Growing community power
by Peter Donovan (May 2001)
Here in northeast Oregon's Wallowa County, our local economy has depended on the export of commodities — lumber, cattle, and grain. People feel powerless, as if their future is being dictated by outside markets and money, urban environmentalists, and federal regulations.
When you are powerless, you can't hide the fact from the younger generation. They leave. By nature they want a chance to play, on the "A" team perhaps, and to swim with the current instead of against it.
When you are powerless, you depend on others for your money. An eroding tax base increases your dependence on grantwriting. You become adept at depicting the distress of your community, rather than its strengths (except when it comes to selling real estate). Absentee ownership of real property increases.
When you are powerless, you are guaranteed to be in conflict. Here the word development has tended to bring out suspicion, fantasy, avarice, hopelessness, or active resistance, depending on who you talk to. People disagree on what development is, where it comes from, why it occurs, and whether it is a good thing. The phrase sustainable development doesn't help, because people have radically different notions of what sustains what. For some, agriculture sustains civilization. According to others, civilization should sustain agriculture.
Over the years, there have been many efforts in Wallowa County to do something about high unemployment, social problems, degraded riparian conditions, fiscal problems, and more. All too often, these efforts have been characterized by a top-down approach, focused on the problems or symptoms, rather than on the powerlessness itself.
The participants in these efforts are typically capable and well-intentioned people, a subtly designated elite, who by virtue of their professional backgrounds and civic commitment "know" what is best for others. They develop plans and strategies to remedy the deficiencies, problems or symptoms, and weaknesses of the community. They write for grants to fund these programs. They hire executive directors and program officers to run them, and to "educate" the public about the extent of their problems.
The perceptions, knowledge, skills, and techniques to do otherwise were simply not present here. We did not have the language or the tools of thought to deal constructively with power and powerlessness. Foundations and governments were only too happy to fund the problems, in response to our eloquence on our predicament, and this state of affairs limited the power we could acquire for ourselves.
However, two things occurred. We gained some skills, experience, and success in envisioning and running programs, which helped us gain and even share power. We also began to experience some dissatisfaction with the results, and with the way we were looking at the problems.
The Holistic Management decision framework was a crucial turning point for me. But when a community sees itself as controlled by outside forces, as lacking power, setting a holistic goal appears to be an abstract exercise, like a two-dimensional drawing of an "impossible" three-dimensional geometric shape. Most could not see how to get "there" from "here."
Ripples from the Zambezi
One of the notable failures of our linear, needs-based, top-down approach was in economic development, where our county failed to recruit or retain major employers after much effort and expense. In November 1998, after learning about Ernesto Sirolli's Enterprise Facilitation method from Don Nelson, who was then leading the Kellogg-funded Washington State University Holistic Management training project, I was intrigued enough to go to Hastings, Minnesota to visit a project. I spent time with the facilitator there, Ron Toppin, meeting clients and learning about how Enterprise Facilitation worked. Martha Sirolli gave me a copy of Ernesto's book, which I read at one long sitting in a coffee shop in White Bear Lake (Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies, New Society Publishers 1999).
Here was a path we could follow in Wallowa County that would create new economic activity quickly and cheaply. Here was a practical and proven social technology for allowing passionate individual entrepreneurs, rather than speculators and planners, to chart the future. By encouraging development from within, by building on our strengths of creativity, resourcefulness, intelligence, skill, and commitment, by helping serious people build a foundation of sound management under their ideas (rather than using incentives to create often-rickety superstructures), we would grow power locally, and begin to resolve some of our conflicts about development.
In February 1999, Sirolli came to Enterprise. He outlined his background, philosophy, and method to 25 people in the basement of the town library. I made 30 audiotape copies of a speech Sirolli had given in Spokane. A diversity of people understood the message and were galvanized by it. These were liberals and conservatives, people on every side of issues such as the New Economy, growth, and development.
A self-selected core group of about a dozen people met monthly, with a good deal of additional interested participation. We used the consensus circle, asking ourselves, What is the situation with regard to economic development here, What are the worst possible outcomes of change, What are the best possible outcomes, and What are the beliefs, behaviors, strategies, and actions needed to foster the best possible outcomes. This was a simple way of testing whether the Sirolli Institute's community package would move us in the direction of our best outcomes.
We decided that it would, although we had some issues around the expense and the meaning of engaging an outside consultant to help us move in that direction. Again, this was about power. Would engaging an outside consultant really change things for us and our community? Would this be a series of seminars or strategy sessions, interesting perhaps, but only resulting in plans and documents that sat on a shelf? Did we need to do it on our own, to "reinvent the wheel"?
Some people called board members and facilitators of projects in the Midwest. We built confidence that the Enterprise Facilitation strategy would work for us, and Sirolli came again to Wallowa County in November 1999 and spoke to more people, enlarging our circle. We began to fundraise the $170,000 needed for a two-year trial. We concluded that in making the radical shift from top-down to a bottom-up approach, we could lessen our risk by engaging an outside authority who had developed through experience a proven and cost-effective method. The "packaging" — the community operations manuals and the training provided to board and facilitator by Sirolli — has helped to protect our effort against the tendency to seek control, to suppress diversity, and to implement projects from the top down.
The interest and cooperation of positional leadership has been crucial. Sirolli's passionate advocacy of an empowerment approach to development threatens some traditionalist economic development professionals. Lisa Lang, our local economic development director, was an active proponent from the start, and raised much of the money needed for our project from state and federal government grants.
Four months after Myron Kirkpatrick, our full-time facilitator, hit the ground here, we have several startups and expansions in the wings. (Baker County to the south also began an Enterprise Facilitation project after Sirolli's visit to them in February 1999, and preceded us in fundraising and implementing it. Their facilitator, Ruth Townsend, has helped with 13 startups so far.) We are trying to shift our funding base to include more local and private-sector dollars in order to take responsibility more fully and to grow power.
The power of beliefs
The primary barriers to the practice of Enterprise Facilitation are beliefs — for example, that the people in your community are not creative or resourceful, that they must be told what to do, and that development comes from somewhere else. Or, that private enterprise will always seek to damage natural and social capital in order to prosper, and that "sustainability" is therefore achieved through control.
The crisis of sustainability won't be resolved without addressing development too. As Jane Jacobs observes, "Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo."
What helped us go forward is our local sense of the "entrepreneurial revolution" — the aforementioned creativity, resourcefulness, and commitment, the sense that people across the social and political spectrum are increasingly committed to right livelihoods.
Like many areas in the rural West, Wallowa County is at a pivot point about power. For twenty years we have implemented programs from the top down. These have helped build the necessary skills, knowledge, and commitment. Now we are able to try something different, in a conscious manner, while taking advantage of what we have learned.
Finally, the implementation of Enterprise Facilitation requires champions or leaders who see the possibilities and can help others see them, who understand that the primary barriers are beliefs that are disguised as fact and experience. Who these people turn out to be may surprise you, as will the motivated people with ideas who will come forward.
In changing beliefs, an effective technology helps. Galileo's telescope played an important role in the collapse of the belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Enterprise Facilitation, by making competent management coaching available to the grassroots, is showing itself to be an effective technology for empowering people who have dreams for a better life, and for helping people see each other's assets.