ARIZONA TOWN HALL AN INNOVATION STUDIED AROUND THE WORLD

by Tara Jackson, President, Arizona Town Hall

What if there was a way to resolve tough policy issues that made communities stronger, instead of splintered? What if there was a way for political and cultural differences to be a source of creative solutions, instead of raucous divisions? There is. It’s called the Arizona Town Hall.

The process used by the Arizona Town Hall is so unique and makes such a great impact that delegations from other countries frequently travel to Arizona to learn how it’s done. In the words of former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, “There’s really nothing quite like it.”

Arizona Town Hall began in 1962 when Arizona’s political, business and civic leaders were seeking new ways to bring a growing state together. Over the course of its 55-year history, the Town Hall refined its methods, adapted to changing times, and, along the way, created generations of informed leaders and lasting changes that continue to benefit the state.

What makes the process so special?

So much of our policy debates involve just that—debates. Debates often create winners and losers, polarizing parties and entrenching positions. If a solution is reached, it is reached through wrangling and compromise. Innovative ideas that rise above the fray often do not have the space to even be mentioned, let alone discussed. Meanwhile, communities become fractured and divided. One need only to look at our current political climate to see the stagnating and destructive result of policymaking based on polarizing debates. For those who want to solve challenging issues while strengthening relationships and building communities, there is no better process than the one developed and refined by the Arizona Town Hall.

The Arizona Town Hall process uses a model of fact-based consensus. Every part of the process is designed to create an environment in which diverse perspectives come together to create solutions built on objective facts, innovation and imagination. This unique method is premised on the belief that the best solutions happen when all voices have equal value. A CEO may bring the perspective of knowledge and experience, while students and artists are the most likely to field innovative approaches and ideas. When these different perspectives are brought together, magic happens.

How does it have an impact?

The impact of the Town Hall is as varied and long-lasting as its participants. By far, the most important impact is the one it has on its participants. Many, like Jon Kyl, use their involvement with the Town Hall to develop an understanding of policy, refine leadership skills and build relationships across political and professional lines. Others, like the State of Arizona’s recently appointed Chief Operating Officer Gilbert Davidson, find ways to use Town Hall methods to make government more efficient and responsive to its citizens. Student participants often report their experience to be life-changing—inspiring them to change career paths or igniting a passion for civic participation and leadership that lasts a lifetime.

Town Hall sessions are a fertile ground for policy solutions, which participants then champion and implement. As a result, every Arizonan has felt the impact of the Town Hall, whether they realize it or not. The recommendations of participants are memorialized into a written recommendations’ report that is combined with the background report and then widely disseminated. The report creates “shovel- ready” solutions for Arizona’s business and civic leaders. While Arizona Town Hall is the neutral facilitator and therefore cannot be the implementer of the ideas developed, participants routinely cite the concepts discussed and relationships made at Town Hall gatherings as the basis for lasting changes. These changes include items as diverse as the establishment of the merit-selection system for judges, the Groundwater Management Act, the license plates seen on daily drives stamped with “It shouldn’t hurt to be a child,” freeway systems, programs to recruit and retain teachers, economic development tools, local ordinances and individual changes in behavior that help to preserve and protect Arizona’s natural environment.

Changing with the time

While the Town Hall’s mission has stayed the same, the methods and mechanisms have adapted to present needs.

Recognizing the impact of the process on our youth, as well as the importance of their perspective, a Future Leaders Town Hall was initiated in 2011. Communities and schools across the state hold these Town Halls using a toolkit of materials provided by the Arizona Town Hall.

Inspired by the popularity and success of the Future Leaders Town Halls, Arizona Town Hall established Community Town Halls. Whether defined geographically or by interest, Community Town Halls allow a greater number of Arizonans to weigh in on the issues and to experience the process. These community sessions, which are generally shorter in duration, allow for unique perspectives from rural, tribal and other areas to be presented at the statewide Town Hall and to Arizona leaders. Community Town Halls also emphasize individual and community action—creating civically engaged change agents, who begin to implement ideas immediately within their community.

Bringing the process to business and government

Consulting contracts have played an increasing role in funding the operations of the Town Hall while accomplishing its mission. Clients range from private corporations to civic groups and governmental entities. Lake Havasu City credits the Town Hall process for its success in placing second in the “America’s Best Communities” competition, an award that included $2 million to implement ideas developed at the Town Hall.

Whether for a city, a community or the entire state, this unique Arizona innovation strengthens relationships across the state and creates lasting positive change.

 

Meet Evelyn Casuga, Arizona Town Hall Committee Chair

EvelynCasuga serves part time at Central Arizona College in the president’s office in Community Relations and as a consultant to the Center for the Future of Arizona. Her volunteer roles focus on economic and community development, education and civic engagement.

Why did you personally feel a desire to get involved with Arizona Town Hall?

For over 50 years, Arizona Town Hall has created an environment for civil discourse and civic engagement on topics critical to the State of Arizona.I attended my first Town Hall in the early 90s, and was immediately hooked. The passion and engagement from participants all over Arizona, the process by which consensus was reached on thoughtful recommendations and the newfound camaraderie all inspired me. I attended several Town Halls over the next 20 years and subsequently served on the board of directors.

Since retiring from my corporate role at the end of 2014, I’ve continued to participate as a volunteer with the organization, serving as Development Committee Chair, assisting with media relations during Town Hall events and supporting Town Hall activities throughout Arizona.

The need is as critical as ever that Arizonans have a vehicle for expressing themselves on topics impacting their lives and in a manner that educates, engages and moves individuals and organizations toward positive action.I hope that my skills and relationships can contribute to continuing this effort through Arizona Town Hall.

What do you see as the most important issue(s) AZTH is addressing in the region?

The 2017 Arizona Town Hall topic is funding pre-K -12 education, and the event was held Nov. 12-15 in Mesa.Although this subject was selected by the AZTH membership two years ago at the 2015 annual meeting, which is the process for topic selection, it couldn’t be timelier.In Pinal County, with workforce as a main focus area, including its relationship to education, the topic is relevant right now.

Pinal County residents have an opportunity to participate and to host a community outreach program in our region to hear the outcomes of this year’s town hall and provide additional input.There are several active Arizona Town Hall members in the county who can assist in organizing an event.

What work are you doing to address these issues?

In addition to volunteering with Arizona Town Hall, I am serving on the Achieve Pinal Committee of the Pinal Alliance for Economic Growth.Our efforts are to find solutions to close the gap from 29 percent of Pinal County residents (Arizona is at 42 percent) to 60 percent of adults 24-65 acquiring a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2030, under the Achieve60AZ effort.This is a lofty, yet critical goal if Pinal County intends on having the workforce to fill the jobs of the future as well as a sustainable economy.

The Center for the Future of Arizona, where I also consult, and Expect More Arizona are the two nonprofit, non-partisan organizations moving the education progress meter and goals conversation forward with a number of other organizations statewide.

What can the community do to support you and AZTH in your efforts?

An active and positively engaged community is likely to have healthier outcomes for its residents. These are communities that find solutions, particularly for local issues, from education to transportation to homelessness. However, the disenfranchised and unengaged need to be brought into the fold as well.Learning to participate, becoming civically engaged and having a voice can be a community goal. Arizona Town Hall has tools, resources and volunteers to assist.

 

Meet Everett Rhodes, Arizona Town Hall Past Board Member & Participant

Everett Rhodes is a retired educator with over 40 years of service in Pinal County. He is a past agricultural teacher/Future Farmers of America advisor in Casa Grande and 4-H agent with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.He served as Director of Project CENTRL, Arizona’s Center for Rural Leadership, from 1997 to 2013.

Why did you personally feel a desire to get involved with AZTH?

My active involvement with Arizona Town Hall started soon after my appointment as Director of Project CENTRL (Arizona’s Center for Rural Leadership). The mission of CENTRL is to equip and empower leaders to meet the needs of rural Arizona. My personal desire to get involved with Arizona Town Hall was to ultimately strengthen the voice for rural Arizona. Tara Jackson, President of Arizona Town Hall, attended many of Project CENTRL’s leadership seminars and helped to stimulate more active dialogue on important topics facing rural Arizona. The experiences gained as a past board member and participant in Arizona Town Hall have sharpened my tools to be a more informed and responsive leader. Undoubtedly, the organization has greatly enhanced the level of civic engagement among many rural leaders, who have successfully completed the CENTRL leadership program. With a common vision to have a healthy, vibrant and sustainable future for rural Arizona, our leadership program has been well served by Arizona Town Hall.

What do you see as the most important issue(s) AZTH is addressing in the region?

Education. The 110th Arizona Town Hall addressed funding for pre-K-12 education. Although there is a growing acceptance in our state to improving funding, sadly, Arizona ranks near the bottom in our current expenditures for public education. This shortfall is especially felt in rural Arizona, where it is increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality teachers. I strongly feel our future success is dependent upon having a well-educated population. We must do a better job of accomplishing this important task.

What work are you doing to address these issues?

My wife and I are retired educators with over 80 years of combined service to teaching in Pinal County. We continue to be strong advocates for public education. During my lifelong career in agricultural education as a FFA advisor, 4-H agent, and Project CENTRL Director, I strived to make a positive difference in the lives of my students and young adults. Education has always been a topic among the many public policy issues addressed in seminars conducted by Project CENTRL. I have attended past Arizona Town Hall sessions on education and served as a school board member in Casa Grande.

What can the community do to support you and AZTH in your efforts?

Get involved! Attend school board meetings, parent-teacher organizations, activities and other forums that address local needs for education.Stay informed regarding local educational issues and support bond elections and initiatives that will improve education. I feel education is a national concern, a state responsibility and a local function. The future progress made in our schools will be driven by the level of attention and grass roots support given by our community.School funding is complex, and it is most important for voters to be informed and involved in making responsible changes to improve education in Arizona.

If you could snap your fingers and have three key changes made to better our community, what would you choose?

I would wish for improvements in education, transportation and water resources. Again, I strongly feel a well-educated population is a foundation for future growth and development. The rapid growth in Central and Southern Arizona has also increased the need to improve transportation and the economic infrastructure to support an increasingly diverse population. Water is the lifeblood of our desert.Although we have done a good job of managing this resource in the past, we must find new ways to assure the delivery of a sustainable water supply for future generations.