Milwaukee: Transformation in Process

Marquette University has launched a series of workshops aimed at uniting Milwaukee residents and institutions in guided conversations that foster community collaboration and progress.

Called the Community Transformation Project, the program began nine years ago with a study group that wanted to build an ethical leadership center — a community meeting place that could house conversations and collaboration. Having such a place could ease racial tensions and empower local citizens.  After a few years of development the university produced the pilot project that continues today.  Its leaders are experimenting with asset mapping, guided conversations, monthly meetings, and other processes.

The movement gained momentum as a stewardship team of five university staff members and five community members searched the neighborhood for its most well-connected, influential residents.  They went to all the local hubs — barbers, beauty shops, and bars, as well as local grassroots organizations — to find people eager to revive the community.  The team relied solely on communication by word-of-mouth and email and was successful in building up a healthy membership of more than 400 people, who were divided into action teams according to their interests and strengths.  About 100 of the most committed members underwent training to become community transformers, learning how to effectively connect people, associations and institutions; to lead an action team; and to guide monthly conversations.

These monthly conversations are held at various sites across the city: community centers, banks, ecology centers, and the like.  Usually they attract about 50 participants, 30 of them regulars. The talks are based on a specific formula for public conversations called the Community Conversation Methodology, developed by the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, based on the work of the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Four basic questions guiding the monthly conversations

The methodology lays out the process of inviting people into the conversation and offers four basic questions to guide it:


  • What’s good about where we are?
  • What’s at the heart of the matter?
  • What are our biggest challenges and hopes?
  • How can we address them?


Usually this discussion spans up to three meetings and results in a clear plan of action.

Another essential part of the meetings is the creation of an asset map.  Picture a large poster with six columns.

Asset Map

Persons Associations Corporations & Institutions Resources Weavers Stories
Supporters, and their ideas and connections Non-profits, other loosely organized groups Universities,

for-profits, better-organized groups

Buildings, equipment, vehicles, land, and money available to team and community Well-informed people, networkers, connectors (i.e. teachers, local business owners) Stories, testimonies, metaphors, images that capture the spirit of the community


The purpose of these maps is to identify and connect all the team’s assets and thus maximize the force of the plan.  This simple approach works well for projects of any scale.

Beyond the monthly conversations, the Transformation Project hosts other events.  Twice a year, it shows a video compilation of stories told by community transformers about their experiences on the project.  A “seed dating” event brings people together to exchange seeds, and continues to feed a booming urban agriculture movement.

The project also maintains a unique connection to the arts.  At the local Playback Theater, an acting troupe performs short, funny, and thought-provoking enactments related to a common subject, such as sustainability.  The actors then ask an audience member to share an experience they’ve had about the theme, for example, a way in which they reduce their environmental impact.  The troupe acts out this experience, then broadens the conversation to the larger issue, and acts out the audience members’ ideas about it.  This practice is meant to remind participants of the importance of their ideas and to draw them into the public conversation.

There are also occasional one- to two-day DesignShop programs in which participants put intensive work into creating a proposal to build a Center for Community Transformation.  The construction of a physical base for the project is an essential next step and, if approved by the University Leadership Council, should be built this year or next.

Focus on gifts and connections inspired by The Abundant Community 

Many of the project’s basic values and strategies were directly inspired by The Abundant Community, which many of the members have read.  For example, the guided conversations closely resemble the book’s model for a connectors’ table, at which community connectors identify and build upon local gifts.  The asset maps also recall this concept.

The project also incorporates Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which identifies several different “types” of intelligence, such as logical-mathematical or interpersonal intelligence.  The theory replaces the question “How smart are you?” with “How are you smart?”  This mindset helps remind participants that everyone involved has something beneficial to offer to the cause.

The leaders of the Community Transformation Project are still exploring new territory and can’t predict exactly where the project will go, but they have received a lot of positive feedback about its value.  Bob Pavlik, one of the founding members, says he has experienced a surprising amount of self-growth and has learned to step back and listen during a conversation.

What they are doing right now, one leader says, should lead to a more connected and thriving community

“This is a system where what we are doing right now should be permeating all discourse in various sectors of the metropolitan area,” he said in a recent article on the development of the Center for Community Collaboration in Axiom News. “It’s hopeful, it’s honest, there’s networking, there’s sharing of abundance. There is a sharing of gifts because we’ve embraced the principles of how to build abundance.”

As the project continues, this realization should spread to more and more locals looking for a more connected and thriving community.

For more perspective of how it’s working in Milwaukee, read Jennifer Neutel’s Building Communities Engaged in Abundant Conversation and Creating Abundant, Collaborative Communities in Milwaukee; also see


Photo: Jeremy Jannene


About the Lead Author

Meredith McNair
Meredith McNair
Meredith McNair hails from Cincinnati, Ohio and was an intern with in the summer of 2011. She is now a full-time student on an academic scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, where she majors in urban studies.

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