Walt Barron: Getting Durham Back on the Bull

Walt Barron: Getting Durham Back on the Bull

September 2, 2020

(McKinney Chief Strategy Officer and Durham resident Walt Barron is betting on love, science, and the “Let’s Get Back on the Bull” campaign to motivate Durham to act safely and responsibly as it continues its reopening efforts.)

If there’s one thing we all can agree on, it’s that the world’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been chaotic. We’re on different pages – planets, sometimes – in discussing what’s happening and how we should respond. We saw it during initial cancellations and closings earlier this year and again during recent attempts (and failures) to reopen the economy. We see it at every level of government, throughout our education system, between leaders of nations, and even among Little League parents.

We believe Durham is different.

Like others who are proud to call Durham home, McKinney cherishes Durham’s diversity in all aspects, while we recognize our differences can make it more challenging to get everyone on the same page. But one thing Durhamites have in common is a deep, deep love for our city. We’re betting on that love to motivate Durham as it continues efforts to reopen safely and responsibly.

That’s the idea behind a big team effort in the Bull City called “Let’s Get Back on the Bull.” Right now, it’s a rallying cry and website, but to succeed it must become a movement.

It starts by acknowledging (as the name implies) that to get back up, we have to understand what knocked us down in the first place.

Ryan Smith, director of the City of Durham’s Innovation Team and member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force (RRTF), took the initiative. He enlisted Mariel Beasley of Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) to visit local stores and observe the chaos and confusion firsthand as shoppers and stores started emerging from the initial lockdown. They saw a lack of consistency and behavior on all fronts, and got to work developing a list of everything needed to make a dent, from the right in-store signage to specific shopper behavior Durhamites needed to model (yes, like wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distancing). These recommendations are based on behavioral science and are proven to work for many reasons.  

McKinney got brought in to bring these social norms to life. Mayor Steve Schewel wrote to us directly. “We need McKinney’s help…” This wasn’t a request but an impassioned call to join the team.

We quickly had many conversations, absorbing all the wisdom Ryan, Mariel, and their teams could share. We interviewed Durhamites of all backgrounds and took more visits to businesses and cultural activities that are unmistakably “Durham.” The larger team collectively rallied around “Let’s Get Back on the Bull” because it’s active, forward-looking, and taps into the universal pride residents have for Durham.

Within a couple weeks, and with the help of local programmer Mike Gerson, we had concepted, designed, and built BackOnTheBull.com. From the instant the home page loads, it’s clear this movement is for everyone in Durham — businesses and residents alike. Per social norms best practices, it’s transparent by design. We want everyone to know what’s being asked of each other. This isn’t about shaming people and starting dramatic fights that get recorded and shared on social media. It’s about demonstrating and celebrating the right behaviors.

Early results are encouraging. But if this is to become a true movement, the “team” that owns this must grow far beyond the Mayor’s office, RRTF, CAH or McKinney. The team must become all of Durham.

I sometimes catch myself dreaming about what might happen if everyone in this country put aside their differences and did the right thing out of love for country. To imagine that we’re all on the same team. Then I wake up encouraged, realizing I live in a city that does just that.