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Think Tank Contemplates Better Future : Ideas: Enthusiasm is high at the Westlake-based foundation as it prepares to tackle the issue of racism with a task force.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Conejo Future Foundation, brainstorming is considered high art.

This month, as they have each January for the past 22 years, members of this local think tank will sit down and talk about the year ahead.

The brainstorming sessions, which may include topics as wildly diverse as gangs and solid waste, drugs and open space, are something more than idle chitchat.

Take, for example, one member’s simple suggestion a few years back that the citizens of the Conejo Valley build a center for the arts. From that idea sprang the blueprints for the Civic Arts Plaza.

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Or the time members were arguing over the need to protect the area’s canyons and ridges. Up sprouted COSCA, a regional open space organization.

“Our role is to plant seeds,” said Pat Greene, a Future Foundation trustee. “We set the agenda, and if the ideas are good, they will become a reality.”

At the Future Foundation, a high-powered board of 30 civic and business leaders from the cities that straddle the eastern Ventura County border uses brainpower to isolate and attack community problems.

This year, the members decided to tackle a problem that reaches far beyond the ridges of the Conejo Valley--racism.

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The task force on multiculturalism has yet to take form, but members of the group already have high hopes for the new endeavor.

“This community is becoming increasingly diverse, and when that happens, you are inevitably going to encounter fears and prejudice,” said Pam Kelty, the Future Foundation’s chairwoman. “We want to set up a framework to deal with this and to--as much as we can--prevent it from happening here.”

To do so, the foundation will gather about a dozen community leaders and residents who specialize in dealing with issues of race and culture. For a year, this task force will study the past and how other cities address the issue, then make recommendations for the future.

Members of the foundation say this is a proven approach.

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“We’re confident because we’ve seen these task forces work to solve a number of community problems,” Kelty said. “This is our way of identifying issues and potential solutions.”

The same formula has led to the creation of a teen center, to the reorganization of the school system and the introduction of a Sheriff’s Department program to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors, Kelty said.

In 1994, a task force of young adults spent the year trying to find out how cities in the Conejo Valley could better serve people ages 18 to 30.

“With this project, what we realized was that there are a lot of services devoted to children and to married couples, but when it comes to young, single adults, the Conejo Valley is a black hole,” Greene said.

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The foundation conducted surveys in which residents complained that their grown children were leaving the Conejo Valley because housing was too expensive, entry-level jobs were scarce and the night life was dull and drab.

One of 12 members of the young adult task force, 28-year-old Jim Friedl, said he hopes the report generated from twice-monthly sessions will pressure cities from Thousand Oaks to Calabasas to build lower-cost housing and create more opportunities for young people.

And as a deputy city attorney in Thousand Oaks, Friedl said he will be in a position to alert the City Council to the foundation’s findings.

“I won’t have any more influence with the council than any other citizen, but let’s just say I know where the in-box is,” Friedl said. “I hope that means they will pay closer attention to our report.”

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By working in an advisory capacity, the Conejo Future Foundation--which has 300 supporting members in addition to its 30-member board--has for 22 years managed to influence local governments without angering officials or duplicating city efforts.

That was a goal from the outset, according to the group’s founder, Raymond Olson.

“City officials get defensive over what they see as the private sector messing around with their agenda,” Olson said. “What we did was restrict our work to concepts, to give the community a sense of bearing without stepping on anyone’s toes.”

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The genesis of the Future Foundation was a meeting Olson held after he stepped down as president of Cal Lutheran University. He sent out invitations to 150 residents to come together and talk about issues of concern to them.

“When 120 people showed up, I knew there was a need for something like this,” Olson recalled.

For a weekend, the residents traded ideas, discussed the future, floated potential solutions and, in the end, decided that such brainstorming sessions could serve a purpose.

“We realized there was a place for a group of people who could try to anticipate the future and work together to prevent problems,” Olson said. “It wasn’t a new idea. People were doing this in other places. We just thought that there was enough interest here to make it work.”

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With hundreds of members, the group tackled a host of complex issues--not always with success. For several months, foundation members floated the idea of creating a new county for Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and Calabasas.

“That didn’t seem to catch on,” group leader Kelty said. “It was too complicated.”

The foundation also pushed for tangible additions to the area, such as the Civic Arts Plaza, and found success.

Olson said he believes the most significant accomplishment may have been the foundation’s effort to resolve the conflict between growth and preservation.

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Those talks, which Olson recalls as the most divisive but also the most fruitful, led to the creation of the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, or COSCA.

That public-private agency has devised an incentive program for developers to donate land for preservation, and it has helped create a ring of 12,000 acres of open land that encircles the Conejo Valley.

Despite its successes, the Future Foundation began to run out of steam in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1992, the group devoted huge amounts of time and energy to a project called Vision 2020, which resulted in six volumes analyzing problems ranging from the housing crisis to the need to conserve water.

“That was a time of great exuberance for all of us, but when it was over we realized that it had been a back breaker,” said Carolyn Kopp, a past president of the foundation. “For the next six months, we coasted. We weren’t quite sure what to do next.”

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The nonprofit, Westlake-based foundation, which had primarily been running on the profits of a $200,000 land sale, was running low on money.

Donations from area corporations had begun to dry up because of the recession, Kopp said. The foundation’s four full-time employees were laid off.

“For a little while, there were those who thought that was it, that we would close up shop,” Kopp recalled. “But we maintained the office and selected some new board members, and after a year or so we were back in business.”

Now, with a report due from the task force of young adults and the new group set to study racial issues, Kopp says the foundation is back to the pace of the early years.

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“There is much work ahead for us,” Kopp said. “I guess the best way to say it is, the future looks bright for the Future Foundation.”


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