An open letter to Lexington’s leaders from the next generation
by Carson Morris
“How do we build a city the next generation will be homesick for?”
– Rebecca Ryan (via Tom Eblen)
Dear Leaders of Lexington,
As you return to Lexington from your trip to Madison, Wisconsin, flush with ideas and possibility in the wake of your visit, I wanted to let you know that we stand ready to help make Lexington better.
While 260 of you were experiencing Madison directly, several hundred of us were following your visit in near-real-time, thanks to those few of you who shared the event using Twitter. And while you were talking with Madison, we were actively talking about you, Madison, Lexington, and our future. We had a vibrant discussion.
And when I saw Rebecca Ryan’s question, I hoped that you really took it to heart. Because it means everything when I decide whether to stay in Lexington or not. And it should inform every decision you make about our city: How do you build a city I will be homesick for?
Making me and my generation homesick won’t really be about “stuff” and status. I know many of you were talking about tangible things – jobs, industries, neighborhoods, amenities, buildings, bike trails. But that isn’t really what we value. Those things don’t really make us want to stay here. Making UK a top 20 research institution? That may be great for attracting companies to Lexington, but I don’t see how that keeps me here.
If you want me to be homesick, you’ll have to connect with my heart. Then, when I leave, Lexington will tug on my heart. It will call to me. Lexington will be the one place on earth I want to be.
How do you create a Lexington for my generation? How do you make us homesick for Lexington? As you settle back into your regular routines, I wanted to help you set an agenda to implement the lessons of Madison for me and my
generation. Here are a few of my ideas. I’m sure my friends will have many more:
Listen to us. For years, we’ve listened as you tell us what our generation wants and needs. And then we leave town to go to school or to find a job. And those other places seem built for us, so we never come back.
Too many times, your tuners are set to “broadcast” instead of “receive”. As leaders, you are used to being listened to. We understand that. But I and my generation need to be heard. And we need to know that you hear us.
The Madison experience was a great case in point. For months now, our generation has been urging you to adopt Twitter (and other social media platforms) to talk with us. In Madison, a few of you suddenly began using Twitter. While we appreciate your new openness, we also wonder why you didn’t grant us the same credibility as those you talked with in Madison.
If you want us to stay, you must listen to us more.
Engage us. At one point yesterday, Mayor Newberry declared that “I don’t think there has been a time in Lexington’s history where we’ve had the level of civic engagement we have now… Lexington needs your engagement in our community now.”
This is a profound and true statement from our mayor. We do need your engagement (including you, Mr. Mayor). Now.
We’re already having conversations about the future of our city. We’re already saying what matters to us. We’re already talking about leaving.
In order to engage us, don’t wait for us to find you: you need to come to where we are and join our ongoing conversations. Follow us on Twitter. Spend time in our schools. Read and comment on our blogs. Share your thoughts and what you think about ours. Debate with us. Ask us what you can do. Then do it. Build on our ideas. (P.S. We have a LOT of ideas.)
If you want us to stay, you must engage us more.
Value us. As community leaders, you have so many opportunities to keep us in Lexington. One of the biggest: demonstrate how much you value our talent and our intellect and our creativity.
When I get to high school, hire me as a summer intern. Let me work on special and important projects. Encourage me to engage my friends in the efforts to grow your organizations.
While I’m in college, toss me the keys and give me the opportunity to create something you might never imagine. Will I stumble? Absolutely. Could you lose money? Possibly. But – if I’m successful – we both will profit. And, either way, knowing that you value me will make me incredibly loyal – to you and to our city.
When I graduate and get a job, ask me what kind of places I want to live in. What I want to do after hours. What kind of neighborhood I want. What is important to me. Then – and this is the vital part – go build it for me. It will benefit us both.
(P.S. Also do these things for your current generation of citizens and employees. Then stand back. Your success will blow you away. It might keep some of the current generation in Lexington, too.)
If you want us to stay, you must value us more.
Respect us. Listening. Engaging. Valuing. It is all about showing fundamental human respect for us and our viewpoints. If you demonstrate that kind of respect in your actions and in your attitudes, several wonderful things will begin to happen.
First, the right kinds of “stuff” – jobs, buildings, neighborhoods, amenities – will begin to emerge to tug on our hearts. Our community – and our love for our community – will become much more vibrant.
Second, our economy will begin to flourish. Giving us a platform to express and implement our ideas will help create the idea-rich economy that you learned about in Madison. Having our voices and views incorporated into the community’s future gives us a stake in making that future happen.
Third, our brand will improve. As Daddy has mentioned previously, you don’t get to decide our brand. Blue horses or spotted yaks are irrelevant to whether I choose to love my city and to whether I choose to stay in Lexington. A better brand emerges from being a better city. And that starts with respecting your citizens and employees.
If you want to build a better Lexington – the kind of Lexington you are envisioning upon your return from Madison – you must listen to us. You must engage us. You must value us. You must openly and actively demonstrate your respect for us.
Then, you will have built a city that my generation will be homesick for. That could be your legacy. We’re already here. And we want to engage you. We want to help you succeed. Join us.
Carson Tate Morris
2 years, 5 months old
Citizen, Future Voter, and Superstar
3 thoughts on “Homesick”
Thank you for making your thoughts known to the rest of us.
I, as one of the senior residents of Lexington, hope that you do NOT get homesick for our fair city. I am a life-long resident the these parts and have grown to live everything about Lexington. I would find it hard to leave for good.
When I graduated from high school, I, unlike so many others did not know to what profession I would apply myself. I drifted from part-time to part-time employment and even tried my hand at college. I eventually took up the artistic skill of cartography. I took to it well enough, it was just that there were very few places that called for such skills. After a short dry spell I finally found a position that applied mapmaking, Lexington history, graphic arts and the workings of government and embarked on a career of serving the citizens of this city.
I was not always listened to and sometimes told that my proposed solution would not work. I followed what were sometimes difficult procedures to get to a solution and also kept a version of my attempts at different methods. After some trial and error, I refined my way of recording information and offered it as an alternate and when more people returned for my version my superiors dropped the original way. This does not happen all the time and others have had better ideas than me, but a number of my solution have made it easier to automate the processes for future solutions.
I tell you this because it does no good to demand that you be listened to if you cannot show how your ideas and solutions can yield better results, especially in a side-by-side comparison. Your father is an excellent mechanic yet it would do him no good to tell everyone if he did not prove it every time out in the shop. It is through this proof that he is listened to and engaged for future encounters. The skills that he brings to the job (or situation) is what gives him value in his work and in his community. These are values that I am sure that your father will impart to you as you grow older.
I believe that everyone in Lexington wants to respect you and your positions, but I also know that that respect is earned when you can demonstrate a better way and resist demanding unproven solutions. This is a situation that was familiar to the unions in the ‘30s, the beatniks in the ‘50s, the hippies in the ‘60s and so many others through out history. We really do realize that you are out there AND we want to engage you in the workings of leadership but changing the direction of the ship(or car) comes from farther back in the vehicle. Often those in the middle of the pack have more influence on steering than the lead dog.
We want you to succeed and ask you to join us to make your future what you want it to be.
The Lexington Streetsweeper
Dear Mr. Sweeper,
Thank you for sharing your story with us. Daddy told me he used to teach cartography at UK for a time, and that he helped set up UK’s first computer cartography systems.
Thank you also for commenting on my letter. There are some of your comments, however, which I find a bit troubling.
My concerns revolve around your perception that I am “demanding unproven solutions”.
I wrote this letter in response to questions that Lexington’s leaders were asking themselves during their visit to Madison. In particular, they were rightly concerned about how Lexington could keep (and attract) the best and the brightest of the next generation.
My letter wasn’t a demand; It was a plea for our leaders to craft a city which I would be happy to stay in. They asked the question; I was simply trying to help them understand the answers.
Lexington is engaged in a global competition for talent. If our leaders don’t show us the kinds of respect I outlined in my letter, Lexington will lose that competition and lose much of my generation to the cities who do actively engage us.
And showing respect isn’t about adopting unproven solutions.
It is about creating a culture of openness, experimentation, and innovation. The most successful companies and cities try the solutions which my generation offers. If those solutions don’t work, then they are quickly abandoned. If they do succeed, then more money, time, and effort are poured into them, and they become the foundation for a better place to live and work.
This is the kind of culture which Google embraces. It is what helped make IBM and 3M successful. It is the kind of culture which Portland, Madison, and Austin foster, too. That is part of the reason those cities continue to attract talent even when there are no jobs.
Too often, when our leaders ask us to “prove it first” – to prove something will be successful before we can try it – they are just buying time and hoping to avoid the discomfort of change. At that point, it isn’t about whether the solution is better or worse; it is about whether it is inconvenient for the powerful. I’ll bet you have experienced this with your own innovations, Mr. Sweeper.
Companies and cities which just ‘buy time’ will steadily wither and die. Daddy tells me this is precisely what is happening with Lexmark today. For years, leaders there have avoided change in a fast-moving global competition. That is why there is a sad exodus of incredibly talented people from one of our largest employers. And most of those folks, unlike Daddy, have chosen to leave Lexington, as well.
I want them – and my generation – to have reason to stay. And when they leave, I want them to be homesick for the one place on earth they want to be. I want a better Lexington.
I actually am the demographic you’re talking about. Under 30, artist, homeowner, business owner. I stayed in Lexington after college because it was a place I could make a difference and because of the community of young vibrant people here. We may not have as many as other places but their quality is amazing. Whenever I was confronted by a negative aspect of greater lexington, I reassured myself that this was a wonderful place to live with my friends; with their excitement and energy.
Which all changed last summer. Right about the 4th of July. I felt like lexington just told me to get the f out, that it had never wanted any of us anyway. Ever since I was in college all I hear is ‘how do we retain our best and brightest?’ Meanwhile we’re disrespected and driven away at any opportunity. We’re called drunks and losers and worthless. Who would stick around for that?
So there’s two results i’ve seen so far. Positive first. Most of the places I frequent now are owned by us. No one can kick us out. I think this trend will continue because we don’t trust you. We’ll have art shows and music shows in our living rooms. We’ll cram 100 people in there, and you can have the rest of the city to f-up as you please.
But the negative result; people are leaving. Those young, vibrant, smart kids don’t want to be here so much anymore. I’m making plans to leave. I’ll rent my house to some Transy kid. I’ll miss my friends, but i’m tired of fighting all the time. I’m bitter when I see how much improvement has taken place in louisville over the past ten years, and in lexington we’ve gone in the opposite direction. I don’t expect anyone to give me anything, but who wants to live in a community where 90% of the people don’t respect or want you?
Lexington will keep paying experts like Richard Florida to tell us how to succeed. They’ll keep sending business leaders to cool cities to try and decode the secret. It’s pretty simple, rob’s 10 year old son figured it out.