Let’s tackle Rhode Island’s cynicism

What if we made the slogan our own, by campaigning to "Make Rhode Island Great Again"?

While one billionaire presidential aspirant is viewed by some as refreshingly bold and outspoken and by others as manipulative, feeding on insecurities and fears, there’s no doubt that his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan has everyone talking. What if we made that slogan our own by campaigning to “Make Rhode Island Great Again”?

Leadership Rhode Island is committed to improving Rhode Island’s psyche, which we think will ensure increased greatness for years to come, through positive psychology and the expansion of professional/social networks to include new and diverse voices. You might say LRI’s approach is the opposite of many presidential hopefuls’ campaign messages. Instead of isolating people through divisive rhetoric, LRI convenes all sides to ensure a balanced exploration of facts, opinions and perceptions, while nurturing engagement that leads to empathy, understanding, oftentimes compromise, and sometimes consensus.

While national political candidates ride negative waves of shock and awe, framing the conversation around our country’s weaknesses and asserting that only they hold the solutions, LRI emphasizes our state’s assets and encourages everybody to assume leadership roles to raise us from good to great.

LRI discovered that positivity is popular among those who reject angry, often uncivil, venting. For every person who lashes out negatively, there are many more people who prefer to spend their time in constructive endeavors that focus on strengths with other get-it-done community participants. Recently, more than 800 people registered for LRI’s strengths-based statewide convening.

Keynote speaker Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup (his father, Don Clifton, created StrengthsFinder, a tool that resulted from decades of positive psychology research), said: “I’ve watched a lot of activities using strengths. I’ve seen it change the very fabric of organizations, the very fabric of universities, but I’ve never seen anybody be bold enough to say ‘Let’s change a whole state.'” In words of encouragement to LRI, he added: “Rhode Island will be the example of the nation.”

LRI is far from alone in its efforts to be bold through positivity. The Rhode Island Foundation’s “In Our Backyard” campaign, business executive Karl Wadensten’s lean-thinking crusade, the expansion of CVS, the community group PechaKucha Providence, and Highlander Institute’s blended learning efforts are excellent examples of leveraging Rhode Island’s strengths and assets to better our society.

Rhode Islanders have long claimed that their state’s small geographic area makes it a perfect place to field test just about any idea. Chain restaurants have been known to test new products here, but can ideas that benefit society be tested here too?

Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor,” says that good ideas emerge when people with different backgrounds, interests and ways of looking at the world come together and share their perspectives.

“Our parents and grandparents couldn’t avoid those sorts of interactions,” he told those at LRI’s statewide convening. “They happened in bowling leagues and at PTA meetings, in coffee shops and on the factory floor. They were a huge part of what made America great. But our lives have changed, and Americans today rarely have those sorts of conversations … LRI is creating, by bringing people together, such a diversity of talent and experience, an opportunity for Rhode Islanders to reclaim the magic of neighborhood interactions.”

After Gallup’s CEO praised LRI’s initiative — now entering its third year — to make Rhode Island the nation’s first strengths-based state, a reporter from Gallup’s online news service visited Rhode Island. The resulting story, distributed to 1.8 million people around the globe, reported that Gov. Gina Raimondo and her cabinet are also focusing on the state’s strengths and the practice of continuous improvement.

The article noted that Gallup surveys have picked up a substantial improvement in the morale of Rhode Island workers. In two years, Rhode Island has moved from having the most actively disengaged workforce in the nation to 39th. It’s still far from the top, but there has been undeniable measurable improvement toward making Rhode Island great again or, as I prefer to say, making Rhode Island stronger. We’re already great.

Mike Ritz is the executive director of Leadership Rhode Island, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary and its second year of #makeRIstronger, a multiyear initiative to tackle cynicism in Rhode Island.