Time to write a new story for Birmingham

Duanna Pang-Dokland
Duanna Pang-Dokland

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Duanna Pang-Dokland.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

Have you seen the billboard or heard the saying, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” According to Luis Ubinas, former president of the Ford Foundation, 40 years ago cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle were broke, had drastic unemployment and residents were leaving. They were considered dying cities. Since then, these cities have rewritten their stories and rebounded.  They are comeback towns.

But before our minds fly to the idea that Birmingham is different from these cities, or that changes that occurred in those cities cannot be replicated here, I invite us to stay open to the whisper of possibility and to live each day in Birmingham beyond business as usual.
Because beyond just showing up and existing day after day is our ability to choose and create a future we really want and will dare to make happen.

How to write a new story

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business there. One sends back a telegram saying, “Situation Hopeless Stop No One Wears Shoes”. The other writes back triumphantly, “Glorious Business Opportunity Stop They Have No Shoes”. Each scout comes to the same scene with his own perspective; each returns telling a different tale.  All of life is a story we tell.

As a leadership coach, I often witness the power of story in people’s lives: something happens, we interpret and make it mean something–usually something negative about ourselves like “I’m not good enough”, “We can’t/won’t succeed”, “Things will never change”, and so on. That story then becomes a context we are stuck with, a disempowering lens through which every event is seen. Unconsciously, this story or conclusion runs us. It’s our blind spot until someone points it out to us. I wish I could say that having stories only happens to some people, but it occurs to anyone who is human.

So how do we write a new, more empowering story? It starts with asking these questions:

  • What do we want, or what do we want to change?
  • What do we want to let go of?
  • What do we want to avoid?
  • What do we want to keep and enhance?

Singapore’s story

For the sake of simplicity, take the country of Singapore as an example for applying these questions. A small island state with no natural resources, Singapore was a British Colony that became an independent republic in 1965. In about 50 years, it transformed itself from a swamp to one of the richest countries in the world.

One of the goals Singapore aimed for was to be a hub for foreign multinationals to base their Asian headquarters. They wanted to change the world’s perception of it as a Third World country with no natural resources, to one that had a sophisticated and highly educated workforce.

She wanted to avoid racial tensions and disharmony in her multicultural people through social policies like having people from different ethnic groups live in the same residential areas. And one of the things that Singapore wanted to keep and enhance was the diversity of food that each ethnic group brought to the table. It is no surprise that this country is known as a food paradise.

How to change the story of Birmingham

So, the question is, what does Birmingham want, or what does Birmingham want to change? It starts with a conversation. As Peter Block, a consultant who is making a positive difference to inner city life in Cincinnati, Ohio, says, “If you want to change the world–or the culture–all you have to do is change the conversation. In the beginning was the word–that was how the Bible started… The value of our coming together can be measured by whether or not we are able to have a conversation we have not had before. A conversation is an action.” (www.asmallgroup.net)

Breakdowns are inevitable

Create a goal or a possibility, put it out in the world, and it’s inevitable brethren–breakdowns and the idea that there shouldn’t be any–arrive at our doorstep. Perhaps our plan for the community didn’t get approved, or we couldn’t find funding for a project, or some politician puts his self-interest before the community’s and throws a wrench in our ideas–breakdowns of some sort are unavoidable.

And they often carry with them some hint of failure and invite the disempowering interpretation of “what’s wrong with me/them/us” or “what was I thinking”. Our identity or who we consider ourselves to be have become the focus rather than the breakdown itself. When a goal is thwarted, we may feel frustrated but the danger is when we become resigned–resigned that things will never change for the better, so why bother?

The point when something doesn’t go according to plan is the fork in the road. Do we become resigned and give up, or do we recommit and make a stand for a possibility that we don’t yet know how to achieve, a possibility that is not referenced against who we were or what had been done in the past?

Our words have the power to shape our world

The circumstances and conditions will never be perfect, but they are the raw stuff from which possibilities arise. As we stand in the future, what stories can we write? As we set our imagination free from the baggage of the past, let us be transformed by the realization that “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. The world does not speak. Only we do.”* We are the ones who have the power to shape the world with our words. We are the ones who can make things happen.

* Richard Rorty in “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”

Duanna Pang-Dokland is a Singaporean who has lived in Birmingham for the past 10 years. A leadership coach with her own practice, Igniting Possibility Coaching, she works with organizational directors and managers in America and Singapore to take the strain out of leadership and inspire their teams to better performance. She is a TEDxBirmingham Patron and a Past President of the International Coach Federation, North & Central Alabama Chapter.

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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising Agency and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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