Rethinking what it means to be a ‘friendly’ place

October 7th, 2014

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Last updated: October 7, 2014 10:41 a.m.

Rethinking what it means to be a 'friendly' place

Kara Hackett

They asked us what we wanted to call our team, and we decided it should be “Team Friend.”

There were seven of us at the table: me, a woman from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, a man from Ethiopia, a real estate agent and a few Burmese refugees.

It was an interesting smattering of the diverse populations that compose Northeast Indiana, and it made the conversation more interesting than I expected.

By now, you might have heard about the Our Story Project. It’s the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s attempt to crowd source ideas about what makes our region special to anyone looking to invest in it.

The partnership is developing a website and marketing materials for the region’s economic development, and it wants to give residents a chance to have their say in what our area is about.

So for the last three weeks, they conducted 23 workshops in 10 counties, bringing out about 500 residents from those counties combined to participate in what feels like a marketing exercise for the region.

I attended one of the workshops in Fort Wayne on Thursday night, and I expected it might bring out the typical crowd of downtown supporters and a few people who wanted to complain about something. But when I got to the workshop, I was surprised by my table of Fort Wayne residents and transplants — some of whom have lived here longer than I have.

What stood out to me about our diverse table was that our first inclination was to identify ourselves as “friends.”

“Friendly” is one of those controversial words often used to describe residents in Northeast Indiana. Visitors to the Fort Wayne area have even commented on how happy everyone seems to be here.

But one of the things we did at the workshop on Thursday night was take some of those stereotypical words like “friendly” often used to describe our region and break down what they really mean to us and why they matter.

Then we were asked to vote on which words we thought worked well for describing our region and which ones we wanted to scrap.

Coincidentally, my Team Friend was assigned the task of dissecting the word “friendly” as it relates to Northeast Indiana, and it was more difficult than you might imagine.

Earlier in the night, some people at the meeting pointed out how the term “friendly” can be surface-deep. Just because people are smiling and asking how you’re doing here doesn’t mean they care.

One woman even said she was disappointed with how shallow some of her relationships have been around town. Her neighbors still treat her like strangers.

But as my group described the word “friendly,” we came up with a different idea of what it should be about.

We chose to define it as: “A natural sense of trust, care and compassion to understand other people.” When we were asked why that was important, we said: “It creates a contagious community that attracts the best.”

But we couldn’t just write nice words. We had to give an example of when we had seen our definition of “friendly” in action.

The real estate agent at our table pointed out how one time a new Burmese family arrived in town, and members of the community came out to prepare a home for them and stock their shelves with food as a welcome gift. These community members recognized the new family as friends before they even met. In doing so, they set a foundation of trust, care and compassion that made the refugees want to open up to them and be better understood.

“Friend” means different things to different people, and by the end of the night, I wasn’t sure whether it should be used in our region’s marketing materials.

But I left the workshop with the impression that if we all spent a little more time and energy living out a deeper definition of what it means to be a “friendly” place, we might find that the region markets itself.

Missed the Our Story Project meetings?

The regional partnership isn’t hosting any more workshops around town, but they are sending out an online portion of the project for residents who couldn’t make it to the meetings. Check the regional partnership’s website for a link in mid-October.