Guest commentary: Multi-generational effort needed to overcome divisions

Oct. 19, 2013

Partnership brings attention to goals

In February 2012, the 240 attendees at the two-day Brown County 20/20 Envisioning the Future conference generated goals for the community to achieve by the end of the decade.
The visions are grouped around education, overcoming division, economic development, personal and community health and self-sufficiency.
This year, a similar number of people are involved in task forces working to translate the goals into measurable actions. Press-Gazette Media will publish their summar reports through the end of 2013.
A complete look at the ongoing effort is available at


The Bay Area Community Council’s Overcoming Divisions working group was charged by the Brown County 2020 conference in February 2012 with finding ways of overcoming social, political, economic and cultural issues.

Of specific concern was an increase shown in the 2011 Life Study of growing doubt about the positive impact of diversity, declining trust, and greater polarization among political, economic and age groups.

More stories about the Brown County 20/20: Envisioning the Future project.

In the initial phase of its work, the committee invited community members experienced with cultural diversity, with political polarization, and with being marginalized by the mainstream. We learned from a presentation of the Oshkosh Civility Project, which involved “practicing a basic commitment to civility, where we learn and grow from one another — even in disagreement.” We explored the role of dignity in resolving conflict, common misunderstandings among different cultures, and the importance of getting below the surface level to close cultural gaps.

We also met with the presidents of St. Norbert College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to share concerns and discuss initiatives to raise awareness of diversity issues in the community and create opportunities for students to become involved.

We are now beginning the next phase by designing a community development approach, which we believe holds the best promise of overcoming divisions. It is called Appreciative Inquiry. It is a process that begins with appreciating what is best about Brown County. One of the advantages of this approach is that, as surveys over the years show, residents by and large “love it here.”

Appreciative Inquiry asks us to first discover what is best. The second stage is about what might be, to dream, and to dream big what life in Brown County might be! In the Appreciative Inquiry process, the dreaming of the best leads to a designing stage where participants begin to construct a future that fulfills the aspirations of the dream. This process breaks down socially constructed barriers, triggers the imagination, and opens access and relationships across the community. It empowers and mobilizes positive support to act towards the destiny.

Traditional problem-solving begins with identifying the problem and analyzing the causes, followed by an analysis of possible solutions and finally action planning. A major drawback of this approach is that it leads to finger pointing, blaming, and defensive behavior. Even when a solution is found and implemented, the organization’s overall performance will not be appreciably improved.

Appreciative Inquiry stands the problem-solving model on its head and begins with appreciating and valuing the best of what is, envisioning what might be, discussing what should be and acting to realize the dream.

Appreciative Inquiry has an impressive record of success in transforming organizations from local communities and multinational corporations, to global non-government organizations.

We believe that to begin to overcome divisions, to close these gaps and have a positive role in shaping the future, it is imperative to involve three generations and a cross-section of Brown County residents to overcome discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, economic status, ageism, and social isolation of the elderly.

The youth of Brown County will have a key role throughout the process. While the county currently has a minority population of about 15 percent, there are now just fewer than 40 percent minority students in the Green Bay schools. By 2020 the visible demographic composition of the community will have changed. Seniors will constitute a larger share of the population and the community will be less white.

If Brown County is able to embrace solutions to its social, cultural and other divisions, it will be in a stronger position to hold and attract its workforce of the future.

Littig is professor emeritus of political science at the the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and chairman of the BACC Overcoming Divisions working group.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports