Economic development made plain

In Stevens County in northeast Washington, people are worried about the economy. Several years ago, WalMart came to the town of Colville, and this year's closing of the J. C. Penny store and a large downtown drugstore has Main Street merchants edgy. Employment in natural resources is down. Welfare is up, but it is being reformed to include jobseeking, and there is a lack of wage employment.

Local government agencies have been competing for territory and funding base in trying to solve the "problem" of economic development. The strategies used include trying to recruit industry, tourism development, and economic transition or diversification away from natural resources. People are resentful of change and/or the lack of it, and people seem divided into dissatisfied camps.

Last month I attended a visioning session on economic development in Stevens County. Wayne Madson, the extension agent in Colville, helped bring about the unusual and different meeting. Over a hundred people volunteered their Saturday, beginning at 8 AM, to the session.

A team of facilitators from Washington State University -- Don Nelson, Jeff Goebel, and Janet Schmidt -- made sure that everyone had time to give his or her views on economic development in the area, the worst possible outcomes, the best possible outcomes, and what they can do to foster the best. The facilitators created an environment in which each person was listened to efficiently, respectfully, and patiently in response to all questions. They warned us that the take-charge people among us, who already "knew" the answers, might feel impatient with the process.

We broke up into small groups to answer the questions and to carefully record each other's answers. The groups were selected to maintain diversity of opinion. My group included a single mother, a county commissioner, a bank manager, a farmer, a telecommuter recently arrived in the area, a World War II veteran, and a staffer for the County Fair Board. The focus was on listening to each other, and because of that people were able to share what was important to them. How much time do we spend listening to those who are likely to disagree with us? It was hard work, but refreshing and uniquely informative.

At the close of the meeting, each group reported their observations about the result. Most people, including some economic-development professionals, felt that people were now more inclined to participate in the creation of Stevens County's future. One county commissioner said, "We did today what we've been trying to do for three years -- to set a real direction, with some momentum." A student majoring in political science at Washington State University reported that he learned more during the meeting than in an entire semester at school.

People were excited about the emerging consensus that people wanted the same things in their lives. Instead of remaining dismayed that problems were insoluble because of different viewpoints, people walked out thinking of new potentials, new possibilities for moving forward with respect for everyone's concerns and values.

If the product of the meeting was different, so was the process. Everyone participated, everyone was heard -- not just the boldest, most powerful, most aggressive, or most aggrieved speakers. People got to know and respect each other better. It was a people-centered process, rather than one centered on an agenda, a policy or position, or a vote.

Nobody told people the answers, described a range of acceptable answers in advance, or set up a framework into which answers must fit. As people began to really listen to each other, rather than collecting ammunition to shoot down all but their own views, the finger-pointing and blaming seemed to be on hold. What I saw was a major increase in the capacity of a community to work together, to add value to each other's work.

As Don Nelson said, if we keep doing things the same way, we'll continue to get the same results. This consensus-seeking process does not result in compromise or splitting the difference. For people from a wide variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, it creates a respectful environment where we can see ourselves, rather than others, as starting points for positive change -- and that, even in a few people, is a powerful creative force.