By Rufus Woods
Publisher, Wenatchee World
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
I’m beginning to believe that citizen engagement in public policy discussions is being rekindled in our communities, and that is very welcome indeed. It gives me hope that the thin democracy being practiced in this country today can be traded for a more vigorous version.
In recent columns, I’ve talked about a broad-based effort in Leavenworth to develop affordable housing and also articulated how hundreds of people from diverse perspectives have helped the Wenatchee School District create a compelling vision for the future.
In both cases, rather than the policy being driven by a few officials cloistered behind closed doors making assumptions that may or may not hold true, the direction was owned by a broader cross-section of the community.
One of the architects of the Wenatchee Learns effort, consultant Ben Field, commented to me recently that he hopes that effort will help revitalize democracy. Now that’s an audacious goal, but I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that getting away from business as usual in government and engaging citizens creatively has tremendous potential to change the way that the public thinks about government.
It seems to me that most of us have resigned ourselves to a consumer mentality when it comes to public institutions. We vote and pay our electric bill and taxes to the city and feel like we’re entitled to services. But we can and should take a more active interest in civic affairs. Rather than being just consumer of services, we ought to think like owners — that we have an investment interest in seeing that our institutions work well.
It is often said that people will support what they help to create, and certainly in the case of Leavenworth there is a great sense of ownership in making sure that the community exists for more than just the elite, but for those who work for a living. They are invested in that effort, which gives it tremendous power and vitality.
My sense is that the Wenatchee Learns project will ultimately change the way people in the community feel about education — that the responsibility is not just the school board’s but shared by businesses and community members.
Achieving that will require that the school board and administration take positive steps to make change based on the input the community has provided. Making bold steps cannot happen without community support and by engaging people in helping create the vision, there’s no question that school board members should feel very confident in following through.
The critical point is this. The district has taken a very open approach to gather input without trying to influence the outcome one way or another. It has been an intellectually honest effort without which this effort would have died a quick and ugly death.
With a clear vision developed by engaging the community, it becomes a heck of a lot easier to make significant changes. In the case of Wenatchee Learns, rather than being the school board’s project, it becomes the community’s project.
That’s the way democracy ought to work. In fact, it’s the only way real democracy can work. I hope other public agencies are taking note of these collaborative, community-based approaches.
We can tackle tough issues if the community is engaged effectively.