News & Media

Kelly Ryan: Putting People at the Center: Establishing, Restoring and Growing Trust

Tue. May 23, 2017

Trust in ourselves, each other and community institutions is vital to long-term positive change

The divisive mood and behavior of our country is eroding the very thing that is essential to our vitality: trust. We are near record lows on measurements of ‘trust’ in many areas according to Gallup, Pew Research Centers and others. Lack of trust in media, news and information sources. Lack of trust in government. Lack of trust in institutions and each other.

We can identify with this in central Wisconsin. When economic crisis struck our community 17 years ago, there was no clear path forward. The sense of loss – which included jobs and a company headquarters – was palpable. The accompanying uncertainty, fear and anxiety did not engender collaborative behaviors or trusting relationships. In retrospect, trust is what we needed the most and it was in the shortest supply. Not unlike what we are experiencing in our nation today.

Incourage began our trust building efforts in 2005. Our goal: increase individual and collective action to rebuild a strong, local economy in a community that works well for all people. We offered leadership training programs that equipped residents with the skills, tools and knowledge to build trusting relationships. We supported study tours that fostered relationship development among participants, created shared knowledge and motivated new thinking. We coordinated a civility initiative. We co-created norms and collaborative guiding principles for community initiatives with partners and vendors. We helped businesses identify shared value propositions and mutual interests, and establish norms that guided their relationships with one another. We invested in approaches that integrate adaptive skills into school curriculum. We changed our own policies and practices for authenticity and values-alignment.

Incourage evaluated and applied what we learned through these efforts to our organizational strategy, understanding that “building trust” and “authentically engaging residents in shaping the future of their community” was central to achieving our goal.

The Tribune Building embodies this learning. It is more than a building. It represents a user-centered approach to growing a community – one in which we trust, value and respect each other. We began by asking the community a simple question: what do you want this building to be? This question launched a multi-year process of engaging residents and helping them gain confidence, skills to build trusting relationships and a sense of ownership for the future of our community.

Incourage has learned a lot about listening, building trust and the importance of user participation in community decision-making and economic development strategies through the Tribune process. We’ve also learned about and experienced the challenge of changing old practices. 

Putting people at the center and building trust is not easy, a quick fix or short-term work. It requires intentionality and long-term commitment. We believe, however, it is “the work” that must be done if we are to realize a sense of unity and shared purpose in our neighborhoods, institutions, communities and nation.   


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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.