News & Media

Kelly Ryan: Become informed. Get engaged. Betting on the people of south Wood County

Mon. Aug 15, 2016

Incourage believes that a healthy community is an informed and engaged community. We’ve worked in partnership with John S. and James L. Knight Foundation since 2009, to understand and invest in the connected concepts of information and engagement as key drivers of economic health and the vitality of a community.

A recent example of this work is a partnership with Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) to co-host “Community for Us, By Us,” elevating the voice and opinion of all residents on community issues that matter to them. The first two meetings surfaced three priorities:  Creating a Public Forum for Authentic Dialogue on Community Issues, Community Aquatics and Downtown Development.

Simultaneously, the South Wood County YMCA and City of Wisconsin Rapids were separately pursuing action on the issue of aquatic facilities. They presented options to the public on July 26 (Wisconsin Rapids Aquatics Options Presentation 7-26-16).

It’s unfortunate, however, that the options were presented as seemingly mutually exclusive – one or the other – with no opportunity to ask questions, clarify information or voice opinions. Attendees were told to submit questions online or to call a council member to express an opinion. Given the format and delivery of the presentations, an “apples to apples” comparison of the information was difficult and a polarizing frame was created – are you for indoor or outdoor?

The third WIPPS Meeting was held on August 9. An engaged group of 44 individuals showed up to discuss aquatics – not to talk about indoor versus outdoor options, rather, to fully explore this as a community issue.

Various opinions and perspectives were represented with civil dialogue and respect. Assumptions and questions were surfaced, including “How do we understand the options presented and make informed comparisons? What are the sources of funds and specifics of financing?  How can we assure aquatics are available to all? Is this really a choice of indoor versus outdoor facilities? How can we have both?” The process also encouraged individuals to think with a broader lens on the issue: to assess their own interest in aquatics, the benefit to the community and the impact on future generations. I encourage you to review the WIPPS Meeting report.

The issue of aquatics also presents an important learning opportunity that can inform future progress. In the last fifteen years, there has been research, leadership development projects and citizen action groups formed, all to address aquatics. Yet all failed to come to fruition. This is not a statement to cast blame. It is a statement that invites inquiry and examination of how we address community issues and take action. How do individuals participate?  How do institutions receive input from the broader community and make decisions?  What barriers were encountered in previous efforts? Do they still exist today?

Answering these questions will accelerate our ability to make progress in realizing a community – and an economy – that works well for all. One in which residents are informed and engaged, funders respect the wisdom of the user and don’t exert undue influence to achieve outcomes they believe are best, and organizations are committed to inclusive processes and working together for the common good.


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  • About Incourage

    Established in rural Wisconsin in 1994 to serve the changing needs of the south Wood County area, Incourage has become a nationally-recognized leader in place-based philanthropy and community development. Guided by values of equity, opportunity, and shared stewardship, Incourage envisions a community that works well for all people. One physical manifestation of this vision is the redevelopment of the Tribune building, which demonstrates Incourage’s user-centered approach to growing a strong and inclusive local economy.