Can Promiseland Project Help Reunite Polarized America?

A collection of architects and home builders are donating their talent, time, money, and passion to create a place for open and honest conversation in America, one destination at a time.

Author: David McMillin       

A drawing of the front porch that will travel the U.S. (Courtesy Promiseland Project)

“You’re not going to believe this,” said a message in my voicemail at the end of August. “We are building America’s new front porch. It’s going to travel with us to North Dakota, and it’s going to be big enough to let 10 people sit down in rocking chairs, share their opinions, discuss their dreams, and have honest conversations.”

The voice belonged to Roy Spence, co-founder and chairman of Austin, Texas–based advertising firm GSD&M and co-founder and CEO of The Purpose Institute. Most recently, Spence has launched another initiative with an audacious goal that’s even closer to his heart: The Promiseland Project. The project aims reunite a politically polarized America, and help citizens from both sides of the aisle find common ground.

“We constantly hear negativity today and about how each side is bad,” Spence told me in an interview earlier this year. “We’re going to try to move this politically driven ‘us-versus-them’ culture to a purpose-driven culture of us — as in USA. In eight years, the country will celebrate its 250th birthday, and by that time, we’re hoping that we can give a sense of rebirth to the purpose of America.”

Spence’s positive outlook for the country relies on getting people to step out from behind social-media accounts and smartphone screens for face-to-face conversations. That’s where the front-porch concept comes in. He isn’t planning on constructing a porch and inviting people to come to one central destination; instead, Spence said that he wants The Promiseland Project to facilitate “a new kind of convention” with an eight-year tour that takes the porch to every state in the country. “We shouldn’t just ask people to come to us,” Spence said. “We should go to them. We should meet them where they live and work and raise their families.”

An intimate conversation on a front porch may sound quite different than education sessions in ballrooms. And while Spence said that he is also a champion of a traditional convention’s ability to fuel what he calls “face-to-face, hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart connections,” he is aiming to do something in addition to a convention’s standard promise of bringing “like-minded people” together. “We want to bring people from all walks of life and all backgrounds together to listen to each other,” Spence said. “‘America’s New Front Porch’ will be the place where people can break out of their bubbles to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s the place where we can all learn from each other, share [our] shared values, and learn how to work together for a better America.”

A Keynote Speech That Continues to Echo

Building an American cultural symbol.

Spence’s vision had already captured a group of professionals who have built their share of porches. “We first met Roy in 2011 when came to speak at one of our events about his book It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For,” Lorraine Urey, director of member services, Texas Association of Builders (TAB), told Convene. “Our entire community of builders has been a big fan of him ever since. He has a magical way of getting people to look at the world through a positive lens.”

Spence’s relationship with TAB continued with another speech in 2014 and a more recent appearance as a keynote at the annual Sunbelt Builders Show in August. Urey had enjoyed a preview to the topic of this year’s speech when she called Spence in 2017 for creative advice on some messaging for a TAB membership campaign. “He mentioned the idea of The Promiseland Project during the conversation,” she said, “and we all got goosebumps.” This was a personal call and she looped in the rest of the TAB team later. Does the edit at the top of the next paragraph work for that explanation?

Urey shared her discussion with other members of TAB’s leadership, and what really resonated with TAB was one of the tenets of Spence’s ambitious plan to reunite America: A reminder that all types of work have dignity. Urey said that the construction industry has faced challenges in conveying that message. “Our industry is aging out,” she said. “The average age of our trades people is about 62 years old. We are scrambling to get students to understand that the building industry is a professional career choice that holds dignity just as if you’re a doctor or a lawyer.”

Urey estimates that Texas faces a shortage of approximately 500,000 construction workers. As the industry searches for the next generation of professionals, Urey said that one member of the current cast of construction experts is playing a pivotal role in making Spence’s vision of America’s new front porch a reality. When she brought up the idea of contributing sponsorship dollars to The Promiseland Project, Mike Biggerstaff, president of San Angelo, Texas–based Biggerstaff Homes and chairman of the Texas Builders Foundation, wanted to, well, go bigger.

“Our entire board of trustees was excited and committed to doing anything possible to help Roy,” Urey said. “But Mike took it upon himself to go out, ask for support, and raise all of the donations to build the porch.”

A third-generation custom home builder and remodeler, Biggerstaff has plenty of connections throughout the industry, and he secured a donation of both the materials needed for the porch from a lumber store in Abilene as well as the labor from a group of young professionals in his hometown — valued at $24,000 and $15,000, respectively. Those builders will follow blueprints crafted pro bono by Spence’s friends at STG Design, the same firm that designed his office building.

“I was excited by the idea of Americans coming together,” Paul Suttle, an architect at STG Design, told Convene. “The porch represents Roy’s idea that Americans share more than what divides us, and we were happy to help turn that concept into a three-dimensional reality. We designed this porch to help embody American values and give people a place that felt comfortable for talking openly and honestly in a neighborly setting.”

A North Dakota State of Mind

Between Spence’s roots in Austin and the support of so many builders across the state of Texas, how did North Dakota become the state where the front-porch campaign debuts? Answer: another Texan and another conference in Texas. Spence calls Matthew McConaughey a close friend, and the Oscar-winning actor helped announce The Promiseland Project at SXSW this past March. McConaughey had the honor of choosing the first stop on the tour, and the selection process took a refreshingly simple approach: McConaughey threw a dart at a map of the country. It landed on Watford City, which Spence acknowledged may seem like a surprising first stop for America’s new front porch. However, the oil industry’s fracking boom has transformed the town. Oil production surged from under two million barrels per month in 2011 to more than 13 million barrels in 2015. The town’s population followed that path, growing from 1,200 to nearly 15,000 in recent years with an influx of immigrants from more than 20 countries. Those changes make it an ideal place to kick off the tour with an event on Oct. 14. “Watford City,” Spence said, “is an example of the members of a diverse community learning to live as one.”

Hitting the Road

The Texas Builders Foundation Chair Mike Biggerstaff didn’t stop at constructing The Promiseland Project’s front porch. He also secured a truck and trailer donation valued at nearly $11,000 to bring it to Watford City, North Dakota. The Texas Association of Builders has formed a partnership with the North Dakota Association of Home Builders to assemble the pre-fabricated pieces.

Biggerstaff and his colleagues will be in the audience for the first front-porch conversation. So will Convene. Stay tuned for updates on this “new kind of convention.”

Learn more about The Promiseland Project at thepromiselandproject.com.