"The Social Network of the South"
Image via Associated Press
When I was in New York recently a friend who works in television news mentioned that people had been preparing for Nelson Mandela’s death for quite some time. Obituaries have been prepared for months. Remembrances filed within close reach. Last summer in London we were told that when the time would finally come for Madiba’s death, he would be the first non-Briton to be honored at Westminster Abbey. The world has been waiting to make a big deal over the man’s death for some time—something that cannot have felt anything but very strange to him.
But on Dec. 5, 2013, the day finally came, and while all of the paperwork and filing was ready to go, no one was actually ready for the long, last breath of deflation that Mandela’s death would leave behind.
Mandela was someone whom most of us only saw on television and in print. A miniscule percentage of the world has met him, yet the knowledge of his existence was a grounding force for many and a hopeful one for all. Mandela was a core of strength for so many varied peoples because of the truth of his path. Not a Golden Truth, but an honesty of spirit. Mandela persevered through racial restrictions and dehumanizing injustice, yet he never portrayed himself to be a saint or martyr.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “You can even think of Jesus—it’s quite in order to say that there are Christ-like aspects of him.” But Mandela, known for being rather unsentimental, only portrayed himself as human—triumphs, flaws and all. He may have lifted South Africa out of despair as its president, showing forgiveness where many would have waged war, but there were times when his policies showed clumsiness or mismanagement and times when his wandering eye left many shaking their heads. The reason these things are important to Mandela’s legacy is that he admitted to his mistakes, always showing a willingness to keep trying. Mandela admitted that he should have addressed South Africa’s AIDS crisis more directly. He changed course when he realized that his early political style was not enough in step with the modern world to put South Africa in a place of improvement. Many believe that Mandela was too slow to condemn the violence that took place in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that his successor never made any condemnation. Even in recent years, young black South Africans would sometimes greet Madiba with less enthusiasm than we Westerners would expect—a continued reaction to the former president’s soft-spoken approach with political colleagues, rivals, and an economy still dominated by whites. But what made him a compass for our humanity was the way he wore these flaws as patches in a quilted mantle, sewn in with the patches of his peacemaking abilities and generous spirit.
Mandela knew what he could and could not control, and that knowledge gave him a talent for self-restraint in leadership that made him a great leader and example for us all.
My friend, South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth shared some of her favorite lines from Mandela's “Long Walk To Freedom” with me via email. These lines, I think, share the essence of how Nelson Mandela, the man, was not separate from Nelson Mandela, the leader:
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.
A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”
The South of 2013 may be “new” in many ways. People and ideas are more mobile than ever before. My hometown, Columbia, has easy access to a daily or weekly commute to Manhattan (if one has the means), through an early-morning Delta flight that arrives in Manhattan with enough time to make a 10am meeting, and departs at a time that makes it easy to have a cocktail with friends and still get home in time for the 11 o’clock news. Along the same lines, more people come to visit the region than ever before, taking advantage of the lovely weather and booming business opportunities (*an aside: I keep hearing from various business owners/executives that they're having their best year since before the recession. Great news!).
Such easy movement has facilitated many imports to Columbia, including a new publication. Fig is a magazine based out of Lancaster, PA that declares itself “…a hyper-local, super-social communications package that reflects the soul of a city.” Publisher Deb Brant had expanded the brand throughout various cities in her state, and when one of her writers, Janet Scouten, was getting ready to move to Columbia, the two of them saw an opportunity to add a little Southern flair to the brand.
I just love this statement in the back of Fig Columbia's first issue.
Fig Columbia launched a couple of weeks ago to great acclaim. The glossy direct-mail advertorial publication highlights independent and small businesses around town, acting as a cheerleader for creativity in entrepreneurship and local growth. People opened their mailboxes to find a publication that is a pleasure to hold and highlights Columbia's greets assets in a world-class package. The entire city cheered at this breath of fresh air that was packaged professionally and beautifully. Unfortunately, those cheers took longer than they should have to develop.
Two things that are not “new” to the South are a lack of honesty and a suspicion of outsiders. These are two gigantic hurdles that Fig had to overcome in order to achieve last month's success.
By “lack of honesty,” I don’t mean that people go around cheating and swindling. What I mean is that Southerners don’t generally like to rock the boat, so rather than speak candidly when a person or business presents a mediocre package, people just smile and say “Oh, that’s so good!” and either move on or gossip about their actual thoughts in their best friend’s kitchen. In some cities this creates a wider culture of mediocrity that stunts opportunities for personal or economic growth. The new business ideas that succeed at the hands of long-time locals, therefore, end up stagnant after a couple of years because proprietors spend so much time patting themselves on the back for busting through the thorny thickets of raised eyebrows that further innovation gets pushed to the back of the closet. In smaller or medium sized cities this means some leaders in fields such as publishing, marketing and PR don’t see the need to learn their craft beyond what their longtime local clients are asking for. The result is that, you see print advertisements and hear commercial jingles where you really can’t tell if they were produced in 2013 or 1983, but “Oh, that looks good!”
The idea of an outside marketing opportunity—whether it’s from up the interstate or the other side of the Mason-Dixon—arriving in a smaller, landlocked city claiming to want to “help”, “showcase area talent”, or even add a service to an area where existing services are stretched too thin by demand, is highly suspicious. An idea from the outside can’t simply be what it is. There must be some sinister reason for people who “aren’t even from here” (a comment I often heard as a reason to suspect Fig) to set up a business in a new place.
Fig advertising page featuring Gwen Rawls, a local shoe store owner.
I don’t know why (maybe I should ask?), but people don’t seem understand that small business is part of the big picture, too. On a universal scale it’s a known fact that competition drives innovation. On a local level, such facts become buried by well-meaning, yet fierce loyalties. Suddenly, a business touting a new idea is setting out to snuff out other older businesses instead of simply enhancing local-love or drive other businesses to ask the community to do better.
A Fig advertising page featuring Terra, a favorite Columbia restaurant.
These are the two hurdles that Fig Columbia, with Janet Scouten as its managing editor, has had to clear (despite the fact that Janet spent many years as a member of the community before moving to Pennsylvania for her husband’s job). It was an arduous hill to climb that, as with any new-ish endeavor, had a misstep or two along the way, but they pushed through it. The imagery and professionalism of the final product could have been created in New York or Atlanta, but instead it’s Columbia’s to call its own and be proud of.
Fig and other local publications that have made recent changes have officially raised the bar for what a city like Columbia can show the world. I can’t wait to see how such businesses make the small business community even stronger.
All images courtesy of Fig
Prior to going to New York a few weeks ago I messed up a lot of appointments. Seriously, I've never touched down at LaGuardia airport without a confirmed plan. This time, a feeling of panic swept over me the second the Tarmac came into view. Leading up to our departure I had been completely engrossed in a freelance assignment and then a close colleague passed away unexpectedly, sending me (and most of Columbia) reeling at the loss. By the time I was packing my bag it was too late to shore things up. The only confirmed dates on my calendar were a hair appointment and a coffee meeting with an author at the end of the trip. But then, for the first time since I started taking my beloved direct flight from Columbia to New York, something happened that felt implausible. Our flight was late! We landed on time, but just sat, waiting for the gate to be readied, for about 40 minutes. There went my hair appointment.
Mr. M and I looked at each other. What were we going to do? All of a sudden he blurted, "I've never been to Connecticut!" I'd never been either, so we rented a car after decamping at the hotel and started driving in that general direction. After a while the thought occurred to me that I have friends who live in the Westport area, so I called Jane Green (who has a book coming out!), who immediately invited us over for tea.
As we chatted and then played with Jane's chickens, I realized that this was a spectacular way to start the week!
The rest of the trip was just as pleasant, and it ended on a high note when I had coffee at The Carlyle Hotel gallery with Sarah Lewis. I've been wanting to meet Sarah for quite a while. I'm not exactly sure when I first read about her, but I could immediately tell that she is someone who looks at the world with special care. As an art curator and scholar, Sarah's expertise is sought after all over the country. She worked as co-curator for the 2010 SITE Santa Fe biennial exhibition, worked to select artists for the Artpace San Antonio 12.2 Artists in Residence program, and teaches at Yale University. As a noted scholar, Sarah has had essays published in Art in America, Artforum, and many more. She also serves on President Obama's Arts Policy Committee.
But we weren't getting together to talk about all of that. We were getting together because I think we saw mutual interests when we began chatting on Twitter, and because Sarah is about to have a book released called "The Rise". The subject matter for her book will relate to anyone. It looks deeply into the failures and pitfalls that ultimately lead to creative and sociological triumph. You'll be hearing quite a bit about this book at the beginning of 2014, I think!
We had a wonderful chat about projects we're working on and about her memories of visiting her grandparents in Virginia. We compared notes on spending time in England (she studied at Oxford), and lamented an apparent increase in American pop culture's push "to be entertained rather than informed."
I learned that my initial instinct about Sarah was correct. She looks at the world very carefully, with intelligence and wit. Keep an eye out for this one. She's on the path to making a lasting positive impact on national conversations about the way we use our many talents.
Shani Gilchrist has not received any gifts yet
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