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Saturday, Mar 16 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Who are we, exactly? It's a valid question

By The Bakersfield Californian

One of the recurring devices in "The Twilight Zone," that classic treasure trove of madness and irony, was the "repeat sighting." In one episode, Nan Adams, driving alone cross-country, kept spotting the same ominous-looking hitchhiker every few miles. In another, schoolteacher Helen Foley kept seeing the same mysterious little girl in her apartment.

Those riveting fantasies were entirely fiction. Funny thing is, though, we have "repeat sightings" in Bakersfield all the time. And even though we are, in one undeniable sense, poorer for it, we tend to characterize it strictly as a good thing. You've heard it, perhaps even proclaimed it yourself: Bakersfield is the biggest small town in America. Four hundred fifty thousand people live in this city and its environs, and yet we always seem to run into the same people.

"Doesn't that strike you as odd?" said Jill Egland, a vice president for the United Way of Kern County who first pointed out the Rod Serling nature of things around here. "What that really means is that we're ghettoized. But we've created these narratives about ourselves that keep us from addressing the fullness of who we are."

Egland's inspiration for her narrative about narratives is Richard Harwood, president of the Maryland-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. His organization shows U.S. cities how to transform local attitudes and assumptions -- a step they'll have to take if they're to instigate change in important but often-elusive areas such as educational attainment, poverty eradication or simply overall quality of life. Harwood spoke in Bakersfield twice last week, first at the United Way's Professional Development Conference for Nonprofits and then for the Kegley Institute of Ethics at Cal State Bakersfield.

Central to his message is this: Little is ever accomplished if the same core of citizens always appoints itself opinion leader. Communities have inumerable constitutiveness with different vantage points and the potential to develop unique solutions, but too often these people are never asked or engaged.

Sometime in the past 20 years, Harwood said, Americans slipped into a Tower of Babel existence that caused us to lose the ability to reason together and solve problems as a community.

Every community has an inner narrative, Harwood says -- the thing communities tell themselves about themselves, and which can come to define them. In Youngstown, Ohio, where local leaders have been working with Harwood, the narrative was "We're waiting for the new mayor to come in and save us."

So many cities, he said, "are in a waiting place. There's an undercurrent that something's off. ... A lot of false starts because there's no clear path."

Harwood wouldn't attempt to offer up a narrative for Bakersfield; he's not sufficiently familiar with the city. But others did. "We are a community of gracious and resilient people who have some of the resources we will need to solve some of the issues we're now facing," Egland suggested.

Christopher Meyers of the Kegley Institute said our narrative still revolves around Johnny Carson jokes: We're simple rednecks for whom high culture is Olive Garden. But on a positive note, he said, Bakersfield believes it's a generous and compassionate city.

This isn't just a bunch of feel-good talk and esoteric theory. The local United Way has already held a half-dozen discussions with groups of people outside that Twilight Zone circle. "We convene these gatherings in unlikely places," Egland said, "and make the table big enough and shaped however it needs to be shaped."

These aren't task forces or focus groups. They're simply a way to measure appetite for change. Without that, we'll never move the needle on high school dropouts, teenage pregnancy or bad air. And we'll never develop an honest community narrative that we might actually enjoy hearing.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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