Dear Mr. Chafee: Look beyond economy to grow it

Next Tuesday, Lincoln Chafee will be inaugurated as Rhode Island’s 58th governor. What should he do when he takes office? To get some ideas, I asked five of the state’s smartest citizens what advice they would offer the new governor. Yesterday we heard from Tom Sgouros.

Today’s essay comes from Mary-Kim Arnold, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the nonprofit state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The size of Rhode Island’s economy places us 46th in the nation. We have the fifth-highest rate of unemployment; we are 10th in health care rankings, second-highest in expenditures for public education. What do these numbers mean in terms of how much we love where we live?

Not as much as you might think, it turns out.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national philanthropic organization focused on “informed and engaged communities,” undertook a three-year study to identify how and to what extent emotional factors kept residents attached to their communities, and what impact that connection had to the area’s economic growth and well-being.

The study, which involved interviews with nearly 43,000 individuals across 26 cities, found that strong community attachment was correlated with local GDP growth, which measures not only economic success, but also a community’s ability to grow and meet the needs of its population.

What mattered most?

Surprisingly, the most important factors to most residents were not economic. From city to city, the top three factors that people identified were:

  1. the availability of social offerings – places to meet, arts and cultural opportunities and the sense that people care about each other;
  2. a sense of openness – how welcoming the community is to different types of people, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college grads; and
  3. aesthetics – the physical beauty of the community, including parks and green spaces.

Gov. Chafee, I know that you are taking office at a time when our state faces a range of serious and complicated issues that will require your vision, your leadership, and your unwavering commitment to the people of Rhode Island. As you face these challenges, I urge you to consider factors beyond the state’s rankings and beyond the immediate economic data.

Consider also the basic questions of what it means to live with each other in a free society: How do we make meaning in our lives? How do we provide opportunities to understand each other? How do we care for each other, how do we demonstrate that care? How welcoming are we to newcomers? How do we value what is beautiful around us? How do we make beauty, even in times of cynicism and uncertainty?

You have the opportunity to show us your vision for our state. Remind us that there is a common good. Show us what that common good looks like from where you stand.

Congratulations on your election, and thank you for your willingness to serve the state at this challenging moment. •

(Photo credit: Rhode Island Council for the Humanities)

3 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Chafee: Look beyond economy to grow it

  1. Beautifully and succinctly put, Mary-Kim! I was fortunate enough to spend the holidays in Providence (courtesy of Flannery.) After having been away from RI for 6 months, it was so refreshing to return and get reacquainted with Providence. The city is so rich in it’s arts and culture, vibrantly diverse communities, and miles of untapped opportunities for growth. And, I love the people–from Mae who runs the Main St. McDonalds, to Elizabeth at the Mt. Hope Center, to Evelyn teaching at Brown, and Alice who tends to the building custodial services there. What a wealth of voices!

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