I went to Rockford last week with a group of people from Visioning A Greater Racine, a group of people from nonprofits, faith-based groups, business leaders, and government agencies who want to see eastern Racine County grow.

And I have to say that I left with a laundry list of stories to write as the folks with Visioning A Greater Racine want to tackle some pretty big issues in the community, but they also want to do what Rockford is doing: Engage the community to be part of this transformation process.The folks at Rockford called their project Transform Rockford and they are knee-deep in the process of helping their community address problems around education, economic development, public safety and public health.

And while there were definite signs that things are improving — from community-wide volunteer days to new business development — there’s a lot of work still to be done. The kicker is that they are committed to the process, which included doing 52 sessions just to decide their shared values, and talking about what was right and wrong in their community.

Here are some of the takeaways I noted:

  1. People from all parts of the community got involved and stayed involved because they rallied around a set of defined values. This was important to have the same shared language that helped build a cohesive vision for the community. Having shared values serves as the backbone for decision-making of how things will be done and what will be done. It unified people.Take a look at how Rockford rallied around cleaning up its city through an event called Sharefest Rockford.
  2. There will be critics, and impatience. People often wanted a quick fix, but the solutions are often not easy and required gathering advice from a variety of groups. Meanwhile, the public needed to see change. But through transparency, respect for the process and community engagement people started to believe that better days were ahead.
  3. Egos need not apply. When you are trying to change a community from the ground up, you can’t do it alone and you need to engage the best people to do the job. So that means groups needed to play well in the sandbox together. For example: the parks department in Rockford collaborates with a wide-variety of groups including the YMCA, the school district, Boys & Girls Club… everyone. Why? Because they fully believe it benefits the community to work that way.
  4. When trying to solve difficult issues, there were people in Rockford who didn’t trust the transformation process. And because that lack of trust ran deep, the only solution was to consistently deliver on promises over time to show a high level of commitment.
  5. They met people where they were in their neighborhood. So that meant sometimes meeting on Sundays and different times of the day to maximize attendance, making sure interpreters were on hand who could translate, and listening to them even when the dialogue sometimes got heated.

But I think one of the biggest things that needs to happen in eastern Racine County: We can no longer afford to operate as if our decisions don’t affect adjacent communities. We may live in Caledonia, Racine, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant, North Bay, Wind Point, and Elmwood Park, but we need Racine’s unemployment rate and generational poverty issues to get addressed. We need Racine, Sturtevant, Mount Pleasant and Caledonia to continue attracting business.

And when we don’t address issues around health, unemployment, education, public safety and transportation there are very real consequences that impact people and businesses. That’s why it’s important to ask: What change do we want to see in eastern Racine County?

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.