Over the past few years I’ve had occasion to visit South Carolina, and especially Charleston, several times. And I must say, y’all have got something special going on.
Recently I was visiting some friends in Charleston, sharing some of what I do around the world. Come to find, there are a lot of similarities, and they asked that I share them.
Now these are just some observations from an outsider blessed with the opportunity to engage worldwide, but hopefully they contribute to a discussion about how best to champion Charleston, and South Carolina, in this global moment.
I run a non-profit that develops relationships with government and grassroots leaders. The goal is to help determine how these leaders — from the top down, and the bottom up — can overcome deep ethnic and religious differences by building on the best of their local traditions (especially faith and hospitality). Done right, the result is a global brand that, among other things, invites more business and creates more jobs.
For example, in Eastern Africa, we co-convened a 2008 constitutional reform conference in Kenya with its then President Kibacki and Prime Minister Odinga, resulting in a new Kenyan constitution in 2010. In Northern Africa, we have been invited by the Swiss government to engage different political parties in an effort to build democracy and counter violent extremism.
In August, we co-convened an event at Harvard’s Shanghai Center where government officials and NGOs from the Tibetan Plateau discussed how best to protect and promote the environment in Tibet. In September, we co-convened our second of three, ten-day certificate programs in eighteen months in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on religion and the rule of law. And last month, we co-convened, in another port city, Yangon, Myanmar, the first conference of its kind on religion, security, and coexistence.
Through such engagement, I have noticed a few things. Every city needs a “safe space” to talk about mutual respect for each other, in order to talk about a common future. Such a setting is usually a non-threatening, academic environment where people who would not otherwise meet — from different sectors of society — do meet, and regularly, discussing how best to move forward.
There must be talk before there can be trust. And with trust comes the possibility of civic consensus about the tangible actions needed toward a better future.
Meanwhile, people are proud of their city and state, and they want a global brand that sets them apart. From entrepreneurialism to the environment, government and grassroots leaders (especially in ports) want to connect their city globally, through win-win partnerships. But they also realize that they — individually and institutionally — have to be prepared to engage as global citizens.
If this is the case, there has to be a common sense of purpose before there can be a common brand. To my experience, the only way to establish purpose and brand is through a “safe space” that enables training and education about mutual respect across the various divides of society.
Put another way, there are no second chances for a first impression, especially when building global partnerships in a competitive environment. If it’s not a good impression, you’re going to be just another provincial town that didn’t make the global cut.
What strikes me most about Charleston is that it breathes invitation. It is known across our country, at least, as “America’s Most Friendly City” (Travel & Leisure, 2011), and the “most polite and hospitable city in America” (Southern Living, 2013). The city’s restaurants and arts scene accentuate this alluring atmosphere. This reputation is a priceless foundation for a global brand.
From bed & breakfast places to Boeing, Charleston is open for business. The airport is being remodeled. There is talk of building academic consortiums, as well as restoring a historic port to global prominence. And the Ravenel Bridge, like the city steeples, aspires to the heavens.
Most moving, however, is the humility and hope of Charleston’s past. Its wharfs witnessed the sin of slavery, even as they also provided a haven for the Huguenots. If a city’s future runs through its past, this is the kind of narrative for which a minority-majority world yearns.
Finally, Charleston’s key leadership will soon transition. By all accounts, Mayor Joe Riley has stewarded Charleston magnificently, positioning it for the future ... but what is that future vision?
Meanwhile, the College of Charleston is the natural “safe space” where civic consensus might emerge about the future. But it too is about to go through a transition, as President P. George Benson leaves the College of Charleston primed for the 21st century.
Anyway, it seems like Charleston is at a moment. It is the place where the rivers and roads meet, and the sea and the sky convene. It is a safe and hospitable harbor at the boundary between the local and the global, providing a potential portal, for itself, and the state of South Carolina.
But, how does Charleston brand its inclusive invitation of humility and hope to a world ready for such a narrative?
Again, I’m just an outside observer. I’m sure that there are plenty of opinions about these issues, and where and whether and how they should all come about.
But I do want to cheer you on
Moments don’t last forever, but this one is ripe, and I pray that Charleston will seize it.
Chris Seiple, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement (www.globalengage.org).