Good things will happen to the state if people focus on their and Rhode Island’s strengths and positives.
That was the underlying premise to a circus-themed event headlined as “The Greatest Lil’ State on Earth,” hosted Saturday afternoon at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet by Leadership Rhode Island.
Mike Ritz, Leadership Rhode Island’s executive director, served as ringmaster. To carry the circus analogy a step further, the tent was full.
Community leaders and activists from every city and town across the state – yes, even from Block Island – engaged in an afternoon of identifying their community strengths and how to address challenges. More than 600 participated in the event.
If this sounds somewhat unique, it’s because it is, Ritz said. It’s not that focusing on strengths is new, but that this was the first-ever statewide, strengths-based event.
During the past year, Leadership Rhode Island’s Lambda II class conducted 33 community meetings across the state. They came up with 1,200 distinctly positive activities and assets and identified more than 900 residents who champion them.
In his program message, Ritz writes, “many of those topics and people will reveal themselves today, as we begin this statewide journey to paraphrase and reapply Donald Clifton’s, the grandfather of positive psychology, curious question that began his decades of research: ‘What if we studied what is right with Rhode Island instead of what is wrong?’”
Opening the show was Clifton’s son, Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup Inc., which oversees Gallup Poll. Clifton is also the owner of Clifton Strengths Finder, an online questionnaire that enables people to identify their natural talents and build them into strengths.
Ritz said more than 13 million people have taken the Strengths Finder survey, including members of Leadership Rhode Island and many of the community champions involved in community meetings.
According to Ritz, and a finding targeted by Clifton, a Gallup study finds that Rhode Island has the “most actively disengaged workforce in the country.” Ritz described these employees as undermining the efforts of their employers by doing such things as calling in sick so as to get a day off. He said one in five Rhode Island workers are actively disengaged. Conversely, Ritz said 30,000, or about one in 10, of the state’s workforce are actively engaged, and if that number could be doubled “it would be a game changer” for the state.
The level of disengagement, Ritz said, is reflected in low rates of volunteerism and low voter turnout.
There was no lack of engagement Saturday afternoon.
Strengths and challenges were identified by municipality. At one of the Warwick tables, Christine McDermott listed the airport, the leadership of Mayor Scott Avedisian, historical preservation, the library and the coastline among strengths. Summing up how she thinks of the city, Bernadette McDowell said Warwick has a small-town feel with big-town amenities. The preservation of Rocky Point was identified as a program that should be replicated by other communities.
More than one of the Warwick tables identified Warwick schools as a challenge. The current “work-to-rule” approach adopted by Warwick teachers was labeled as impairing the education system. And, in contrast to one group that considered the airport an asset, another saw it a challenge because it impairs cross-town traffic and has fractured neighborhoods.
Former state Rep. Frank Ferri, who participated in the discussion, said his table suggested an association of neighborhood association as a means of communicating and addressing challenges. A “neighborhood day” was also a suggestion.
While it seemed table discussion could run uninterrupted into the evening, the circus moved on as a troupe of colorfully dressed musicians, a belly dancer and a couple of Big Nazo Puppets paraded through the audience signaling the commencement of the cocktail hour. They had plenty of followers.