These days, it is very easy to become disheartened at the dysfunction in government. Hyper partisanship and finger-pointing have engendered what feels like permanent gridlock. People seem to talk at or past each other. Cynicism leads to disengagement and withdrawal. For me, the Arizona Town Hall process of building consensus offers an avenue for intelligent, creative, informative and problem-solving dialogue.
Case in point. Recently a group of diverse Tucsonans gathered for a Tucson Community Town Hall on “Funding PreK-12 Education.” The purpose was to build consensus recommendations to be incorporated into the statewide gathering set for this month. Some participants came with expertise and experience, others were concerned citizens who value the life-long benefits of solid PreK-12 education.
Before the gathering, an excellent resource document helped to inform and focus discussion. There were two brief presentations, but the majority of the morning was spent in small group discussions. Every table was given the same questions to encourage discussion.
At my table, the diversity of expertise, experience and opinion was immediately apparent. Working under the Town Hall consensus process, it was equally apparent that people listened to each other and valued different perspectives. Working toward consensus is a very different process than trying to score debate points. As in my previous Town Hall experiences, I was heartened by the ease and grace my table partners came to consensus on a number of recommendations.
I have convened many meetings in my career. The Arizona Town Hall’s culture of mutual respect and honoring the dignity of every participant are key ingredients to making the consensus process lead to solid recommendations and the formation of relationships and partnerships to bring about the implementation of recommendations.
I believe what we ended up with are important action steps for what our community believes needs to be done to shape our future leaders, engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs and teachers. Four pages of recommendations and a page of “I will” statements (personal commitments to help implement the recommendations) can be found at www.aztownhall.org/Community_Programs. I draw a few examples here:
“Arizona’s PreK-12 education system needs to create citizens who have the creativity, skills and understanding of the available opportunities that are necessary for them to add value to our community by being good citizens and by adding to the talent of our state.”
There was consensus that “we simply do not adequately fund education in Arizona: The pie is just too small to meet our needs. At the least, Arizona’s education funding should be raised to the national median.”
And, “the funding system is not outcome driven at any administrative level and uniformly fails to assess what financial resources are needed to achieve the educational goals we seek to attain.” The recommendations reflect concerns about “disparities between urban and rural areas or between poorer and more affluent neighborhood; and, disparities in access to school choices.”
Increasing teacher wages and benefits is a basic recommendation.
In terms of improving funding, their suggestion is to “renew Proposition 301 and expand to one cent.” The report calls for a “marketing and outreach campaign” to boost more citizen engagement with a specific suggestion to use “ballot initiatives” to create new streams of revenue.
The good news is that Arizona Town Hall’s Community Town Hall programs are bringing even more people together to pave a way forward. I believe Town Hall participants discovered their voices, want them to be heard, and feel empowered for civic engagement.
I invite you to consider your own “I will” statement and visit the website to find resource documents, extensive background reports, the full report of recommendations that will be released any day now, and find your way to get engaged.