Arizona Town Hall: Civic Engagement

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The 100th Arizona Town Hall is exploring the topic of civic engagement and how to get citizens more involved in their government and their communities. Guests include: Kelly Campbell Rawlings, an assistant Research Professor and Co-Director of the Participatory Governance Initiative for ASU’s School of Public Affairs; Jane Prescott-Smith, Managing Director of the National Institute of Civil Discourse at the UofA; and Alberto Olivas, Director of the Center for Civic Participation for Maricopa Community Colleges.

Ted Simons: Good evening, welcome to Arizona "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Former Maricopa county Attorney Andrew Thomas says That he doesn't know if the federal government is investigating him, but if It is, Thomas wants to appear before a Grand Jury to try to clear his name. Thomas was stripped of his license to practice law in Arizona earlier this month For abusing his power as the county's lead prosecutor. There are reports that the federal government is investigating Thomas and Maricopa county sheriff Joe Arpaio on abuse of power.
The justice department approved Arizona's new legislative district map. That means the map will be In place for the next 10 Years unless a legal Challenge is filed. By approving the map, the justice department is saying that the new legislative boundaries do not violate The voting rights of Arizona's minority populations. The state's new congressional district map was approved earlier this month.

Ted Simons:: Participants in the 100th Arizona town hall met in Tucson this week to talk about civic engagement and how to get Arizonans more involved in their communities. Here to discuss the issues addressed at town hall is Kelly Campbell Rawlings, an assistant research professor At ASU's school of public affairs and co-director of the university's Participatory governance initiative. Jane Prescott Smith managing director of the national institute of civil discourse at the university of Arizona. And Alberto Olivas, director of the Maricopa Community Colleges' Center for Civic Participation. All three of our guests were At town hall and wrote Chapters for its 200-page report.

Ted Simons: Good to have you all here. Thank you for joining us tonight. You were very much involved in the 200 page report, so we'll start with you. What is civic engagement? Give us a definition.

Kelly Campbell Rawlings: That is a very good question. When you look at the issue of civic engagement, oh, I know what that is, voting, participating in elections. And we spent a lot of time this week talking about civic engagement is a lot bigger than that and involves informal and formal activities about people getting involved in their community in some way. Knowing your neighbors, helping out in your community volunteering at a nonprofit, and so really civic engagement is when people take an active stance to get involve to somehow better their communities and that can take a variety of shapes.

Ted Simons: And when you talk about that, folks making an impact on their communities, by doing so that makes an impact on them.

Kelly Campbell Rawlings: Yes, not only makes an impact on them. We know a lot about the effects of civic engagements have personal impacts, in that people develop their sense of empathy for others, self-esteem increased. Do they feel better about themselves in their communities? They learn about the political process through the fact that they participate. But it also has significant impacts on communities and on politics in general that decisions are better the more people who are involved in making them.

Ted Simons: You mentioned empathy, and I know that you -- different chapters were written by different guests here, your chapter and focus was on civil discourse. Give me a definition. What is civil discourse?

Jane Prescott-Smith: Civil discourse is being able to talk with someone in a frank, vigorous direct way in order to move a public policy agenda policy forward. One of the things that is really interesting is people hear that word civil and they think, oh, you mean nice. We're supposed to be nice. And that really misses the point. In fact, I told a story the other day about your mother probably always told you if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. That is not a good idea when it comes to the public sector. In fact, it is really important to get out on the table the things that you disagree with. And so it is important to even confront someone but to do it constructively in a way that will advance the conversation. You can disagree, but disagree with curiosity.

Ted Simons: How much has difficult civil discourse, to put it mildly, things like the anonymous postings on the internet and news sites and these sorts of things, how much has that affected the overall civic engagement?

Jane Prescott-Smith: I think that has affected it quite a bit. Some people tune out. They don't want to deal with that negativity, and rather than engage and get the conversation back on track, they simply opt out of it. Which is a problem. We want as many people to be engaged as possible. And so we have to find ways to encourage people to engage in a more civil way.

Ted Simons: And one of those ways would be by way of a deliberative democracy. And again let's define terms here.

Alberto Olivas: Deliberative democracy is a range of things that you can do at the individual level or organizations, community, political issues that is free of the fear of am I going to get into a fight? Am I going to have a terrible experience? It is tied to civil discourse. Are we able to talk through our differences in a way that we're learning through each other and not trying to attack and defeat the other side.

Ted Simons: Are there models for that?

Alberto Olivas: There is a lot of models for doing it. We go around and work with different communities in the state to teach them how to frame an issue for the public to deliberate in a way that encompasses the range of ideas how to deal with a given problem. Everyone can see their perspective is represented. Their ideas will be given respect and some consideration. We do that in town hall, public forums. We don't bring in a lot of experts on the topic. We bring people from the community. We say, here, this is a problem for all of us in this community. Here are the major schools of thought about what to do about that and let's look at each one and determine what are the salient good points, what are the tradeoffs and consequences and what can we all agree to as a community that meets our common interests?

Ted Simons: So what Alberto's talking about with deliberative democracy and what Jane's talking about with civil discourse, again, back to the umbrella, civil engagement, folks that are able to debate in a civil manner and those willing to engage themselves in deliberative democracy --

Kelly Campbell-Rawlings: That is a challenge facing people. If you don't feel that you have something to contribute to the conversation, or haven't been involved you may feel intimidated by the process. Three things we know that lead to people becoming involved. One they have the motivation to get involved. Oftentimes that is what we focus on. If you are not involved, then you must not care. We know motivation is trickier than that. You can have the motivation and you can really care, but there also has to be an opportunity for you to participate. You also have to have the ability. We know a lot of people are not engaged because they don't have the time, they don't have the resources. It takes time as we found out through the Arizona town hall, three-day process. People have to be able to take the time to do that. You have to feel comfortable speaking in public. There's lots of ways in which we can develop the skills necessary to participate, whether that is through classes in school or the act of participating. When people have the skills, they are going to feel more comfortable. But if the opportunities don't exist or they don't know how to find the opportunities, and so I think then they're not going to participate. The more we can do to encourage people to look for opportunities or make them available and increase people's awareness of their availability, the more likely they're going to --

Alberto Olivas: Another thing that kept coming up through the course of the three days was how important trust is to all of this stuff. I'm not going to engage in a deliberative discourse with anybody that I don't trust. Or I don't know what their motives are. A lot of times public officials will bemoan the fact that certain parts of the community don't participate in public policy processes, don't come to meetings, don't weigh in, so it must be their fault for not getting involved. But what we really have to dissect in that is the why? Why are certain parts of the community so disengaged? And what we discovered when we do that is that there is a whole lot of mistrust or a lot of perception that they are not welcome or that their viewpoints won't be respected.

Ted Simons: Please, please.

Jane Prescott-Smith: I was going to say one thing that I thought was exciting at this Arizona town hall was the participants came together at the end with great ideas for how to involve more people. For instance, one of the things that happened was they passed the hat and raised money to provide scholarships for people to participate at the next town hall who otherwise could not afford it. Another idea was each person who came to the town hall should make an effort to reach out in their circle of influence to get the word out about the town hall as an opportunity to come together and discuss these things. It takes everybody taking personal responsibility if the civic engagement is going to grow --

Alberto Olivas: There were really specific recommendations that came out about the role that the media can play, education, higher education can play and that individuals, parents, adults working with kids, politicians, the role that we all can play in helping to teach the skills and model the skills of deliberative civil discourse and to provide a space for the community to come together and learn about each other and their common interests.

Kelly Campbell-Rawlings: One of the big points was that this isn't something that is one person or one group or one organization's responsibility to take on. That it really is going to involve a collaborative effort between business and the private sector, between government, between individuals, nonprofit organizations, the media, the education system, that it really is something that we all are implicated in and all need to take some initiative to really see some of these things through.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned people wanting a voice and they don't have a voice, they're not comfortable maybe speaking in public, not comfortable having a voice. And then I look at anonymous boards and it seems like a lot of folks are almost too comfortable speaking on these sorts of things. How do you delineate, how do you get the constructive dialogue going when, you know, a lot of folks it might have been -- they're charging forward and they are charging forward?

Jane Prescott-Smith: Well, it probably is a skill issue, right? They probably are charging forward because they don't know how to make their point in any other way. One ever the things we were talking about earlier is the importance of teaching by using moderators. For instance, you could have somebody watching the thread on a news article, and when they see somebody step over the line, rather than deleting their comment, which is just going to make the person more angry, they could respond to them and say, hey, you know, when you say X, Y, Z, that was in violation of our policy. I don't want to have to purge your comment. Can I make a suggestion about how you could make that way that I could post your comment. Usually when you approach people like that they are glad to learn. It is surprising -- maybe it is not surprising. 100 years ago when I was in high school, we used to study things like debate, right and you had to learn the affirmative and negative side because you never knew which side the teacher would make you argue. This is not done now. Maybe it is not surprising that people want to be involved but don't have the skills.

Alberto Olivas: But also the behavior that you described, public officials, that is their experience with the public, they're angry, come to the meetings full of complaints and shouting and all of the bad behavior. For us we look at that as a symptom of a poor relationship between public officials and the community. This bad behavior is an expression of the sentiment in the community that the only way I can be heard is by yelling as loud as I can.

Ted Simons: Well, it's an interesting point to bring up. A lot of political campaigns wind up being very negative and a lot of name calling and a lot of mud being thrown because that gets people -- that gets folks' attention. That gets votes. It works for them. How do you -- how do you have politicians expect for people to show up and be all nice or at least sophisticated in their dialogue when the campaigns themselves are far from sophisticated?

Alberto Olivas: Well, part of the problem is that typically in public policy, the public is not actually involved in the process until the very end, decisions have been made -- we try to work with public officials and agencies it find ways to start working with the community much earlier and identify what are the problems that should take precedents to be addressed -- what are the resources, what already exists in the community that helps us come to a desirable outcome. Most of the time the public isn't brought in until right be for a vote and theyre upset.

Ted Simons: What do we take from the report? You edited it? 200 pages. A lot of stuff in there, a lot of good stuff.

Kelly Campbell-Rawlings: I think the recommendations that will come out from the Arizona town hall report have been -- are being -- are in the process of being accumulated right now, drawing from the original background report. But there is a wealth of recommendations that I think were developed by the participants at the town hall and suggestions regarding increasing civic education throughout the state of Arizona. Their recommendations for government, in terms of increasing transparency and opportunities for participation. Calls to the media in terms of being more accountable trying to provide an alternative model for some of this negative discourse that you were talking about, and so I would encourage everyone to take a look at the town hall recommendations and reports and one of the things that I think we're going to be trying to do is really bringing together the folks who are doing this work to try to create a road map for Arizona in terms of setting benchmarks, some action plans about how do we harness this energy and enthusiasm and this desire to increase civic engagement in the state and make it happen.

Ted Simons: Alright. We will stop it right there. Good discussion. Thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

Alberto Olivas: Thank you.

Kelly Campbell Rawlings:Assistant Research Professor, Co-Director of the Participatory Governance Initiative, ASU School of Public Affairs; Jane Prescott-Smith:Managing Director, National Institute of Civil Discourse at UofA; Alberto Olivas: Director, Center for Civic Participation for Maricopa Community Colleges;

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