Leicester lessons: Change to stay the same

The Leicester city motto is “Semper Eadum.” Depending on whom you ask, it means either “always the same” or “always steadfast.” My trip there showed me the city clearly lives up to the latter and made me ponder the irony of the former.

Here is a place with a history stretching back 2000 years. And it is indeed home to many things that are old, but it’s also at the forefront of what is new in the UK. Next year, Leicester hosts the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort and the formation of the first parliament. It is also the most ethnically diverse city in the UK and, according to some, the most diverse in all of Europe.

At every stop I saw new with old.

I visited the Caterpillar manufacturing plant, which has cranked out backhoes and earth moving equipment since 1952, and met the newest batch of apprentices who are learning 21st-century manufacturing skills. Some will be hired on full time, and others will take their certificates and training to other employment.

I told one of the young women in the program that I would be visiting the Leicester High School for Girls later in the day and asked her if she had any advice for the girls. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. She had been told that girls didn’t pursue engineering certificates, but that was her goal. So, unafraid, she did it anyway.

The plant recently brought back work and jobs from Asia to ramp up production for the European market.

Next stop was the Guildhall and Cathedral with Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. We saw the plans for new media center, where the BBC TV folks tried their best to lure me into the Leicester vs. York debate on the remains of Richard III. I gave them the boring but true answer that it’s certainly not for an American diplomat to decide, and Leicester will remain fascinating no matter what the courts say.

The archeologist walked me through the work that had been done. It reminded me of a story that University of Louisville professor John Hale told me about the first archaeologist in the Spanish caves of Altamira, who went in to find artifacts. His name was Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he had brought his young daughter Maria with him. He looked down and got to work scraping and digging and doing what archaeologists do. Not Maria. She looked up instead. “Papa, what are those animals on the ceiling?” She discovered the cave paintings of Altamira.

A new way of looking can open up possibilities. That’s how Leicester is looking at its diversity. I met with interfaith leaders and Jonathan Ashworth MP to discuss the networks that have been built and what is and isn’t working.

We went to de Montfort University and saw preparations for the 750th anniversary. It’s where Queen Elizabeth II launched her Diamond Jubilee, and where the team from Pudding Lane Productions made their prize-winning depiction of 17th century London before the Great Fire.

The trip reminded me of seemingly-paradoxical truth. In order to stay the same in terms of values one must change. Producers of packaged goods like Quaker Oats know this. The customer thinks the label has “never changed” but it has been carefully modified little by little over time so the perception of the company’s values will remain the same despite the changing styles and tastes of customers. If you do nothing, you’ve changed.

On the train home I was greeted with emails from York hoping I hadn’t taken sides and kindly inviting me there. And, indeed, I’ll be there in May. But the takeaway from my trip to Leicester was not about a contest. It was the power of combining new and old, and a reminder that to keep what’s old takes work.