Public Involvement or Meaningful Involvement?

There is a desire  in the community for more public involvement in our schools.  But is what we crave public involvement or meaningful involvement?

We hear the cry to allow greater participation from the public in the decisions of our school board and administration.  We know some of the means and methods for public involvement (public comment at board meetings, participation in district sponsored events like Supper with the Superintendent, or meeting with others in the public at the Rose and Taylor community forums).  Public involvement is treated as an event rather than participation in a decision-making process.  In many cases the schools are managing their interactions with the public like it is part of a public relations campaign rather than an collaborative relationship.  Basically, this public involvement is top-down communications from the schools to the public.  It is information sharing (and even this is sometimes lacking).

What I hear people craving is meaningful involvement or meaningful participation.  Meaningful involvement is about getting people participating in their government.  It is about fostering involvement that leads to strategies that overcome cynicism or mistrust.  It is about facilitating opportunities for informed participation to influence decisions taken by our school board or the administration.

This post started with an “or” question.  Perhaps it is not an either/or but rather a both/and.

What are your thoughts?

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6 Responses to “Public Involvement or Meaningful Involvement?”

  1. charlesdschultz Says:

    Thanks for sharing Vav. (woot! Another author!)

    The word picture in my head is a family unit. Dysfunctional families are so labeled because they either lack or struggle in one or more aspects of a healthy, sound family. I think, and I could be completely wrong, that the characteristics of a healthy family could be extended out to larger entities like school districts and even government. Here are some of the characteristics I personally associate with a healthy family (note: I have not yet perfected them in my own – these are idealistic):
    – An overt, explicit, interwoven, implied and ubiquitous presence of love. Not necessarily the “oh you make me feel so good” kind, but the sacrificial kind that says “your life is more important than mine”
    – That love creates a petri dish for mutual trust to blossom
    – That love also necessitates servant leadership; strong and visionary leadership, to be sure, but a serving kind, not a dictatorship

    We do not have many examples of this kind of relationship in our society. We have many imperfect examples (like myself). Part of the problem is that the word “love” has a lot of baggage and is abused, so it is hard to use that word to convey ideas in this medium. So when I say “love” above, I am talking about a deep concern for human life, a compassion for others, a longing for what is best, a holistic outlook that does not focus on self.

    I clearly see the imprint of the “transportation decissionmaking” paper in your words. 🙂 One thing I want to be careful of is ignoring the organic nature of relationships. Theory is great in gaining understanding of generalities, but we must be careful not to use it as the gold standard. Or maybe I am just biased – I am not a big theory person, and often times long, scientific papers turn me into a cynic of the scientific method. But when the rubber hits the road, that is how things really works.

    And by the way, I am very slowly making my way through that beast (decissionmaking).

    • Vav Says:

      Yes, this post was inspired by the recent report on Practical Approaches for Involving Traditionally Underserved Populations in Transportation Decisionmaking. I’ll likely have several follow up posts on the material from this report to see if we can get conversations started.

      I really appreciate your picture of a family unit. I agree with your characteristics for healthy family. The love that you speak of is, unfortunately, not the common definition that is often understood with the word. I looked at the Wikipedia entry for love and the first definition is what many think of, “an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment,” when the virtue of love, “the unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another,” is what we should strive for. We should strive for agapē love, which is described as charitable, selfless, altruistic, and unconditional.

      Another thought: In schools, we are often focused on the rules. What is allowed, what is not allowed. What if we turned our focus first to showing brotherly love. That brotherly love comes with expectations. Expectations for behavior, respect of others, hard work, commitment, etc. That brotherly love allows us as parents, students, teachers, staff, administration, and board to have unselfish loyal concern for the good of each other. Maybe this only exists in utopia. Can it exist with a public board, an ‘adult focused’ administration, or a teacher’s union? So much focus on rules, what is allowed and not allowed. What is required and not required. Not enough concern for the good of another.

  2. pattsi Says:

    The time has come the walrus says to speak of many things—–the time is for both of you and how many others who are ready to join in to pick up a shovel, put it into the earth, and turn over the shovel full. This is a metaphor to stop talking through many different means, go to the CPL, reserve room C on a Wednesday from 6:30-8P, invite everyone who has concerns about Unit 4, set a short agenda, get some news print boards and black thick pens, and gather for the first discussion about Unit 4. Create an informal group, take notes, post the notes after the gathering, pick the next date and maybe invite certain individuals who will help the group move forward, and just keep going bit by bit. You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    Pattsi: Check – April 17, May 15 (Urbana Library), maybe September 13 (Salem), plus some others sprinkled in between.

    Just bouncing back to the original topic. After reading the Executive Summary and the Introduction, I was compelled to get a push more eagerly. I feel very strongly that there is something here that is ultimately at the very root of our society, our community. I have not yet found it, but am still digging.

    I wrote a letter to Dr. Wiegand and Lynn Peisker:

    Good evening, Dr. Wiegand and Lynn,

    I have a few questions and thoughts concerning the Public Engagement firm that Unit 4 is in the process of looking for. I share your desire to see trust grow and blossom between the school district (ie, Administration and the Board) and the community at large. It is because of that desire that I would like to learn a little more about the Public Engagement firm and the goal the District has in hiring them.

    So first some questions to help me understand a little better:
    1. May I see the RFP that went out for the Public Engagement firm(s)? I believe it was on the U4 website at one point, but I am not finding it now.
    2. Who ultimately holds the responsibility for hiring the firm? I assume a group/committee is involved – may I ask who sits on it?
    3. When the responding firms interview in the next few days, what particular characteristics and qualities are looked for?
    4. What goals does the District hope to accomplish via the hiring of a PE firm?

    You can stop reading there if you like. 🙂 I am more than happy to chat in person or on the phone if that helps better convey what I am thinking. But just in case you would like to read more, here we go.

    Bill Vavrik sent me a giganormous research paper about decision-making in the transportation industry. I know, this seems totally out-of-the-blue and irrelevant; bear with me. Although I have only read the Executive Summary and the Introduction so far, I am very much impressed by several things. And I believe that all of you reading this would probably agree by the time you reach the end.

    Big decisions have far-reaching ramifications. We can easily take the scenario of building highways and how that often has negative affects on “lower-class” citizens and apply it to how cities like Chamaign-Urbana continue to progress towards sprawl and ever-increasing taxes that have exponential affects on low-income wage earners, migrant workers and other similar groups. In these kinds of cases, many affected folks are essentially eliminated from the sphere of conversation and public discussion for various reasons. Thus the authors make a point to highlight, over and over, the many laws that have gone into affect to give attention to low-SES and minorities, laws that focus on Civil Rights and intentionally engaging the “less vocal”. I have been astounded by the number of laws put in place – this makes me consider that most people, when left to their own devices, are greedy, selfish and prideful. The paper refers to this as “environmental justice”, a term that forms the cornerstone of Majora Carter’s work as well. Majora was on campus last week and spoke to many different groups about empowering those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, not only by giving them a voice, but by catalyzing powerful and wonderful collaboration.

    It is rather hard to distill the body of the research paper into a few sentences, let alone a few words. But for me, what jumped out the most is a chart labeled “Core Values for Public Participation” (taken from IAP2 website). Essentially, if I may be so bold as to condense the precepts, the idea is to go out and actively listen to what people say. In your own ways, I believe that both of you (Dr. Wiegand and Lynn) are doing an excellent job of this already. The very last bullet point seems to me the capstone – “Communicates to participants how their input affected the decision”. I call this “reverse feedback” and am a huge proponent of this. This is why at Jamar Brown’s April 3rd “open meeting” I publicly urged Jamar (and continue to bug him once a week) to make public what he heard at that meeting.

    I am dearly hoping that the PE firm we hire holds these same Core Values. If they do not, I would strongly urge we keep looking.

    With sincerity of heart, passion for justice and in the humbleness of my own weakness, I wish you a most blessed evening and an excellent Thursday,

    So far, I have the RFP, the other answers are forthcoming. After looking at the RFP, I had two follow-up questions:
    1. The RFP states that a firm will be selected 14 days after April 5th. Would that be April 19th? And if so, has a firm been chosen?
    2. I would ask that the district make a stalwart effort to carry forward any practices and methods developed by the PE firm, such that even after the PE firm completes its contract, we as a community are left with a method of continuing engagement and conversations. I assume this is implied, but since it is not explicitly stated in the RFP I wanted to put it out in the open. Is this the long-term intent?

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Response from Dr. Wiegand (in regards to my last two questions):

    Two firms replied to the RFP and interviews will be held with both firms. A recommendation will then be brought forward for Board approval at the May 14th Meeting.

    Yes, the long-term intent is to continue to develop effective means to engage with all segments of the Champaign community.

  5. charlesdschultz Says:

    Apparently this thread is hidden from google – I had a heck of time finding it again. Strange.

    Anyway, talked to Sue Grey on Monday; one firm was interviewed last week (April 27th) and another was scheduled for this week (either May 1st or 2nd).


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