Future Search The Method

Preparing for the Future Begins with Today's Youth
By: Sandra Janoff

Teens in the United States, for the most part, have no role in civic society and have little opportunity to develop leadership skills in real community activities. This is a story of an effort to change that: a youth future search in SW Michigan where 50 teenagers, sparked with interest and a sense of ownership, figured out ways to contribute to a healthier, safer, stronger community.

In April 2003, four FSN members - Belinda Manning, Peter Hardie, Kenoli Oleari, and myself - managed the conference. From the beginning, we were aware of the potential of a youth future search as a way to give teens a voice. In this meeting, young people not only voiced their issues, they talked about what the future could look like and took responsibility for their part in going forward. We all believed deeply in the spirit of the effort and are pleased to share some details.


The Network's connection to Berrien County, Michigan, starts the year before, spring 2002, when we were invited to help eight towns create a world-class, inclusive community.

The five main points in that story follow. (1) St. Joseph's and Benton Harbor, "sister" towns separated by a river, exemplified the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. St. Joseph's is predominantly white, upper middle class, and well resourced. Benton Harbor is black, poor, and without resources. Racial tension and inequities in quality of life have hung heavy for decades. (2) Whirlpool CEO Dave Whitwam told residents 12 months earlier that he would move world headquarters from Benton Harbor if they didn't address these issues as a community because he couldn't attract talent to the region. (3) Whirlpool Foundation hired Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, which surveyed 2,000 residents and created a structure called the Council for World-Class Communities (CWCC). (4) Whitwam, needing to see more concrete action, contacted FSN to run future searches for each of the domains under the CWCC umbrella: education, health care, faith, business, economic development, government, and community outreach. (5) Sixteen FSN members facilitated, eight members documented, and eight provided logistical support for the future searches.

As a result of these future searches, residents across the county went to work on effective transportation and affordable housing, a computer training center in Benton Harbor, arts and cultural activities that included everyone, more integration of school programs, and outreach among church groups. A small group of adults partnered with 25 interested young people, mainly from Benton Harbor, to form a youth domain. In October, Mark Mitchell, an energetic, competent visionary/pragmatist (a man with both qualities), was hired as executive director of CWCC.

Then, in January 2003, we (FSN) got a phone call from Mark saying that the youth domain had successfully run a talent show for the whole community and was talking about its own future search. Would we help? Would we ever! Very soon after this, we began the planning, which took place in February and March. The future search was held soon after on April 26 and 27, 2003.

Planning with Youth

We were adamant about one condition: This future search would succeed only if we had students from across the county. Because most of the students in the youth domain were from Benton Harbor, we knew it would require lots of creativity to attract youth from affluent schools, rural schools, and private schools to provide the broad geographical representation.

There were about eight youngsters on the planning group. All were active, student-leader types, and two of the eight, Dave Whitehead (age 24) and Jamaal Newson (age 20), stepped up as project leaders. Under their wellorganized guidance, the group met two hours every week for 10 weeks. About four adults showed up regularly, but Dave and Jamaal ran the meetings. We, the staff, went out to Michigan for about four meetings and were on a conference call line for the other meetings. We guided Dave and Jamaal, who were unflaggingly committed, through a very difficult process of identifying and inviting participants.

The group created a plan to contact the principals of the different high schools, set up meetings with interested students in the schools, talk to youth groups, recruit friends, and put up flyers. This is the first paragraph of their flyer that went around the county:

Are you sick and tired of not being heard in our community? Would you like to see some changes made that affect you? The Youth & Young Adult domain of the CWCC has been formed to address these issues. Our goals and voices are those of students and youth of the community, not adults. We understand that you are the future of this community! The CWCC would like to invite you to a youth retreat on April 26th & 27th at Lake Michigan College where words will be put into action. The Youth Need to Be Heard!"

We struggled with them about the schedule. Before the invitation process began, our plan was to start Friday after school and run until 8 p.m., all day Saturday, and half a day Sunday. However, once the group started recruiting, we got enormous push-back about Friday. We all finally agreed that it would be too risky to ask teens to come after school on Friday in addition to Saturday and Sunday, so we conceded, extended Saturday to 8 p.m., and held our future searches in two days.

The Future Search Meeting

Saturday morning, 52 teens showed up (100 had signed up), and with 16 adults we had a total of 68 participants. Eight of the adults worked directly with youngsters (a school superintendent, teachers, a family court judge, a police officer from the Berrien County police, youth counselors, and teen leaders) and eight came from the other domains. Although we had planned to run two parallel future searches, we ran only one, and the "right people were in the room" - the young people came from all eight school districts and were of mixed interests, race, gender, and economic background. And they stayed engaged the whole time.


Four young people from the planning committee opened the meeting, and all participants, young and old, got involved in filling in the timelines, working in small groups, and reporting out. So it came as a small surprise to me during the large-group discussion that the adults got into a lively discussion of the issues with no apparent consciousness that the youth weren't speaking. I waited a little, but had to intervene with a comment about making room for the youth, and the light bulb went on. It didn't happen again.

A number of significant connections were made that day, and good energy was flowing. After the prouds and sorries, one 15-year-old boy said, "The adults are saying they are sorry they don't listen to us, the youth are saying we are sorry we don't listen to them. We're all saying the same thing: We've gotta be able to figure out how to work together."

The meeting was titled "Preparing for the Future Begins with the Youth of Today," and the spirit carried over the two days: lots of learning, cross-cultural connections, serious fun during the day, and not-so-serious fun Saturday night. CWCC sponsored a dance party, so from 8-10 p.m. the white kids learned the black kids' dances, and the black kids learned the white kids' dances. On Sunday, those who hadn't stayed for the party got a demonstration.

Reality Dialogue

We used a few variations that I'll describe here:

The mixed groups generated common-ground themes, but we dropped project lists (something that, for a while, Marv and I have been thinking about dropping).* During the reality discussion, Belinda and I set up U-shaped seating in front of the common-ground wall and had the young people sit in the first couple of rows with the adults in the back two rows.

For each cluster we asked, "Picture what it is that your community has accomplished. When you look around your community, how do you know that you've done it?" The More Family Involvement cluster got the following responses from the kids: "Parents are consistent, they give love and hugs, parents are role models, we have parent meetings, parents set guidelines, they support and are concerned for the children in all they do, there is a parenting program for newlyweds and new parents, parents help raise each others' children, parents are involved with extracurricular activities."

The Diversity cluster reported that "People want to come here, we have friends in other schools, no one looks twice at difference, we don't feel out of place in other neighborhoods, there are welcoming attitudes, more activities between schools, more meetings like this...."

This went on for each cluster - Technology, Public Transportation, Better Neighborhoods, Preventing Teen Pregnancy, Housing, Technology, Better Local News Coverage, Preserve Rural Spaces.

Then we asked, "What are you ready to do in any one of these areas?" Groups formed around some, but not all, of the commonground themes and identified the following as things they wanted to accomplish:

  • Community-involved coin drive and toy collection to help underprivileged kids.
  • Diversity, Unity, and Welcoming Attitude: get the word out about CWCC and their programs. Create more awareness of Youth Domain and recruit young people to get involved in their community. Have an event to bring families together. Traveling student forum to go to various schools.
  • Entertainment: Battle of the Bands, second variety show, teen recreation center.
  • Reduced Crime and Less Violence: make the community a safer place to live, mentoring and tutoring.
  • Teen Pregnancy: education, protection, hotline for students to call, counseling help.
  • More Positive Interaction with Adults: promote more parent involvement, teen-led Parenting Seminar, teenled voter registration.
  • Positive Quality Entertainment: create a teen center.

What Has Happened Since

In a follow-up conversation with Dave Whitehead, I got the following report: A month after the future search, they held the Battle of the Bands event, sold 550 tickets, and raised $3,300. The money went to an organization that works with troubled teens. Big success, involved bands from each of the towns.

Two months later, a major incident shook up the county and was front page on all the nation's papers. Between 200-300 people rioted following the death of a young black motorcyclist who crashed after a highspeed chase through Benton Harbor. Most of those involved in the riot were between 16 and 25 years of age. Dave said, "It really put our group under a big magnifying glass. Previously, we weren't thought of as the demographic at the heart of CWCC work, but now we are. It threw us into the spotlight."

Immediately after the riot, adults held an open forum for residents, and the following week, there was another open forum just for youth. About 90 young people showed up and talked about the issues. Dave said it was terrific that they could see that their domain was already active.

They meet, he said, as a whole group every other month, and 60-70 people showed up at the last one. The committees have met and the leaders of the committees also met. The task groups that have the most energy are Violence Prevention, Entertainment, Teen Pregnancy, and CWCC/Youth Domain Recruitment.

It's been four months - they are moving along.

What the FSN Team Learned

Whenever possible in a community setting, hold a future search for young people, planned by young people. Create a one-, two-, or three-day opportunity where teens can talk together and realize some of their ideas, dreams, and aspirations. We did this in the Sudan and it made a difference in how the young people presented themselves at the adult conference. We did it in Indonesia and felt the same impact. We're suggesting going beyond having one or two tables of young people at an adult future search. This is a qualitatively different experience and a way to recognize and nurture young spirits.

We've infantilized our teens or, at the very least, created a "nowhere land" between childhood and adulthood that keeps getting extended. Let's acknowledge young people's capacity for vision and commitment by creating the conditions for their involvement in civic affairs. As our Berrien County youth said, "Preparing for the future begins with the youth of today."





home | introducing the method | what is future search? | conditions for success | methodology
applications | public workshops