Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Futures // 3FUT1

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Project Future: Vision-Based Community Development

Ask a group of people about the 21st century and the response will typically be a pause accompanied by blank stares. Most people live in a nitty-gritty world of immediate decisions and actions with little time or ability to look far ahead. When concerned citizens bring this perspective to improving their community, they want to see immediate problems solved. But, a focus on the nitty-gritty mold isn't enough to address many long-term community issues.

Lorilee R. Sandmann
Director, West Central Regional Exchange
Michigan State University-Grand Rapids

Jay Kroshus
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota-Minneapolis

Ask a group of people about the 21st century and the response will typically be a pause accompanied by blank stares. Most people live in a nitty-gritty world of immediate decisions and actions with little time or ability to look far ahead. When concerned citizens bring this perspective to improving their community, they want to see immediate problems solved. But, a focus on the nitty-gritty mold isn't enough to address many long- term community issues.

Project Future

In 1988, the University of Minnesota Extension Service designed a comprehensive, long-term community self-renewal program named Project Future, which called for the development of a 20-year community vision as a blueprint for community action. This sounds like a prescription for nonparticipation, but exactly the opposite is true. What began as informal get-togethers in the basements of town halls and churches is now touching the lives of thousands throughout Minnesota. Project Future communities have recaptured a sense of pride, empowerment, and opportunity in towns and cities where five years ago businesses and people were leaving.

Citizens in dozens of Minnesota communities are using the flexible framework of Project Future to successfully design and build their communities of the 21st century. The ownership of this project has led the citizens to rediscover the positive attitudes and sense of togetherness that built these communities a century ago. Extension faculty and the entire University of Minnesota community provide these citizens with resources and help, but only when the citizens ask.

Project Future is more than economic development and creation of jobs. It's a holistic approach to creating an environment conducive to continual community vitality. The four stages of Project Future are designed to close gaps in existing community development programs by using well-established principles from research on effective community development processes.

Four-Step Process to the Future

Project Future is designed as a four-step model to develop a continual, forward-moving approach for citizens to take action and create their desired community. The first of the four steps involves citizens examining their present community and choosing to renew it at a "Sense of Community" meeting. If enough community volunteers choose to join a steering committee at an initial meeting with county and area agents, then that community begins the Project Future Community Self-Renewal Program. If enough citizens choose not to volunteer, the program doesn't happen.

The second step is a community process where citizens define the community they want in the year 2010. To achieve diversity and develop new community leaders, Project Future sets a goal of 50% participation of the community's citizens in this process. Though this may seen to be an ambitious goal, citizens have continually met and surpassed the 50% target. More than 500 citizens of Stephen, a town of 848, attended a Project Future meeting in 1988. Stephen citizens have taken ownership of this project. People of all ages, including school-age children and the elderly, actively participated. In several communities, young people have played a critical role in engaging the elderly by interviewing them and developing intergenerational perspectives. These discussions are open and diverse, covering any topic that concerns any citizen pertaining to the community's strengths and weaknesses. The citizens define the important characteristics for their community of the future.

The result of this process is a two- to three-page vision statement that's presented at public meetings. This statement is brief and easy to understand, so all citizens can refer to it as their own blueprint of the future. Often the community's vision statement is printed or broadcast by local media to help spur discussion within the community. The citizens vote on its approval. If rejected, the statement is revised until approved. Once adopted, the vision becomes the map for the citizens to undertake many short- and long-term community improvement projects.

Project Future's third step creates and implements citizen action to bring about the community vision. Citizen action can take many forms. Citizen-action teams directly undertake projects that wouldn't be addressed by other existing groups within the community. However, existing organizations contribute by reviewing the statement and doing some of the projects adopted in the vision. Project Future steering committees recommend and suggest to local governments (school, city, township, and county) actions and projects that will contribute to bringing about a community's vision. Citizens organize community foundations or funds to fund projects that will contribute to the community's vision goals. The Project Future steering committee develops a strategy using these and other approaches.

In this third stage of Project Future, university faculty have a particularly important role. The Extension agent within Project Future could be best described as that of a holistic steward: the agent connects the community with the Extension Service and the entire university. The university gives technical help and consulting only when the citizens themselves feel they're ready for the support and request it. Rather than furnishing existing information to the communities, the Extension agent helps develop new research at the direction of the citizens. For example, university faculty used university computers in developing databases on the educational and employment skill levels of several communities. Campus-based faculty have also helped design community-directed surveys.

Establishing a permanent, umbrella organization for ongoing citizen-directed community improvement is the final stage in the Project Future process. The steering committee is most likely to evolve this type of community nonprofit organization that continues to appoint citizen action teams, work with local government, and, when needed, re-engage the community to update the vision. One Project Future community has already established a community nonprofit organization to manage funds specifically to attain its Project Future vision.

Project Future Results

After learning of the early success of five pilots and the help of Extension faculty, 16 more Minnesota communities volunteered to become Project Future communities in 1989 and 30 more became involved in 1990. One of the keys to the project's success is the flexibility it allows citizens. Communities are discovering that Project Future can function in cooperation with other similar community programs or address needs that other organizations can't. Specific economic development programs, civic pride, and community beautification groups can all function alongside or under the Project Future umbrella.

Project Future communities show results. A center conceived by, staffed by, and operated for teens was part of the Stephen community vision and is now a reality. A local newspaper was reborn in another community only four weeks after it had printed its "last issue." Economic development programs have been organized in several communities. Community theater has begun in one place and a fresh look at local festivals was undertaken by citizens in another. Community heritage societies have been producing community history calendars and books. Community history is also being incorporated into the local school curriculum. A Project Future county created a wildlife education center as one step in a lake restoration project.

Because Project Future is an interdisciplinary program, Extension faculty have tapped into the vast resources of a land- grant institution. While not yet accessing all departments, inroads have been made with faculty from community design and planning, educational policy, economics, engineering, landscape architecture, housing, and public affairs embracing the project's comprehensive strategy. Some faculty and students have become involved in Project Future communities through classes or internships.

Lessons Learned

The first lesson learned is about the process. Project Future's early success lies within the engagement process. Even though many of Project Future communities have fewer than 2,000 citizens, many experienced first-ever public meetings where school board members sat with local government officials and business leaders to discuss how to improve their communities. These were forums for existing leaders to meet and for new leaders to emerge. Youth were integral to the process. Indeed, in many cases, the youth can be leaders in the community-wide planning process.

We've also learned lessons about citizen-led futuring. Citizens are capable, with guidance, of developing community visions. They can move beyond the nitty-gritty way of thinking only about immediate, concrete problems. Alternative future scenarios as a community futuring technique was replaced by the vision-creating exercise to allow for broader-based participation. When a vision is produced, it can only provide direction, as well as energize the group toward its accomplishment. We also found that citizens soon learn how long- term thinking can link with short-term goals to achieve both.

Some communities have suffered from the re-emergence of short-term, nitty-gritty thinking following the adoption of a community vision statement. Special efforts must be made for community leaders and Extension agents to keep a community focused on long-term as well as short-term community development goals.

Implications for Extension

In addition to doing community development, Project Future has been involved with staff and organizational development within the university. University, Extension, and Project Future faculty have joined citizens as adult learners:

  • Project Future leaders and Extension agents have realized they can act as catalysts for change and facilitators under a citizen-directed agenda. Extension professionals must listen to the community and respond to its requests within the Project Future framework, rather than tell a community what it should do. The project has been an intense capacity-building experience for most staff involved.

  • Vision statements and citizen action plans provide specific requests from which non-Extension faculty can be recruited.

  • Community vision statements and citizen action plans spur many requests for specific help and research that demand a rapid response. Faculty have learned to join in creating that response with citizens-to initiate community interactive research.

  • Some types of help are better provided through government agencies and other educational institutions. Extension doesn't have to provide all help.

  • Educators must learn to "work with" the future. To do so requires considerable interaction with people, trends, ideas, and lots of "what-if" thinking. Few Extension professionals are presently prepared to model future-focused thinking that provides a demonstration of the utility and life impact of future skills and outlook.

The rekindled spirit that Project Future has developed in many Minnesota communities is best described by one of the citizens. When asked if Ellendale, Minnesota was going to die, a 78-year-old resident said, "I don't know, but I do know that if we die, we're going to die trying."