Monday, May 22, 2006

are there enough voices when making those choices?

I listened to another good podcast over the weekend that was held at the City Club (from December 2005). Speaking first was David Abbott, Director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland. He was followed by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, President of AmericaSpeaks in Washington DC, the organization administering the Voices & Choices forum for Northeast Ohio.

If you haven’t heard of Voices & Choices, it’s a pretty cool idea. A bunch of philanthropic and civic organizations pooled together their resources to form the “Fund for Our Economic Future”. The “Fund” has contributed to a variety of recent economic development efforts including local grants, economic benchmark reports, and the Voices & Choices forum.

There are a variety of approaches that communities can follow to create strategies for economic development. One is to hire outside consultants to analyze a region and make recommendations. Another angle is more of a “bottom-up” approach, which is to collect the opinions of the citizens and leaders of a region, collectively using their thoughts to identify the strengths of a region, and plot a course dedicated to the desires of the public. Voices & Choices takes the latter approach, and to date have successfully completed many interviews, and community and region-wide meetings to collect information. Some of their findings can be found here.

Abbott and Lukensmeyer do a good job in explaining Northeast Ohio’s changing role in an über-competitive global economy, as well as presenting the preliminary results in their search for consensus from public opinion. They espouse the Surowieckian (a new word I think) view that the best decisions are made by large and diverse groups.

But two components of their speech made me ponder possible gaps in the methodology:

The first statement that initiated contemplation is the often used and scary statistic that around fifty percent of the students in the region’s central urban school districts do not graduate from high school. My question is this: do high-school dropouts have a voice within Voices & Choices? Their agenda right now is entering a phase of interviews with thousands of individuals around the region. My only concern is that the civic-minded people who care about the region constitute the overwhelming majority of the interviewees. Perhaps a geographically diverse, age diverse, and racially diverse group is being interviewed – but maybe there are other sectors of diversity that can be reached out to as well.

When I send a mass email to my friends inviting them to participate in something, usually other college-educated twenty-somethings are the recipients. I’m not trying to be non-diverse, it’s just that's who compromises the majority of my social contacts so far in life. I just hope the extension of the social network chain in the Voices & Choices interview process is picking up the most diverse group possible.

The second statement that got my attention was the immense concentration of these interviews that will take place with other Northeast Ohioans. It made me wonder that if only residents of NEO are interviewed, this may also be a less diverse bunch. As an experiment, it would be interesting to use the alumni organizations of local universities (or another group) to initiate interviews with former residents of the area, and see if there is a difference in the responses. This idea may contrast with the concept that the best base for decision-making is the people that live here, but it can also be said that people who left may have an interesting point of view, including diverse reflections and suggestions. Now that they have left the area and seen outside of the region, they might have extremely valuable ideas.

Regardless of who you are, I’m sure the people at Voices & Choices would care about your opinions. (to my surprise they made a link to my two-month old blog off their own blog site). Click here to find out how to get involved and have your opinions heard.


Joe Goldman said...

Thanks for your post on Voices & Choices.

It is certainly the case that ensuring adequate diversity in the process is one of the greatest and most important challenges for the Voices & Choices process. From the launch of the process, we have built a great team of grassroots organizers whose job it is to work to bring in those voices that are less heard and to ensure that the process is representative as possible. To date, we have engaged about 13,000 people in the Voices & Choices process and while our efforts certainly haven't been perfect, participation in the process has been remarkable diverse to date.

Janko said...

Good luck on your continuing success.

There has been a lot of news in Youngstown this week about high-school dropouts and people in the criminal justice system.

It might be interesting to have the high-school dropouts and inmates also participate in Voices & Choices. Maybe they could help us to zero in on some of our problems.

Joe Goldman said...

That's a great thought. Our organizer in Youngtown is Jamael Brown at YSU. I'm sure he'd love to hear your ideas: