Note: This blog is adapted from a recent Thinking Forward event, in which a troupe of professional speakers (including me!) explored the theme, Transform Your Community for Good.
The lyrics to songs can be like poetry that speaks to us. Music—the arts, nature, so much that surrounds us—can reveal intelligence, wisdom, and basic truths that we can apply to the communities in which we live and work.
Do you know the song, Accentuate the Positive? It goes like this:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith, or pandemonium is liable to walk upon the scene
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark
They said you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between
No! Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between
(Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, published in 1944.)
I got to thinking about how this song relates to communities—and here I’m thinking of communities in the broadest sense.
What are some of the characteristics of communities?
Communities of people come in lots of different sizes and shapes.
Communities are specialized and similar or diverse and different in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, cultural background, residence, level of education, economic status, type of employment, or some other demographic.
Communities likely have insiders and outsiders. Members may all live in the same county. Maybe they are all librarians or healthcare providers. Maybe they have the same professional degrees or licenses.
Communities can have different structures. They can be flat, where all members have an equal voice. They can be hierarchical, where some members fall somewhere between the top and the bottom.
In some communities, you already belong. If you graduated from a certain university, you are in the community of alum. In others, you have to join. For example, membership in an association of alums likely makes you a more exclusive member of the community, with additional benefits.
Some communities share a physical space and some share a virtual space. For example, the technical communication community, to which I belong, meets every year at a conference. Members of this community also meet virtually at webinars and other online forums.
Though communities are different, members have a common tie that binds them to the community—whether at home with your family and friends; at work with employers, clients, employees, and colleagues; in recreational activities; or in volunteer pursuits.
And, as human beings who breathe the same air and walk the same earth, we are all part of a very large community where what we do touches others.
Know a good community when you see it. Focus on the good. Focus on the positive.
As the song says, you’ve got to:
- Accentuate the positive. Latch on to the affirmative.
- Spread joy up to the maximum.
- And have faith!
How do you recognize a good community? You’ll know it by its fruits. You’ll see a lot that’s positive, affirming, and encouraging. You’ll see signs of joy. And yes, there will be a spirit of faith and optimism. There will be a sense that wonderful possibilities can transpire.
Let me give you two examples:
In reading a Design Center’s plan for improving a city center and connecting neighborhoods, it had these guiding principles:
- Enhance the pedestrian experience
- Connect districts, neighborhoods, and sites
- Create mixed use neighborhoods
- Construct gateways
As I see it, these principles accentuate the positive and latch on to the affirmative by making concrete connections that bring people together. There is no talk of gated communities for some and blighted communities for others. What is good for some should be open to all.
Happy Day School
When my sister visited what I will call the Happy Day School recently, she was amazed to find that the young host who took visitors from room to room knew each teacher, knew the subject being taught, and knew the lesson of the day. In the classroom, she found children who were engaged in learning and teachers who demonstrated great affection and love for her young charges. Out of curiosity, I visited the school’s website and read:
At the Happy Day School, education is a joyful experience with students who
- Are confident, thoughtful, motivated, curious, creative, expressive, engaged, successful, enthusiastic learners
- Thrive on the attention from teachers who love them and love teaching
- Learn to love learning
It seems to me that the Happy Day School community is finding ways to bring joy up to the maximum!
Eliminate the Negative
So, how can communities do what the song suggests:
- Eliminate the negative.
- Bring gloom down to the minimum.
- Limit the opportunity for pandemonium to walk upon the scene.
The song talks about Noah and Jonah. “What did they do when everything looked so dark?”
The scholars likely have their interpretations, but as I reread the story, I looked for the answer to “what did Noah do when everything looked so dark?” Can you imagine being in an ark—Noah, his three sons, their wives, and both male and female of every living creature? Can you imagine the sounds, the smells in this community? And all of this in the midst of an earthly flood? This is pretty negative stuff to endure for seven months. When Noah departed the ark, did he complain? Did he bemoan the awful experience he had during those dark days and months? We’re told that Noah, departing the ark, made a burnt offering, with an aroma that was pleasing. “What did Noah do when everything looked so dark?” He not only weathered the storm, he was grateful, he started life anew—with what he had.
And for Jonah, living inside a whale for three days and three nights—without community—must have been dark indeed. Yet, when released from this darkness, he looked for a bright spot. He spoke truth to power by warning the king of Nineveh to make some changes. And the king listened and led his community to a better way of life. “What did Jonah do when everything looked so dark?” He persevered. He lived to see a better day. And the community of Nineveh was the better for it.
Don’t Mess with Mr. In-Between
Now, the song also advises, “Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” Maybe things are not all that bad in your community. It’s pretty good. It’s adequate. But, maybe it’s not as good or as great as you know it can be. How do you move beyond this in-between state to the positive, the affirmative, the magnificent?
I was stuck answering this question and looked for help from none other than Google. I typed “how to get unstuck” and found a gem.
Les Brown, the Motivator
His You Tube presentation, Getting Unstuck, suggests that we are stuck in something…stuck in
- the past…in regret
- the future…in fear
- a habit, a pattern
- an emotion…pain, anger, jealousy, misery
- mediocrity…this is what I consider Mr. In-Between
If we are stuck as individuals, then our communities are similarly stunted in their growth. So to become unstuck, what can we do?
Les Brown, who identifies himself as Mamie Brown’s son, has some tips. And Judith Shenouda, Gertrude Ellison’s daughter, has included her tips, as well:
When you’re stuck, you can:
- Stop. Pause. Turn away from the negative and the toxic. Do not add to it. Develop an immunity.
- Clear any negatives. Let them go. Let them pass.
- Re-interpret misfortunes, weaknesses, and flaws in a way that empowers you.
- Change your perspective. Change the view. Consider options.
- Take a step, walk, exercise, move.
- Pray, meditate, breathe.
- Stay busy. Do something. Help somebody.
- Find your muse in music, art, literature, nature…anything that inspires you.
And there’s more you can do:
- Show unconditional love for yourself.
- Stand up for your own greatness. Expect situations to get better.
- Look for breakthroughs, improvements, and progress…in the midst of imperfect people and an imperfect world.
- Be part of a community that offers support, friendship, guidance, optimism, and all that is affirming. Let your community become a beacon, a ray of light and hope, a spark of all that’s positive and good.
Remember to accentuate the positive to transform yourself and, in so doing, you can transform your community for good!