In the second of our series on The Promiseland Project, we’re on site for the initiative’s inaugural event to see how a big idea about meaningful conversation plays out in a tiny North Dakota town.
No matter where you traveled in America this fall, you couldn’t escape divisive political advertisements. The messages for the 2018 midterm election reached something of a fever pitch in the country’s fourth-smallest state in terms of population, North Dakota, the site of one of the most-watched races for the Senate.
When I landed in Bismarck in mid-October, I immediately tuned in to a war of words between incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican challenger (and eventual winner) Rep. Kevin Cramer on the local radio station in my rental Hyundai Santa Fe. According to the airwaves, Heitkamp “hosted parties with a convicted North Dakota activist in her swanky Washington, D.C., penthouse,” while Cramer “put special interests and his own interests ahead of voters.”
But I was in North Dakota to — hopefully — experience the opposite of bitter feuding between political parties. I was there to see if citizens could manage to rise above the fray at what Roy Spence calls “America’s new kind of convention.” The co-founder and chair- man of Austin, Texas–based advertising firm GSD&M, Spence launched a new initiative called The Promiseland Project in an effort to “build a high-performing, job-creating, and respect-driven culture of us — as in U.S.A.” His new idea of convening — which we previewed in our November issue — does not involve collecting education credits for professional certifications, touring trade-show booths, or attending cocktail receptions. It’s rooted in the fundamental premise of what it means to come together: having honest conversations in intimate settings, like the kind of neighborly talks you would have on your front porch.
The topics of those conversations are designed to help Americans focus on shared values and aspirations. For example, rather than debating what to do about the surging costs of four-year college tuition, one of the objectives of The Promiseland is to shine a light on the career opportunities that can arise from attending a technical school or a community college. And instead of crafting a message that will only resonate with certain segments of the professional world, Spence aims to eliminate “the color of our collars” to highlight that all kinds of work deserve respect. While he acknowledged that all the conversations will “not be kumbaya,” he believes that there are many areas where “Americans can agree with each other instead of attack each other.”
He’s found plenty of supporters who share his vision, including an audience that wanted to build the environment to have those conversations, share ideas, and debate the course toward the future. After Spence delivered a keynote address to the Texas Association of Builders, some members of the organization were so inspired by his project that they volunteered to construct what Spence has dubbed “America’s New Front Porch.” After building it, three construction workers volunteered to haul the pre-fabricated pieces 1,400 miles from San Angelo, Texas to Watford City, North Dakota to bring it to life.
Planting Local Roots
Spence knew he could count on home builders from Texas to be there — and a group of home builders from North Dakota who volunteered to help with the day-of construction — but he needed assistance to motivate residents from the community to come, too. Getting people to come to an event is no easy task for any organizer, but The Promiseland Project’s launch faced an especially big challenge of creating awareness from scratch. Watford City, a town of approximately 10,000 residents in the northwestern section of the state, hadn’t actually invited “America’s New Front Porch” to set up shop there. The host destination had been randomly chosen. Spence’s longtime friend and fellow Austinite Matthew McConaughey determined where the first stop on the The Promiseland Project tour would be by throwing a dart at a map of the country during SXSW this year.
Spence needed assistance understanding what issues mattered most to the local community, who would make good voices for the program, and what promotional channels would be most effective in reaching an audience who would be interested in coming to the front porch. So Spence turned to his daughter, Courtney, who runs The CSpence Group, a San Francisco–based creative and strategic agency that has worked with presidents, non-profit organizations, and brands to craft narratives and build communities.
“We reached out to Lt. Gov. [of North Dakota] Brent Sanford,” Courtney Spence told Convene. “He used to be the mayor of Watford City, and he identified members of the city’s tourism and economic development communities who proved to be our essential on-the-ground team.”
She spent four days in Watford City in early August meeting with Doug Bolken, tourism director of McKenzie County; Daniel Stenberg, economic development coordinator for McKenzie County; and Jessie Veeder, a local musician and author. They helped with logistical details such as site selection at the Rough Rider Center, a mixed-use facility attached to Watford City High School, and they also offered perspectives on the unique challenges facing their hometown. In the past decade, the fracking industry struck gold — well, oil — in Watford City, and the makeup of the previously homogenous community has changed dramatically. As people have flocked to the area for high-paying jobs in the oil industry, the town’s elementary school has welcomed students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. Some of those workers and their families live in RV parks due to a shortage of affordable housing. While the town may need to build more homes now, the ebb and flow of oil prices means that demand for accommodations today may dry up in a few years.
“The aim to bring people together really resonates in Watford City,” Bolken told Convene. “We are rural, and we do depend on each other. We’ve welcomed a lot of new neighbors from different backgrounds in the past seven years due to the fracking boom, so The Promiseland feels like it arrived at a perfect time to remind everyone that it’s okay to have different perspectives.”
Over a tight timeline of just 24 days, The CSpence Group team worked to understand some of those perspectives and how the community has changed in the midst of its recent growth. In addition to connecting with local experts, Roy Spence channeled the same sense of creativity that landed him in the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame and purchased a full-page ad in the region’s weekly newspaper, McKenzie County Farmer, three days before the event. He also used his voice to break up that negative back-and-forth chatter between political parties with an ad that ran on four local radio stations.
“We have to walk in other people’s shoes and get to know each other,” Roy Spence said in a shift from those commercials I had heard for the Senate race. “And what better place to do that than on the front porch?
“Come join us this Sunday at the Rough Rider Center from 3 to 6:30 p.m.,” he continued in a disarmingly friendly Texan introduction. “The journey of bringing America together starts right here in Watford City.”
A Sunday Success
Before the sun rose on Oct. 14, I watched 12 homebuilders from North Dakota and Texas haul pre-fabricated pieces of the front porch into the ballroom of the Rough Rider Center and build the set in less than four hours. The event required no advance registration, so the Spences had no idea what to expect in terms of crowd size. But when the official program began, it was clear that the advertising and grassroots promotional approach — the campaign included posters at restaurants around town — had paid off. An audience of more than 300 — from toddlers to 20-something-year-old oil industry workers to seniors — who lived in and around Watford City were on hand to see what awaited them on the front porch. The seats were full, and a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the back.
The crowd listened intently to panel discussions that featured voices from the local community. The president of a nearby community college, the superintendent of the Watford City school system, and a line worker from an electric company discussed the importance of skilled trade work in today’s economy. A group of nine high-school students traded their thoughts on what opportunities they hoped to pursue after graduation. Another panel featured local business owners offering perspectives on what drives them as entrepreneurs.
“We outlined a guide to help spark meaningful discussions, but we handed the reins over to the moderators who know what’s going on in the community,” said John Munyan, executive creative director, The CSpence Group. “It was important to get out of their way and let the conversations flow naturally.”
After the panel discussions, the ballroom transformed from an environment designed for thoughtful contemplation to one suited for a celebration. Nashville-based trio MamaDear played a mix of originals and covers of country classics, and Tigirlily, a country duo born in North Dakota who had recently relocated to Nashville, returned to their roots to close out the event. Some in the audience danced, while others ate sandwiches and desserts that were spread out in the back of the room. Some scribbled their thoughts on Post-Its at a large space dedicated to sharing participants’ personal definitions of the American dream. It was a low-tech initiative that played well with the crowd: Very few people were glued to their phone screens, a nice departure from the kind of behavior that’s become standard at most events.
“The fact that so many people came to the event and stayed engaged,” Courtney Spence said, “demonstrates how hungry people are to come together around something positive.”
Learning vs. Leaving
After the builders deconstructed the front porch and attendees returned home, Roy Spence told me that the day had served as an important reminder that “the principles of The Promiseland are alive and well.”
The behind-the-scenes work in the days surrounding the activation played an equally important role in the inaugural event, too. The CSpence team had developed an itinerary that included meeting with local policymakers at the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck, hearing about the lives of Native American tribal leaders at the nearby Fort Berthold Reservation, touring two technical colleges, and a range of other stops that contributed to a deeper understanding of the events and issues that have shaped life in and around Watford City. Courtney Spence noted that the immersion reflects the need to hear from the local community — not just conduct some research prior to arriving.
“We know the topics and types of conversations we want to have, but they have to be dictated by the people who are close to the issues,” she said. “We have to co-create our experiences with the communities we visit. That requires us to be truly listening to the members of the community, not just talking to them.”
Listening is a skill Roy Spence has finely honed in his career. While at GSD&M, he devoted extra attention to thinking about consumers’ attitudes and preferences to build effective brand messaging for companies like Southwest Airlines, Walmart, and AT&T. The practice has carried over to his time on the conference speaking circuit. In the past six months, he has spoken to professional organizations including the American Bankers Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union, and others. He said that he dedicates a large portion of time before he takes to the stage to understand the specific issues that matter to each organization.
The Promiseland Project has some similarities to those events, but there is one big difference, he said. “After most conventions are over, I leave, and I get rated on how I did,” he said. “This is different. We don’t want to leave here. We want to learn here.”
Their next task, Courtney Spence said, is to figure out how to turn the lessons from a one-day public event into an ongoing conversation for Watford City — to keep those front-porch exchanges going metaphorically now that the physical front porch has been packed up.
“We want to help them sustain the conversations,” she said. “We’ll be working to identify community-based organizations that we can partner with to inspire a dialogue throughout the year. To leave a meaningful legacy behind, we have to play a role in continuing to facilitate face-to- face dialogue in Watford City and every other community we visit.”
There are quite a few communities on that agenda. Over the next seven years, the Spences plan to stop in every one of the other 49 states. The next stop on the tour will be in Union Parish, Louisiana, in the spring of 2019. The Spences had already narrowed their focus to Louisiana — the proximity to Texas coupled with the CSpence Group’s work with workforce training non-profit Louisiana Calling made the state a good fit. The actual destination was the result of another dart tossed at the map of Louisiana.
While Union Parish is another rural area, future sites will be cities. “As we look at modeling this moving forward, we need to make sure that we understand what urban populations are going through,” Courtney Spence said. “This is an initiative to understand the experiences and issues that shape lives in both rural and urban areas.”
The logistical details of arranging so many events and transporting the big porch — which will be stored in a warehouse in San Angelo, Texas, when it’s not in use — pale in comparison to the challenge of overcoming a 24-hour news cycle of negativity.
“We have big problems,” Roy Spence said. “People across the country are fighting with each other, and we need to find a way to start listening to each other again.”
As he reflected on the road ahead for The Promiseland, he made a promise of his own. “I don’t know if we can do it,” he told the audience in Watford City, “but I can assure you that we are going to try. America needs to be driven by purpose, not politics. We need to step up and sit down on front porches all across the country to find common ground.”
More on The Promiseland
- Learn about where The Promiseland Project is heading next.
- Can The Promiseland Project Help Reunite Polarized America?
‘If the World Had a Front Porch’
By David McMillin
Roy Spence attributes the inspiration for his front-porch concept to country singer Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch.” The song, released in 1995, celebrates the gathering place’s ability to overcome differences. “If the world had a front porch like we did back then,” according to the lyrics, “We’d still have our problems, but we’d all be friends.”
Two decades later, more people are searching for places to find those friends. The front porch made the National Association of Home Builders’ list of most popular amenities for new homes in 2015. So it seems that Spence’s front porch is an appropriate manifestation of a common desire for intimate gathering places.
In addition to its public appearances, The Promiseland Project’s front porch will find a home at convention centers. Several associations have already reached out to The Promiseland to explore the possibility of integrating the porch in their programs.