When a Better Image Produces a Better Reality

A recent New York Times article on Lawrence, Massachusetts’ quest for a better reputation offers a great example of how a concerted effort to forge a better image can have a real impact on a community.

With years of high crime and unemployment as well as lackluster education and local government, Lawrence’s image has suffered so much that Boston Magazine recently called it “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts.” Spurred by such harsh words, a group of citizens launched We Are Lawrence, a campaign to reshape the city’s reputation. Acknowledging that they “cannot put more officers on the streets,” We Are Lawrence opted instead for “small steps that might revitalize the city, fostering pride and economic development by highlighting its robust history.”

Changing the Narrative

The campaign is only a few months old, and Lawrence’s problems won’t be easily fixed, but there have already been some signs of improvement. The Times describes how “cash mobs” are highlighting and supporting local independent businesses, and Lawrence CommunityWorks, one of the nonprofits involved in We Are Lawrence, was recently awarded state funds to build new affordable housing. The local Habitat for Humanity has also been at work on a number of projects in the city, including building one house in less than a week. “This is about changing the narrative, empowering people to celebrate and encouraging them to work together on the challenges,” Lawrence CommunityWorks’ Maggie Super Church told the Times.

In 2010, the city of Juárez, Mexico, which has been plagued by drug cartel violence, implemented a likeminded strategy with Cronicas de Heroes, an MIT-supported website that shares “stories about ordinary people committing random acts of kindness, bravery and care” in the city. While Juárez’s problems certainly haven’t disappeared, the murder rate has dropped and a new sense of community has begun to emerge. The border city is now literally “back on the map” distributed by the visitors bureau of neighboring El Paso, Texas, which had neglected to include Juárez in recent years.

Highlighting the Positive

Other cities like Vancouver, British Columbia and Branson, Missouri have enacted similar approaches aimed at restoring their damaged images. Following the significant blow to its reputation caused by the Stanley Cup riots in 2011, Vancouver launched thisisourvancouver.com, a website highlighting more positive aspects of the city. In Branson, which was devastated by a tornado in February and relies heavily on tourism, local businesses have taken to social media, combatting the ubiquitous images of destruction presented in the media with ones highlighting their rapid rebuilding efforts.

A city can’t wish its problems away, but working to incorporate more positive aspects into its image can go a long way. It has the potential not only to improve a locality’s overall reputation, but also to inspire local pride and community involvement.

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