Saturday, April 9, 2016

Right on purpose: inclusion requires intention

Gender, race, and age composition of Rochester boards and commissions

"If anything was done wrong, it was unintentional." - A.F. Brede

"This is the place that every person in Rochester owns." - R.T. Rybak

It’s even called the “Heart of the City”. A.F. Brede describes it as “a true center for Rochester, a cross-roads where Mayo Clinic, commercial, hospitality, retail and residential meet.” Sounds pretty special. And not just for downtown business owners and developers and builders; or, the associations that represent the interests of downtown business owners and developer and builders. It’s a place of our own that we all own - "every person".

Quite admirably, the Destination Medical Center Corporation Board of Directors (DMCC) and the City of Rochester (the city) formed a “Community Advisory Committee” (CAC) for the public space design of this sub-district of the Destination Medical Center (DMC) Development Plan. The "public space" of which we have come to hear so much in recent weeks. Those streets and sidewalks and plazas and parks that make a downtown more than a strip mall.

So it was that 9 to 12 chairs were provided to include the interests of a diverse public that comes to this  “place that every person in Rochester owns”. Unfortunately, only 90 or so people ask to sit in those chairs.

"We do rely – and we have to rely – on those people that apply." - A.F. Brede

Of course private spaces abut public spaces. Right now in the Downtown (tm), the private spaces even spill out onto the public spaces. People who own and develop and build private spaces have an understandable interest in those public spaces they abut and those public spaces they have appropriated for their private interests. Be that as it may, public spaces remain public. Or should. If you really want to talk about public space design, you go heavy on the public interest. Or should.

Regrettably, we know that keeping the public interest well represented in public affairs has been something of a challenge for the city. Some in local government and media wonder openly about the wisdom of so much public involvement in civic affairs. Fortunately, in this case, establishing CAC answered the question of public involvement in the affirmative. Unfortunately, forming CAC ran afoul of local outreach practices that produce outcomes which never fully grasp the notion of inclusion.

As recently as December 2015, the issue of diversity and inclusion in appointments to city boards and commissions was raised by members of the city council. A few months later, the city council received an unflattering report on those appointments. So, it's not like concerns about diversity and inclusion in the outcomes of mayoral appointments to public bodies were unknown.  One might have thought these concerns would have been reflected in the appointments to a high profile body like CAC. Not so much.

In March 2016, the issue of inclusion was raised again in a local editorial along with concerns about the transparency of the appointment process. "Since the mayor is the only person privy to the specific details< the editorial observed, "it would be hard to speculate whether the best decisions are always made...." But, with the CAC appointments, we do have the list of the 90+ applicants seeking a deliberative voice in the public space design of the "place in Rochester that every person owns."

It is difficult to review this list of 90+ applicants and not ask a few questions about the mayoral appointment process as it currently exists, the lack of inclusion it continues to produce, and the expanding circle of those complicit in both.

"They want to know that you ... sometimes change your mind." - R.T. Rybak

One can take the mayor at his word that anything "done wrong" was "unintentional". But just as the school district has learned that intent is not needed to produce disparate outcomes, so too the city might come to understand that wrong is wrong whether you intend it or not.

These "unintended wrongs" require intention to be corrected. If doing wrong is to be regarded as some sad accident, then right must be done with purpose, on purpose. Indeed, that's how the right thing always gets done.

What might we do on purpose to improve:
  1. Add more diversity to the appointment process: Establish a "committee on committees" that oversees the appointment process. Give them the authority not just to appoint, but to do outreach. Other governing bodies have made use of this practice. If changing the city charter is necessary, change it.
  2. Add more diversity to the applicant pool: Actively partner with Ready to Lead, a local program to equip people with the knowledge and skills to feel confident in volunteering to serve on community, nonprofit, and government committees seeking diverse voices and representation. Note: seeking diverse voices not waiting for them to show up - or ignoring them when they do (see also). Leadership Greater Rochester is another long-standing program of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce that prepares people for an active role in civic and community affairs. 
  3. Add more chairs: This will go a long way in doing the right thing now about CAC. There is no virtue in a small group size. The goal should not be some misguided desire for efficiency. Inclusion is the point. More voices, not fewer, and the challenges that come with adding them. Larger groups can function productively. 

"Since we will create it by the seat of our pants, let's provide plenty of chairs for the city we hope to build." - R.D. Beal

About a year ago, how many chairs we provide came up in this blog:
Whenever we provide too few chairs from which these others might speak, we deprive ourselves of the textured diversity that creates the better futures we hope for. Here, for Block, is the "real politics of our lives". Our lives improve as 
...[W]e collectively choose to be together in a way that creates a space for something new to occur. What is needed is for us to choose over and over to more widely distribute ownership  [for creating change] and accountability. These choices spring from the hands of citizens, rather than the hands of experts and system executives. These choices arise when we value, invest in, and recognize the gifts and capacities of citizens. (Block, Community
Though I sat down to celebrate people sitting down with a problem and standing up with possibilities, this day - May 4th - took me elsewhere. I want to come back to that place where I began, people sitting down in a city at the threshold of a bold, unprecedented future. Most of that future is uncharted. Since we will create it by the seat of our pants, let's provide plenty of chairs for the city we hope to build.

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