Born out frustration because it was dubbed the third most miserable community in the country by Forbes Magazine in 2013, Rockford knew it needed to change. The community had experienced 30 years of decline in manufacturing, employment was high at 11.2 percent, and it had high property taxes. In short, its past is Racine’s present. So a number of business owners, city and county administrators, heads of volunteer organizations, and a number of other stakeholders from Racine, Sturtevant and Caledonia trekked to Rockford for a two-day conference that focused on how Rockford Illinois is transforming itself. The visit is part of Visioning a Greater Racine, which is focused in reproducing a long-term transformation of eastern Racine County. What they learned so far: Transforming a community needs to happen from the ground up. Over the past three years, Rockford engaged 100s of volunteers to work on a visioning process that established shared values that have helped unify its effort to tackle key problems.  The volunteers engaged businesses, faith-based groups, nonprofit agencies and government to develop strategies, which included improving graduation rates, reducing crime, developing a qualified workforce and addressing quality of life issues. The shared values included words like inclusion, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, ideation, and interconnectedness. Blake Musser, a Rockford resident that is involved with the initiative, said the visioning process focused on engaging as much of the community as possible and it was necessary to build the foundation for a number of key initiatives. “We had several meetings over the years where people would bring up new words and people would bring in words like morality… but having that open dialogue was important,” he said. “…People were realizing that we were taking them seriously for the first time or the perceived first time.” The process included meeting people where they are, which meant that they needed to identify key groups and the leaders of those groups. Brooke Honzel, a Rockford resident who is a senior in high school, was one of those participants. She said she got involved in the visioning process because it included students ages 14 to 18-years-old. “Through the visioning process they talked about our community’s shared values, which included respect,” Honzel said. “And I was asked to be part of this committee and I’ve always been treated with respect.” Tom Buhler, who owns Racine-based Butter Buds and heads up Visioning a Greater Racine, asked how Rockford got the community to buy in to the visioning process and achieve buy in. Musser said it came down to modeling the key behaviors the group wanted to see, but also in holding each other accountable to the shared values it had identified. “By keeping ourselves in check with those shared values, it shows that we take this seriously,” Musser said. “But we also got buy in because we asked for input. We went around to different locations around the city… we held 52 visioning sessions…. so the individual community members knew they were heard in the first place.” Julie Hueller, of Wheaton Franciscan asked: is our community ready for this level of collaboration? “I hopes yes,” she said.    

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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.