Page initiated Nov. 6, 2014
Public policy is a pauper without broad involvement of the public.
The task confronting elected officials, to listen for or guide the creation of any public policy, is not hard in a homogeneous community of any size. It’s relatively easy in a small, diverse community if its people regularly and attentively meet at the country store or the courthouse square to debate public issues and all voices are heard.
And then there’s Charlotte. There are a million voices. Most residents grew up elsewhere and have few shared experiences or expectations. Most focus on public issues only now and then, and never in unison. These are conditions ripe for the growth of small interest groups amassing inordinate power over public policy. But this is not a new phenomenon: After touring America in the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville worried over it in Democracy in America.
Charlotte is not destined to be a small-town New England pure democracy. It needs interest groups to educate residents, and to advocate with elected officials so that public policy can be informed by the public’s will.
New interest groups emerge every year. Some have short-term goals for change in public policy and, win or lose, pass quickly from the scene. Others have longer-term interests. But it is in the nature of the American experience that those with resources – knowledge or time or money or all three – are far more likely to successfully field interest groups and gain the ears of elected officials than those without such resources. When interests in the board room are well represented but interests in the street are not, the legitimacy of public policy is in jeopardy.
This project is aimed at leveling the playing field just a bit, to give volume to the voices not now regularly heard. The project is based on a sense that the following four ingredients are necessary for success.
A common interest
Rule #1: Raising a community voice must be for a purpose. So the purpose has already been identified, right? If that’s the case, then almost inevitably a core group of people interested in the purpose already has met. That’s good, because until that happens, this project won’t be able to help. No lone wolves, please.
Time for leadership
Rule #2: Leaders need to have time available. Without that, nothing is going to get started. If you’d like to see change, but feel overcommitted already to family or work or whatever, perhaps the time isn’t right for your project. For those willing to commit time, we’ll explore how to make the kind of long-term commitment that can give a group staying power.
A place to meet
Rule #3: If your idea is to grow adherents, it must welcome new people. A meeting place may of course be virtual for some groups. But for most, to be able to have a welcome mat out for newcomers suggests the need for some sort of threshold. The place need not be a restaurant – slaves worshipped under trees; early Christians gathered in the Catacombs, etc. – but facilities open to the public send a signal that the public really is welcome. But facility rentals can be pricey, and not all groups will find a provider willing to subsidize a fledgling group’s meetings.
Rule #4: Share the message or die. Wish we had a dollar for every Charlotte group that met, got everybody at the meeting excited, and then went home. In a community of a million voices, it will take more, much more, to move the public opinion that leads to change in public policy. Some groups will need nothing more than Twitter to reach their intended audience. Others will invest years in careful, targeted audience-building to make a dent. Helping sort out strategies and putting the tools in reach of fledgling groups is one of the goals of this project.
Who’s behind this?
The project was first discussed in October 2014 by Steve Johnston and Sarah Stevenson. Johnston is an old political science major and former journalist who operates this website for the Forum. Stevenson is co-founder of the Forum, which dates from the 1970s. She worked for many years in what is now the city-county Community Relations Committee, and served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education from 1980 to 1988. On Nov. 2, the pair agreed to submit a grant application to the Knight Foundation under its Knight Cities Challenge, which claimed to be looking for big ideas that could make cities more successful. (We thought this one is so small it’s big.) Any funding received would go to supporting fledgling groups or the hospitality costs surrounding project discussions; all labor would be volunteered. People invited to consult with project participants would agree not to sell products or services. All dollars expended on this project would be accounted for on this website. The project was not contingent on success with the grant, and in fact the application was rejeected on Jan. 8, 2015. Helping nurture community groups by whatever means are available was what this was – and still is – about.
How this project might help
This project will not morph into a 12-week series called Community Voice 101. This will be more like Huddle 101. We’d like to hear from leaders looking to help their fledgling group break through. We’ll then meet one-on-one. We’ll draw into the discussion other people with expertise on the issues confronting the new group. Sharing expertise alone may overcome start-up challenges. But if grant or other funds are available, we’ll help get groups up and running if necessary, focusing on groups that have grappled with how to become sustainable. We’ll focus on fledgling groups with the fewest resources and strongest commitment.
And we won’t presume that the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum should be a model for others. The Forum early on chose, for example, to be only a place where information is shared, leaving the acting on that information to the participants through their other associations. Many groups will instead focus on direct action; and that’s fine.
But for all people interested in creating community voices, the Forum might be an inspiration. That’s why Sarah Stevenson has agreed in principle to meet with project participants. She’s spent about 40 years with the Forum, much of that time as its hands-on, day-to-day leader. She has a wealth of information on how to make groups work over the long term. She’s walked the walk.
If you’re interested in participating in this project, or just have questions, let us know here. Together, we’ll go from there.
A new venture in 2016
Nakisa Glover and Vakala have initiated TheAgenda, a monthly evening meeting aimed at a millennial demographic and designed “to take action beyond the conversation.” Read more here.