Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 3, 2013

Phil Power: A call for citizen input

By Phil Power
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The cover has a big picture of an ear.

Underneath, the headline: “This is a politician’s ear. Bend it!”

That’s the first thing anyone will see when they pick up the cover of the discussion guide for this year’s round of Community Conversations sponsored by The Center for Michigan.

You talk, they listen. We’ve done it before, and we’re doing it again: These Community Conversations are small gatherings designed to bring Michiganders together and call forth their views on where our state should be going. In all, some 3,000 folks will get together from October through next April in groups of 20-30.

The idea is to help citizens define, frame and amplify their priorities before the November 2014 election, when voters will pick a governor, plus all 38 state senators and 110 state representatives.

This is the fifth major round of community conversations facilitated by the Center for Michigan, the nonprofit, nonpartisan “think and do tank,” I founded more than seven years ago.

Since 2007, the Center has spoken with more than 20,000 citizens, the largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history.

Participants will review information from Bridge Magazine’s Michigan Scorecard about where Michigan stands today with respect to four key policy areas: Economy & Prosperity, Education, Quality of life, and Public Money Priorities. Participants will discuss their views and set priorities for how best to make Michigan a better place.

Together they’ll build a public agenda for our state’s future to help focus political discussion in next year’s election.

The conversations are open to all. Folks who want to participate and help set a citizen agenda for Michigan’s future can call 734-926-4285 or send an email to engage@thecenterformichigan.net.

These conversations aren’t just idle chatter. They’ve proven in past year to have real impact on what actually happens in Michigan:

Preschool: Since 2011, Community Conversation participants have repeatedly put top emphasis on expanding the state’s Great Start Readiness Program for poor and vulnerable four year-olds. Result: The state budget adopted this year increased support for preschool programs by more than any other state.

State Prison Reforms: Dan Heyns, director of the Department of Corrections, credits The Center and public pressure for reforms that have cut hundreds of millions from the state’s prison budget.

As I said, the Center is a “think-and-do” tank, with a preference for doing along with thinking. Here’s one example: This summer, the legislature increased state support for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) by $65 million. To help ensure that this increased state funding actually resulted in increased enrollment, Center President John Bebow and Operations Director A. J. Jones decided to help state government in reaching out to poor, vulnerable and often difficult to reach parents of four year-olds.

They designed and printed 10,000 flyers. Jones drove all over the state to post flyers in likely places — food pantries, United Way and Michigan Works offices, libraries and churches. He also arranged with United Way’s 211 call-in online database system to provide callers with GSRP enrollment details.

Although it’s not entirely clear just how many kids the leaflets drew, just-released state Office of Great Start figures show that a total of 53,834 GSRP slots were requested by Intermediate School Districts, 6,350 more than the 47,484 that the state has funding to fill.

“This was just great,” Jones enthused. “Our flyers were received with open arms by the ISD (Intermediate School Districts, which each service one of more whole counties.)”

The Community Conversations beginning this week will give Michiganders a chance to think together. Based on past evidence, I’d be willing to bet that the thinking they’ll do will wind up having a big impact on what actually gets done in Michigan.