The politics of listening

 

The US House of Representatives was not successful in passing a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. This is being portrayed as a failure of policy and leadership, with blame leaving virtually no person, party, or organization in Washington unscathed. At the same time, there is a general consensus that parts of the Affordable Care Act are in need of a policy fix. For instance, insurance premiums are rising, not enough healthy and young people are signing up, and insurance companies are not finding it profitable to enter the marketplace across the board. Each of these are separate but related issues that require a set of solutions that expand and enhance access for all citizens to quality, affordable care.

There are ideological, practical, financial, and philosophical divides on these and other issues related to health care, as there are with any number of other social and economic issues now confronting political leaders. With such divisions, “debate” and argument and protest will often become emotionally charged, leading the most dispassionate among us screaming in frustration and the most passionate among us engaging in rhetoric and behavior that is frankly unbecoming of a people who claim to cherish their freedoms of speech and assembly.

Freedom is not, as Janice Joplin sings, just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is more than fierce individuality; freedom is real only when a person lives, acts, thinks, speaks, or believes without fear of oppression, censorship, or emotional, social, financial or physical retribution for a livelihood, behavior, thought, message, or belief that is somehow different than that of any other person or any group of other people.

What are missing from the arguments around health care are two things: freedom (citizens do not feel as though they can speak openly) and politics.

Yes, politics is missing from the argument. To be sure, I do not mean party politics; there is certainly enough of that occurring to make us want to curl up with George Washington’s Farewell Address by a soft fire and think about “happier times” when at least one man dreamed of a country without factions.

Politics and political participation are often measured and discussed in terms of voice and action. How many of us are voting? How many attending community or local council meetings? How large was the protest? Who is still writing letters to the editor of a newspaper, or expressing their view of politics on social media or other website?

Passivity is considered a civic and political ill. As former US Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham writes in America, the Owner’s Manual, civics is not a spectator sport.

However, a certain amount of inaction is necessary in a politics designed to produce responsive policies. Inaction that consists of listening and striving to understand can be the most meaningful form of political participation in a society, and it is a form that is now ill practiced.

The decision to stop, sit, and listen can be the most courageous political act a person can take. Our 24/7 media, always connected social media and networks, and politics of promises and bluster, push us all to speak first, speak over someone second, speak third, and maybe, if we are still engaged, listen fourth.

On Monday, April 3, 2017, the College of Health and Public Affairs, with support from the School of Public Administration and Center for Public and Nonprofit Management, is convening a Community Conversation on Health Care. This is the second such conversation, the first having occurred on December 22, 2008 following a call from the Obama transition team to citizens around the country.

In 2008, with 70+ people crammed into a room fit for 30, we demonstrated that civil discussion is possible, that individuals from different backgrounds and with different values, can sit in a single space without once raising a voice in anger or disgust, or raising a fist in intimidation, or raising a photo of any political leader defaced to look like Hitler.

In these times, when we have social fragmentation more manifest than any we have seen in recent and perhaps long-term memory, we aim to demonstrate the potential of politics once again to be a unifying force, discussion to be a means to understanding the complexity of our individual and collective lives, and listening to be the tool most underused in a society that is known through its history to be civil but often in word only and not always in deed.

This is a political event; it is not an event with a policy agenda, partisan agenda, or to produce an advocacy outcome beyond process. This is about the politics of listening.

RSVP to attend through email to thomas.bryer@ucf.edu, or write to the same for more information.

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Crowdresearching: How to Create Civically Healthy Communities

I am launching a new idea, a new concept that marries the practice of community-engaged research with the social and innovation process of crowdsourcing. My research question is this: How do we create more civically healthy communities?

This is an initiative driven by my receipt of an inaugural Reach for the Stars research award from the University of Central Florida. The award gives me $10,000 per year for at least three years in a discretionary research fund. I intend to use these limited dollars as leverage for additional financial and non-financial resources to answer my question: How do we create more civically health communities?

A civically healthy community is one in which participatory processes are inclusive and diverse and in which participants have the skills, tools, and confidence to contribute meaningfully to the social, economic, and intellectual strengthening of communities.

I am going to launch a series of interactive online tools over the summer to engage the community defined as broadly as it wants to be to piece together a series of related but distinct actionable research projects that engage geographic communities, government officials, citizens (including the passive, active, and civically disconnected by every measure), scholars, nonprofit leaders, and private sector leaders.

These stakeholders will share an interest in investing in our people and communities so that citizen engagement and public participation is elevated for all citizens and governments, enabling more trusting citizens, more trustworthy governments, more responsive government, more civil citizens, and enhanced social and economic outcomes in our communities. 

Why crowdresearching? I am perfectly capable of designing a research study in a vacuum, but on the question of creating more civically healthy communities, I know only what my experiences and passive reading of research reports have taught me. To design a study, or set of interlocking studies, I need the community. The community can help identify geographic locations and government jurisdictions that are willing to partner in experimentation, can help raise funds to conduct the experimentation, can help implement and provide mass oversight of the study process, and can help translate the findings to civic and government leaders around the United States and beyond–thus spreading innovation and ideas about what works, why, how, and for how much.

I have written in previous publications that unless we as a society invest properly in the civic and participatory efforts maintained by our various governments and other public serving entities, then we should quit the facade, because we may be doing more harm than good. We may be leading to more distrust than increased trust. It is time to invest, but to invest, we need to know more about how to invest across and within the diverse populations that makeup the majority of citizens who are just not showing up.

If you are interested in helping understand how we can give citizens the skills, tools, and confidence to participate meaningfully in our civic and political life, contact me thomas.bryer@ucf.edu. I will sign you up, sign you in, and we can begin together to create more civically healthy communities.

Together for Tomorrow: An Assessment of Partnership Formation

In spring 2013, students in PAD 6825 (Cross-Sector Governance) completed a service learning porject to evaluate the parntership formation in five Together for Tomorrow cities. They conducted telephone interviews with lead agencies in each city, VISTA members, school officials, and community partners to ascertain the processes employed to develop partnerships and utilize AmeriCorps VISTA resources. The project was jointly designed with the Corporation for National and Community Service and culminated in a national webinar, where students presented findings to a live audience of approximately 100 community leades. The contents of this brief are drawn in part from the data collected by students. This partnership is a win-win-win, for students learning about community partnerships, for the Corporation for National and Community Service seeking information about their pilot locations, ad for communities that can benefit from lessons learned to replicate or expand Together for Tomorrow.

Download the issue brief here.

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Fighting Poverty with a Passion and a University Partner

With pressures to both develop skills necessary for an emerging job market and to develop strong, active, and ethical citizens, higher education institutions are facing a period reform. This article presents a case study of an academic center that strives, as part of its mission, to cultivate civically healthy communities through strategic university-community partnerships. Specifically, the case study examines the role of an academic center hosting an AmeriCorps VISTA program in building the capacity of school district, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations that are individually and collectively seeking to enhance educational resources and opportunities for K-12 homeless students. The article describes the rationale, theory, design, and early results of this partnership, and it suggests implications for both university-community partnerships and national service initiatives.

Download the article here (or click the image below) from the Journal of Nonprofit Management.

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Beyond Job Creation and Service Learning: Putting the Public Back in Public Affairs Education

I am happy to share an article that is forthcoming in Journal of Public Affairs Education. This also serves as the foundation for a larger book project. I welcome your thoughts. Download the article here. Below is an excerpt and one of the descriptive figures that form the core of the argument.

The aim in this article is to suggest an umbrella “end state” or aim for higher education, in which each of these four vistas are vital components. To continue the standard approach to higher education reform by selecting one vista, theory, or grand narrative to the exclusion of others is perhaps naïve given the withdrawal of public financial support over the past couple of decades and more prominently in the past few years. Universities are well placed to leverage relationships, act as conveners and facilitators, and to take advantage of their vast amounts of human, intellectual, social, and political capital. The modern and future university needs to be at once versatile, innovative, perceived as a partner, and not be dependent on any one or two sources of revenue. To quote Lay (2004, p. 111), “the university should be valued as an intellectual resource of inherent social usefulness.” For public affairs education, this means the public needs to be placed at the center of the enterprise.

Figure 1_JPAE Forthcoming