Your voice matters: Arizona Town Hall’s  process builds a road map

 Kirk Grugel

For more than 50 years, the Arizona Town Hall has facilitated an opportunity for its citizens to engage in structured conversations about many topics important to the future of our state. The 104th Arizona Town Hall recently convened in Tucson to discuss the topic of our vulnerable populations throughout the state. I had the opportunity to participate and represent the ideas, issues and concerns of our own communities here in Navajo County.

The issue we faced — that 46 percent of people in our state are one situation away from being in crisis. Here in Apache and Navajo counties, the two poorest in the state, we know that number is significantly higher.

Every day, I see parents struggle to provide food for their kids. A good education is a distant thought when you can’t even fill a child’s tummy. Parents need the help and education to help break the cycle. How do we take steps to help — especially when we have no large business here and there is so much triage needed it’s hard to know where to begin?

In my 15 years of public service, I have never participated in such intense conversations with such a diverse group. Over three days, we developed consensus opinions outlining strategies and recommendations to improve the chances of the state’s vulnerable from falling into crisis. It was an amazing experience.

The preparation work for a Town Hall starts many months in advance when a specific topic is decided on by the board of directors and its membership. Over the past 52 years of its existence, many topics have been discussed including early education, Arizona’s energy future, civic engagement, Arizona’s water future, to name a few. A comprehensive report about the topic of the Town Hall is prepared by one of our three major state universities. This year’s report was prepared by ASU, along with dozens of well-heeled researchers and professors. Each participant studies that report before attending the Town Hall.

To dig into the topic of Arizona’s most vulnerable, we convened April 27 in Tucson with citizens from every corner of our state. We were split up into five different panels and assigned a facilitator and a recorder. Over a very intense three days of morning and afternoon sessions, and guest speakers during our meal events, we were skillfully guided through conversations that were vibrant and rich in content and opinion.

As we gathered, titles and position were left at the door. We were all simply Arizona citizens. Even though opinions and proposed solutions were sometimes extreme from one end of the scale to the other, we were always able to come to a consensus. We were amazed that our skillful recorder was able to read back a very detailed, yet no-nonsense, version of our deliberations and input. After covering a myriad of topics related to Arizona’s vulnerable, the groups gathered in one large room to critique, vet and vote on changes to a final document that is known as the consensus recommendations report.  

What became clear to me is that we need to redefine what a “family” is. We need to look at how we do our work differently. Otherwise the cycle will simply continue. At the Arizona Town Hall, we develop many concrete “next steps.” Here are just a few examples of the recommendations:

— The state Legislature should review mandatory sentencing guidelines in light of the U.S. Department of Justice actions in this regard with the aim to decrease prison populations.

— Reinstate child care subsidies and make full-time students eligible for them.

— Restore funding for the Housing Trust Fund and make it an unsweepable fund.

— The state should increase Arizona’s Working Poor Tax Credit to encourage donations to charities that help members of vulnerable populations.

 — Reverse recent cuts to education funding. The state should restore education spending for pre-K-12, community colleges and universities to pre-recession levels.

— Outlaw predatory lending practices.  

— Provide a dedicated funding stream for Arizona 211 that helps individuals and communities know where they can get information to help them when in need.

— Create an Arizona Council for Family and Individual Resilience.

— Explore joint use agreements to keep school playgrounds open on evenings and weekends.

— Encourage philanthropic funding of innovation prizes to assist vulnerable populations.

— Promote and invest matching funds in Individual Development Accounts as a way to promote savings and teach financial literacy. Engage local school districts to incorporate Individual Development Accounts education into curriculum.

NGOs and government agencies can partner to expand existing collaborative one-stop shops and establish new ones. At these locations, multiple direct services, intake and enrollment assistance in both public and nonprofit programs are provided under one roof.

The next step is to share this document with everyone who can play a role in carrying out these recommendations. That includes Arizona’s executive branch, Legislature, counties and municipalities as they work to make the best decisions on the future of Arizona. An important part of the report also includes ideas and strategies that business, the private sector and nonprofit service providers can look to for guidance on how to better serve their customers and clients. This is where the idea of “family” really comes into play. We all have to play a role in the solutions. The full document can be found on the Arizona Town Hall website at www.aztownhall.org.

The experience for me personally was eye-opening, enlightening and very powerful. It was a firsthand look at how one voice, combined with many other diverse voices, can make a difference. It was truly an experience I will never forget. I forged connections and friendships with many incredible, dedicated people from throughout the state that will last a lifetime.

There is nothing like the Arizona Town Hall anywhere else in this country. We are lucky to have this proven, decades-old process right here in the state where we live and love.

Kirk Grugel is the director of the Navajo County Court Appointed Special Advocate program and a participant in the 104th Arizona Town Hall.

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