Shaping the Future

It seems as if Nancy Mohr's entire life has been about other people.

From working in advertising to running capital campaigns to her current position as Executive Director of Chester Country 2020, Mohr has spent the better part of her life working closely with people.

But as director of 2020, Mohr's people skills are really put to the test.

Started in 1996 as an offshoot of the Chester County's Landscapes conservation program, Chester County 2020 helps create opportunities for discussions and promote dialogue around issues of planning and growth within Chester County.

According to Mohr, 2020's goal is to try and engage people in any community into determining their future, by putting the decisions in their hands.

2020's role is to be objective with the results and present them in a fashion that narrows the focus through a variety of "Community Conversations."

"We have no agenda, and we don't take on projects ourselves," Mohr explained. "We support others in meeting their goals."

Anyone who is even remotely active in local public affairs has likely seen Mohr and 2020 in action. At the height of the debates over the new Unionville High School, Mohr was there. When the fate of the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library was first discussed, Mohr was there, too.

The process of the Community Conversations is deceptively simple. It starts with getting the constituents together - in anywhere from groups of 30 to 200 - and then making sure that the opponents and proponents of any particular project aren't all sequestered together. In fact, Mohr said, breaking the groups apart is essential to the communication process.

Mohr explained that most of what 2020 does is create a dynamic where ideas are exchanged with the goal of reaching a consensus. Participants are encouraged to imagine the "preferred future" of the topic at hand, whether it's a new high school in Unionville or the future of the Bayard Taylor Library in Kennett.

"We ask, what are the benefits, who are the players and are the action items," Mohr said,

Questions are posed: what do people want to see happen? What are the problems they see facing their communities? Once the people start talking, Mohr then takes them though an exercise where all the major points concerning the project are brought out - the good, the bad and the ugly.

"No idea is so out of the box that it won't be addressed," Mohr said.

These ideas are placed on large sheets of paper that break them down into the simplest of terms. In turn, the pages are then mounted on the walls and the attendees are invited to place one of five "dots" in front of those ideas they most agree with.

When its over and all the dots have been placed, Mohr tabulates the numbers and produces a complex report for the organizers that is somewhat more than simply tallying up which idea got the most dots.

And while the "dot exercise" is a good way to assess the data collected during the conference, the true value is the exchange of ideas that takes place in the process, Mohr said.

"We like to say we're finding common ground with uncommon resolve," she said. "And it works."

There's also the opportunity for municipal officials to hear from a broader range of a constituency that is usually only heard from when there's a problem somewhere.

The meetings generally take up to four hours, and although it sounds like a long time, Mohr said that usually, the attendees are hesitant to leave at the end of the night.

"People come in a little skeptical, and then they find that it really is an energizing exercise to go through," she said.

Keeping interested parties separated is also a key factor, Mohr said, like splitting up husbands and wives or people who are already aligned with a particular side on an issue and placing them with random strangers. Doing this, Mohr said, actually generates more ideas as people are more inclined to speak their minds, even though they may be outside their comfort zone.

While it may sound like a recipe for a full-on confrontation between warring parties, Mohr said that she has never seen that occur. In fact, people most times are at their best behavior, something she contributes to the openness of the proceedings.

"We knows it exists," Mohr said of the animosity. "But if you create diverse groups like this, you diffuse it. Think of it as a snowball that gets bigger as it rolls downhill. But if you only have a flake here and flake there, it's not going to get quite so big.

In well-known cases like the Unionville High School renovation, where lines have been clearly divided throughout the community, Mohr said it was fear that there would be some form of confrontation that kept 2020 from being a part of their debates in the first place.

For her part, Mohr loves to run the Community Conversations, although generating the reports can take several hours. However, she says the effort is worth it.

"People are my dynamic. I like people, I like meeting new people and I like helping them help themselves and a tremendous amount of information is generated from these meetings," she said.

The meetings also go beyond stirring debate and promoting discourse; they also present a chance for municipal leaders and community members to network in a fashion that benefits everyone.

"There are so many resources in every community that are so difficult to tap into to, but if you can bring them together for one evening and get them to concentrate, you get months worth of productivity," Mohr said.

It seems like a lot, but the bottom line is clear to Mohr.

"All of this is people," she said. "And I really feel that, if you gain from your community, then you have a responsibility to give back to that community, and everyone does it in their own way. That's what 2020 is about - encouraging people to take responsibility and give back in a non-demanding way."

In the past few years, 2020 has conducted Community Conversations for the Borough of Kennett Square, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, a review of the Route 1 corridor with the Chester County Planning Commission and the first "Keep Farming First" farm-centered Community Conversation.

The organization is non-profit, having recently established its own separate entity apart from the Landscapes umbrella just last year. To learn more about 2020 and its various programs, visit www.cc2020.org.

comments powered by Disqus