Arizona Town Hall

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For the past five decades, the Arizona Town Hall has created a forum for Arizona leaders to offer solutions to our biggest problems. The latest Town Hall focused on what to do about Arizona’s vulnerable populations. Two Town Hall participants, David Martinez, III, advocacy and outreach specialist for St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and Alberto Olivas, director for Maricopa County Community College District Center for Civic Participation and an Arizona Town Hall board member talk about the forum.

José Cárdenas: For the past five decades, Arizona Town Hall has created a forum for Arizona leaders to offer solutions to our biggest problems. The latest town hall focused on what to do about Arizona's vulnerable populations. Joining me are two town hall participants, David Martinez, III, advocacy and outreach specialist for Saint Mary's Food Bank Alliance. And Alberto Olivas, director for Maricopa County Community College District Center for Civic Participation. Alberto is also an Arizona Town Hall board member. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us tonight to discuss the most recent town hall. David, the focus was vulnerable populations. Vulnerable in what sense?

David Martinez, III: It was a difficult question for the town hall participants to answer because Arizona, as a state, has done a really bad job in identifying vulnerable populations, in a way that really connects them with services and service providers. With the help of the data and the report we got before the town hall, the participants really narrowed it down to three points. Communities and populations that are in distress, that are worrying about where the next paycheck is going to come from, where the next meal is going to come from. And also the second point is really being on the verge of crisis, not being able to afford a medical bill that comes out of nowhere. Or if your car breaks down or God forbid, you lose your job. Really, the third point is that these populations are invisible in Arizona. They are on the extremes, on the fringes, and aren't able to utilize services that do exist.

José Cárdenas: I saw some of the videos that were prepared in advance and heard Dean Koppell of ASU talking about the need for a broad definition to include not only those people in distress, but those on the verge of distress, those living on the edge because if we don't deal with those people, the expense in treating them one day when they do go into distress is going to be huge.

Alberto Olivas: Actually a lot of discussion was more on the people that aren't already in crisis now. But the people, if one thing goes wrong for them, they are going to be in crisis. If they lose their job, if their car breaks down, if they get sick or if they have an accident, that can lead to all kinds of things going wrong for them because they don't have the preparation or resources to be able to weather one of those sudden problems. What was interesting was just defining vulnerable populations, a lot of the town hall participants themselves said, I never realized I'm part of this group, I'm one of the vulnerable in Arizona. Some of the speakers talked about how 65% or more of the population in our state could technically be described as vulnerable because you don't have at least the resources to weather three months without your regular income without missing house payments, without losing your car, without ending up on the street.

José Cárdenas: Alberto, before we go on, just briefly describe the town hall process for those people who aren't familiar with it.

Alberto Olivas: So, Arizona Town Hall has been around for over 50 years. And they have two major events every year where they bring together a group of 150 to 200 people that represent all of the communities in our state. So there's a lot of effort that goes in to make sure that the town hall participants represent rural and urban Arizona, all the ideological spectrum -- conservative, libertarian, liberal, all the ethnic communities and tribes. So what we do is bring together people that can really represent the state, and discuss an issue that affects the whole state, and come out with a set of recommendations that represent what we, as Arizona, think should be done about that issue. In this case, it was vulnerable populations. So who do we define as vulnerable? And what do liberal and conservative, rural and urban Arizonans think we should do as a state, at different levels, from the small one on one neighborhood level, all the way up to potential legislation?

José Cárdenas: And David, I understand that one of the points of discussion at this town hall was the differences in impact for vulnerable populations depending upon whether they are in an urban setting or a rural setting.

David Martinez, III: Absolutely, and having been born and raised in Marana, Arizona, which is a pretty rural southern Arizona town, and now living in the urban center of Phoenix, I can understand the challenges that those populations have, certainly being of a working class family we saw the struggle on a daily basis. And orking at Saint Mary's Food Bank, we see the challenges every day, as well. So, the challenges are different based on the urban and rural communities. Some of the participants that were part of my panel in the town hall that represented rural Arizona including Kingman, up north, part of tribal lands, and Sierra Vista, really reflected some really important issues that were facing rural Arizona and the populations in there, like transportation and having access to the services that do exist. But then considering the fact that those transportation -- that transportation infrastructure doesn't exist in rural Arizonna like it does in urban areas like Phoenix and Tucson.

José Cárdenas: And as I understand, transportation is an issue not only in the rural areas, for obvious reasons, but in an urban area like Phoenix where we're so dependent upon cars. And so many people in the vulnerable populations don't have cars.

David Martinez, III: Exactly, and I think that's one of the best recommendations that came out of the town hall, was that vulnerable populations are having to base their schedule around or have to deal with working full time, often two jobs, picking up their kids from child care, and then figuring out the transportation infrastructure that does exist in cities like Phoenix to try to access these benefits. So one of the recommendations was to set up sort of one-stop shops, where folks in vulnerable populations can access a variety of services. And it's something that we actually have been doing at Saint Mary's Food Bank in our Phoenix campus. Not only can people access emergency food if they need it, but they can also access the local DES office, the local WIC office, and enroll in --

José Cárdenas: Kind of a one-stop shop.

David Martinez, III: Absolutely --

José Cárdenas: Alberto, speaking of recommendations, let's talk about them. What were the recommendations of particular note?

Alberto Olivas: One of the big themes in the recommendations was being -- how do we make people more aware of existing resources and services? So what was really neat was that it wasn't a bunch of recommendations about let's create a whole lot of government programs and services. People don't know what is available to help them. A lot of people we would call vulnerable don't think of themselves as vulnerable. So when something happens and they are without transportation, do they know what's available, how to get around town? A senior citizen suddenly can't drive anymore, their kids take their keys. Do they know how -- what is the support network for seniors to get to their medical appointments and so forth? We heard stories about people in rural Arizona that didn't know they had public transportation. They thought, oh, I thought that was just for people that are sick to get their appointments. So, there was a lot of different kinds of recommendations about how to do more awareness raising about issues, how to help people do more planning ahead of time to prepare for the future, save and retirement planning and so forth. And, so there were a lot of recommendations about what could we do at the local community level, but there were also some really strong recommendations about things the state should do.

José Cárdenas: And you indicated off camera that some of these were fairly controversial.

Alberto Olivas: Oh yeah, I was very surprised, having attended numerous Arizona Town Halls where they come out with a lot of vague, general recommendations often times. One thing I didn't expect to make it to the final report was a recommendation supported by town hall participants to increase the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour, which is more than they're pushing for at the federal level. Another recommendation that made it in was to revisit mandatory sentencing and reform how we do sentencing in our state. And then another recommendation that I think was very interesting was to establish a tax credit that people could qualify for, for conducting certain financial resiliency activities. So, if you do certain kinds of saving or asset building you can get rewarded for that in your taxes. So that would help you even further to build up your assets that can help you weather a crisis.

José Cárdenas: One of the things that struck me about Dean Koppell's comments on this subject was that the problem's so big it's hard to get your arms around it. David talked about differences between urban and rural areas. How do you come to consensus to a point where you can make recommendations like these?

Alberto Olivas: It's a fascinating process. So, we have anywhere from 150 to 200 people broken into groups of about 30. And each of the groups are having the same conversation at the same time with a trained facilitator and a recorder. So what happens is the facilitator takes the group through each of the questions. And the recorder and the facilitator are looking for the things that are said that everyone kind of agrees to. This is an issue, this is a problem, this is what we want to see happen. This is a need. They are just writing down those consensus points. So, they are not writing down everything that's discussed, only the things everyone can kind of say, yeah, we agree with that as a group. Then the notes from those consensus points get all fused together in a big report, and on the last day, all of the groups come together and just go through it from page one to page done, and they hash it out and argue until we come out with a set of recommendations that the whole group says, we can live with that. Not everyone agrees with every single point, but the recommendations -- and they really do represent what most Arizonans agree to and want to see happen.

José Cárdenas: David, this was your first town hall.

David Martinez, III: Correct.

José Cárdenas: Your impressions as to how well the process works.

David Martinez, III: I was very impressed by the process. It was very thorough, and I think it's a testament to the success of having community civil dialogue representing the entire region, the entire state, and really bringing together a community that is seeking good for the State of Arizona. And it's a testament to the success of the town hall and over 50 years of productivity and making sound recommendations. What I really appreciated too was it brought together diverse industries. So not only government leaders but nonprofits, faith leaders, the business community to come and reach a consensus on pretty controversial topics like raising the minimum wage, which I think we agreed it was necessary for businesses to offer and people to earn a living wage.

José Cárdenas: Alberto, last question because we're almost out of time. What happens next? You've got some pretty controversial recommendations. Does it just go on a bookshelf?

Alberto Olivas: No. In the past, town halls really seemed to be focused on how can we advise legislators about laws and law changes. And that's still one of the big focuses, but what's more powerful about it now is after the town hall, the town hall organization goes all over the state and they have local meetings to present to the communities, what are the recommendations. And then, in each community, have a conversation about what to do with those recommendations, in a way that is germane to each of those local areas. So what are the recommendations? Which of these do we want to act on in Sierra Vista and Kingman, in Holbrook and Mesa? So how do we implement these things with what we have now with our local resources and talent, and with our business leaders and nonprofits and local government agencies. And individually, what are the things we can do about this? Without waiting for the legislature to act --

José Cárdenas: There's a lot of work yet to be done.

Alberto Olivas: Oh, yes.

José Cárdenas: Thank you both so much for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about what you did, and we'll see how it turns out.

David Martinez, III:Advocacy and Outreach Specialist, St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance; Alberto Olivas:Director, Maricopa County Community College District Center for Civic Participation;

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