainbow flag that said, “You are welcome here.” A mere three hours later behind closed doors, I was told to never wear that shirt again. The cultural subtext was clear. We are, in fact, not willing to practice what we preach. (If you are moved by statistics versus stories, also note that the Human Rights Campaign gives Fort Wayne a lowly score of 40 out of 100 in its Municipal Equality Index.
And our issues go far beyond LGBTQ rights.
Indiana ranks sixth in the nation for the highest gender pay gap (26% gap as of 2019
). Women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the country. We need that talent, and yet we do not have the gumption to actually make our community more welcoming to them.
What our leaders have failed to recognize is Jim Clifton’s warning about the war for jobs — and talent: “Human rights, stem cell research, gay rights, women in the global workplace — what will matter about these issues will be how they affect job growth more than how they affect family, political, and religious values.”
According to US Census data, roughly 1 in 4 people living in Fort Wayne are non-White.
Now evaluate boards of directors, community leaders, economic development organizations, and more. Do you see one in four leaders of color? Study after study shows that diverse leadership creates better problem-solving ability, more innovation, and an improved bottom line. And yet we are hesitant to even say it, much less develop a plan to address it. If we continue to only address buildings and not culture, we will be the victims of our own lack of vision. Because, as the National Bureau of Economic Research data shows, diversity spurs economic development and homogeneity slows it down.
How do we avoid hitting the economic development ceiling of homogeneity?
Hold Leaders Accountable
If you have been active in the community development or nonprofit world in Fort Wayne, you are probably already aware that there is a finite cast of characters that shuffle from organization to organization like a boringly predictable game of musical chairs. They are mostly white. Mostly men. Mostly Boomers. Many are ineffective. Many resist diversity. And many are nice, which makes it hard to say out loud: This is not working!
We must resist the temptation to succumb to Hoosier nice here. When leaders are ineffective, champion mediocrity, and, in general, want a trophy just for showing up, we must be willing to call this out. Several years ago, there was a debate about installing a community leader — who we all knew to be ineffectual — in a new position. I was the only one willing to speak out. Needless to say, no one cared what a young 30-something woman thought, and I was dismissed. Later that day, an incredibly prominent leader whose name everyone knows whispered to me that he felt the exact same way. I was furious because had he spoken up, people would have listened. Several years of progress were lost as a result of lack of gumption.
I hesitate to provide this next example because I believed wholeheartedly in what we were trying to achieve when I worked at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. However, it is the most concrete example I can use to illustrate this point. In 2012, through the Partnership’s Vision 2020 initiative, we declared we were going after the “Big Goal” — increasing educational attainment (people with certificates and degrees) in the region to 60 percent by the year 2025.
Data showed that we were at 35 percent and if we did nothing, we would be at 43 percent in 2025. Leaders acknowledged this issue and its effect on our economic competitiveness, and hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars were pumped into this goal. Now, nine years later, our attainment stands at 38 percent.
Even with all that investment, we may not even reach the baseline of where we thought we would be if we did nothing. While undoubtedly some small, feel-good programs resulted from this, it is not moving the needle and needs to be re-evaluated. I say that not to be mean — I actually find it incredibly depressing — but to plead with our leadership to stop championing mediocrity and be willing to do more than keep up.
If we want to profoundly move the needle on important issues like educational attainment and economic competitiveness, we must stop championing mediocrity and be willing to do more than just keep up. When the right people are not at the table, we need to speak up. When the wrong decision is being made, we need to speak up. And when progress is not being made, we need to hold our leaders accountable. Unfortunately, I have many friends and colleagues who dared to call this out, and they either got excommunicated or chose to walk away from community involvement because they got tired of screaming into the void.
When I ran for U.S. Congress, a very prominent community leader said to me something akin to “Holy cow, where did you find all those talented people on your leadership team? I’ve never seen them involved in other things.” The truth is, we have an abundance of talent here, but we only recycle the same few people, not realizing the community we could build if we were willing to expand our vision.
We must think bigger. We must be more strategic. We must have the gumption to leapfrog the competition.
Leapfrog the Competition
For years, I have heard people joke about how Fort Wayne is perpetually 10 years behind. There is an inability to see where other communities have faltered and leapfrog their bad decisions. That lack of strategy often results in us making the same mistakes. It is not enough to chase new ideas others have already implemented. We must examine new concepts strategically and not just imitate, but learn, adjust, and make an even better idea — thus leapfrogging the competition.
Parkview Field is a great example of where strategic thinking can take us. It has been ranked as the No. 1 Ballpark Experience in Minor League Baseball by Stadium Journey
multiple times because of concentrated efforts in creating unique experiences there. And, as a result, national recognition and millions of dollars of downtown investment followed.
Effective branding is not about mimicking your competitors. It is about evaluating competitors and determining where there are gaps or opportunities that can be capitalized on to increase market share — or in the case of community development, increase talent share. For example, other mid-sized communities have developed their rivers, so we did, too. I worked hard in my years in economic development to help make that happen, and I am ecstatic about our beautiful Promenade Park. But many cities have beautiful riverfront parks. In my work as a national marketing consultant, I am often asked to evaluate unique value propositions (UVPs) for my clients. Using that lens, I wonder how we will take the riverfront idea and strategically work to make it unique for our city? Will we make it the most architecturally interesting riverfront in the country? Or the most environmentally sustainable riverfront in the country? What is our UVP?
If we really want to grow our population and our talent pool — if you really want your kids to live here — we need to change our strategy, and that will take gumption. Gumption to get beyond conservative thinking. Gumption to embrace the multiculturalism that comes with being a growing city. I have been told that I am more progressive than Fort Wayne. But here is the thing: the talent we are trying to attract is more progressive also.
Millennials and Gen Z are the most inclusive generations ever. They are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generations. Even along party lines this is true. Almost half of Gen Z Republicans think Blacks are treated less fairly than Whites. More than half of Gen Z Republicans think the government should be more active in helping citizens. A whopping 84 percent of Millennials and Gen Z say that same-sex marriage is good for society or that it does not make a difference. One in three Gen Zers know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. Over 60 percent say increasing racial and ethnic diversity is good for society.
In my marketing career, I have spent a lot of time studying what Millennials and now Gen Z want. They want unique, authentic experiences with purpose. That is the whole ballgame. If we cannot master that, we will lose Clifton’s coming jobs war. We have spent a lot of time believing if we just market how cheap we are, we will succeed. The market does not want cheap. The market wants value.
We must decide if we have the gumption to change our culture, hold our leaders accountable, and leapfrog the competition. We cannot let partisanship, religion, or the way things have always been done get in our way. At the end of the day, there are three things that create change: crises, chance, or choice. Crises happen to us. Chance happens to us. But choice takes gumption.
My Hope for the Future
Choice takes gumption, but it also takes vision. And hope. After twelve years of stories like the ones I shared above, my hope is waning for real change. I, and many of my talented counterparts, have mostly given up. We still live here, but we are using our talents in other states, nationally, and even internationally. But I know a tiny grain of hope still resides in each of us. If it did not reside in me, I would not have taken the time to write this.
“Increasing hope isn’t easy, but it can be done. And it has to be done locally, on a citywide basis rather than on a national one,” Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War.
“…[S]o go the local tribal [community] leaders, so goes the soul of the city…”
I care deeply about the soul of our city.
That is why I was completely transparent in sharing my thoughts and experiences with you in this essay. It took gumption. My hope is that you have the gumption to do something about it. The future of Fort Wayne depends on it.
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.
Courtney Tritch is a Senior Strategist at Carnegie. She has more than 20 years of experience in public speaking, community development, advocacy, and marketing, and she has led nationally-recognized marketing campaigns. Courtney also speaks locally and nationally on topics ranging from economic development marketing strategies to the importance of diversity and inclusion in today’s competitive communities. She inspired a district-wide movement with a run for U.S. Congress in 2018 where her team broke record after record: doubling voter turnout in the primary; achieving the highest primary win percentage of any female congressional candidate in the country; and finishing the race as #1 in the country for highest percentage of in-district donations. Passionate about equality and diversity, she founded Progressive Social Hour to facilitate tough community conversations and was a featured speaker at TEDx Fort Wayne on the importance of diversity and inclusion in community and economic development. She is an Athena Award nominee and a 2011 recipient of Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly’s “Forty Under 40” Award. In addition to graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University, Courtney holds her marketing strategy certificate from Cornell University and graduated from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Organization Management Program.
Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War, p3-4
Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War, p134
Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War, p71