Monday, March 23, 2015

Safeguarding A Community’s Story

I posted a recent essay in recognition of an unsung hero who saved Durham’s beloved Bulls baseball team as a favor to a friend who passed away last fall.

It was not on my radar then but within a month, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park which, in part, resulted from his actions would be celebrating the 20th anniversary since hosting its first game on April 6, 1995.

I had begun to write that post five months earlier but the topic was sensitive and it took me time to not only get the tone and timing right but to research documents to make certain that my memory was accurate.

Seth Godwin reminded us a few days go that “Human Beings are story-making engines, and when confronted with randomness, we make up an egocentric version of what happened and it involves us.”

In fact, this is how legends and other myths evolve over time, often even polluting news stories and official accounts, claiming reporters and editors as victims if they don’t fact-check conclusions drawn from interviews including the use of archives and timelines.

It is akin to a “gentrification” of stories, a term used to describe what happens to neighborhoods and organic commercial districts when they become so hip that the original residents and businesses are forced out, identifies are rewoven and sense of place is lost.

As the owner of the Bulls mused with me while at will call after he had read my account, the story of how Durham almost lost the Bulls and his remarkable and deserved redemption from villain to hero is very complex.

He reminded me that before trying to poach (my word) the Bulls from Durham, the mild-mannered Mayor of Raleigh at the time, Avery Upchurch, had given Durham’s mayor a 30-day ultimatum.

He recalled that Durham’s mayor at the time was Harry Rodenhizer but having recently checked time frames related to the unsung hero post, I was able to clarify that the mayor at the time would have been Chester Jenkins, who also happened to also be the first African-American Mayor of Durham.

Based on the tendency now of some Republicans in Congress to cross lines of decorum to disrespect President Obama in ways unprecedented with other U.S. Presidents, I wondered as I walked to my seat if the fact that Mayor Jenkins was black had somehow empowered that ultimatum.

But in my dealings the issue of race wasn’t Harry’s motivation to run for another term in that office, defeating Jenkins.

He was among tens of thousands of disheartened Durham residents who not knowing what three individuals were doing behind the scenes had felt Durham had been too passive in the fight to retain the Bulls.

We remained friends until his death and he was equally incensed whenever he felt officials had passively failed to rise in defense of the organization I led whenever it seemed to become a lightning rod for resentment due to its role during that period, a small price to pay.

Harry, a fiscal conservative who had sent his children to predominantly black city schools back when nearly all white students were in all white schools, hated injustice of any kind.

It didn’t matter to him when I would explain that once a turnaround such as keeping the Bulls is achieved, it is common for those that took stands to experience some retribution, while others rush to be sycophants as redemption creates a new alignment.

To me, being respected was always more important that being liked or given credit.

But by the time Harry was elected in late 1991 the two unsung heroes I wrote about last month had already rallied enough pressure to send Raleigh officials in retreat including opposition to poaching from state legislators, state tourism related coalitions and local taxpayer groups there.

Harry was greeted in April 1992 by a new ultimatum, this time from the new owner of the Bulls, to “build a new stadium by 1994 or else” but that really wasn’t necessary.

One of the three people in the room back then who had worked behind the scenes to back Raleigh off had also been busy searching for a way to finance a new Durham stadium for the Bulls.

By May 1992, less than eight weeks after the second ultimatum, financing for the new ballpark was approved by the City Council and within five months the Bulls had signed a new lease.

Last year, two local news stories surfaced, with a few weeks of one another, mistakenly crediting an organization with the new stadium that was not in existence at the time.

Although that organization’s formation papers were filed within weeks of the time the stadium being approved, ground had already been broken ground by the time that organization commenced its startup.

I suspect that sources for the story were very uncomfortable to read what had been inferred and may have tried to call or email clarification.

But this is much harder than it sounds, especially when reputations are at stake and particularly with a story this complex.  Unless investigative in nature, even at its best news is but a crude snapshot of the real story behind an event.

I learned during my now-concluded four-decade career leading community organizations to be very careful when using the term “we.”

Humorously, a friend with whom I worked in the 1970s and 1980s at my first two destination marketing organizations would often quip when seeing misattributions or takings of credit:

“It is like having (fill in the blank) in high school.  Those who say they did probably didn’t and those who say they didn’t probably did.

But it is more complicated than exaggerating or downplaying resumes.

Often when telling aspects of the community’s story, good reporters would stop me and stop me when I was rattling off information and ask for clarification of my use of the word “we:”

  • “we” meaning you personally?
  • “we” meaning your organization and stakeholders?
  • Or “we” meaning Durham overall?

I learned to be more careful but sometimes I wouldn’t see how misled they had been until the stories appeared in print and/or over the air.

Those two recent news stories dealing misinterpreting facts from nearly 25 years ago may have resulted from making the wrong inferences from an interviewees use or mistaken use of the word “we” assuming that rather than the editorial “we,” as in Durham, the reference was personal or organizational.

But the errors in those news stories also represent a breakdown in process now increasingly more common in short-staffed newsrooms.

Customarily, rather than leaping to a conclusion if a use of “we” wasn’t clear, newsrooms would not only call back to clarify but they would be sure to conduct a quick scan of their publication’s archives from that period.

That is why it is crucial that these two stories be flagged with clarifications so future stories are not contaminated.

Newsrooms should also be sensitive to the human tendency to unwittingly reweave memories with other fragments of peripheral or later involvement resulting, in the words of Godin, in a far more “egocentric versions.”

According to Harvard researcher Dr. Daniel Gilbert in his book and blog entitled Stumbling on Happiness, our memory doesn’t actually retrieve information.

Memory is rewoven or fabricated from the bits of data scooped up by our personal NSA.  This is why it is so important for organizations, especially any type of community organization, to appoint a staff archivist.

Unless corrections to those two recent news accounts are made, those rewoven versions will contaminate news reports for many decades to come, even contemporary histories, until such time that deeper historical analysis comes to bear.

This is why it is crucial for destination marketing organizations such as where I made my career to take seriously their role not only to tell a community’s story but to have the courage to stand up as that story’s guardian by calling or emailing reporters and editors with clarifications, even corrections.

This includes the responsibility to question other community organizations whenever they are tempted to provide egocentric accounts of the past.

A sense of historical accuracy and the importance of delving into archives is crucial to telling a community’s story in the present.

Understanding how easy it is to be credited with things you didn’t do or in which you only played a minor role may also be why I find myself often in retirement leaving breadcrumbs with many of these essays that hopefully provide broader context to those accounts.

I know it is disappointing to those who trade on information to curry favor or perpetuate perceived wounds or settle old scores but I have purposely not linked to those mistaken accounts or sources.

Instead, I have alerted others who can give them a gentle heads up.  “There but for the grace of God go I.

So, as Annie paraphrased to Crash at the end of the movie Bull Durham from a quote attributed to Walt Whitman in 1888, “…baseball is our game: I connect it with our national character.”

Or appropriate to how quickly legends become repurposed, “Man, that ball got out of here in a hurry.”

Happy 25 to DBAP!

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