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Section 3. Conducting Public Forums and Listening Sessions

Example 1: Ideas resulting from a public forum on adolescent substance abuse

Issues and Concerns Surrounding Adolescent Substance Abuse

Low or diminished self-esteem

Parental abdication of responsibility

  • Availability of drugs
  • Lack of merchant accountability (sale of cigarettes)
  • Tolerance for alcohol abuse - community permissiveness
  • Teenage alcoholism and prolonged health problems
  • Gangs and increased juvenile crime
  • Lack of supervised activities after school
  • Lack of communication among students, teachers, and parents
  • Lack of jobs

Barriers and Resistance to Addressing Adolescent Substance Abuse

  • Apathy
  • Family issues
    • TV
    • financial stress
    • lack of quality time
    • lack of extended family support
    • both parents work
  • Combatting media, advertising
  • Tolerance for social drugs
  • Lack of treatment services

Community Strengths and Resources for Change

  • Churches - Ministers
  • Local businesses
  • Youth organizations
  • People in neighborhoods whom kids and parents respect

Recommended Alternatives and Solutions

  • More reporting of substance abuse issues in media
  • Schools become more full-service organizations/community centers
  • Increased presence of parents in school
  • Business mentoring programs to increase job opportunities for teens
  • Closed lunch at high schools

Example 2: Ideas resulting from a public forum regarding whether health insurance is available and affordable to all people in the community

Discussion of the problem

  • More people cannot afford insurance than can afford insurance
  • Even the best insurance in town is not absolute. It does not cover everything it should or could
  • Insurance plans are not broadly available
  • Some people remain on welfare rather than get a low paying job because of the medical benefits
  • There is too much red tape in the health care system
  • Insurance is too expensive
  • Coverage for a spouse is more expensive than coverage for many kids

Discussion of Solutions:

  • One option may be to purchase insurance through a broker to get less expensive health insurance
  • Develop a group plan for the medically indigent
  • Some Independent Living Centers have these group plans. Explore this option
  • Get someone in the community to sponsor insurance for someone else
  • Monitor insurance companies to regulate prices
  • Have the state subsidize doctors who treat low-income people

Example 3: A narrative account of a town meeting

"Giving Voice to the Community: Holding Our First Town Meeting"

We held our first town meeting at dusk on a Tuesday night. It was dark and it looked like it might rain when I entered the community building. The building, located in the heart of the community, was situated across the street from the town's central park and within view of the gazebo located at its center. As I entered the large meeting room, I saw only a few familiar faces. Several members of the steering committee were present, as well as one or two faces that I recognized, but could not place. I worried that the meeting would be a bust. I was only ten minutes early and feared that no one else would show up.

Within five minutes after the starting time, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had to search for extra chairs. I realized then that the flyers posted around town and the announcements on the local radio station advertising our meeting had helped to fill the room to capacity.

At the appointed time, I introduced myself as the Director of Project STOP, and then introduced those steering committee members present. Everyone else in turn introduced themselves. I asked all of the participants to give us a little background about themselves, and why they were interested in the project's mission. Their responses varied greatly. Some came because of professional interests, while others wanted to be involved because they had children and were concerned about the how the problem might affect their family. Because of the many different viewpoints and the wide variety of suggestions for alternatives and solutions to the problem, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to recruit members for our action committees and for the coalition in general. Although I knew few of these people personally, I tried to determine how they might fit into the initiative and what they had to offer, as well as how they might benefit from being involved.

We provided coffee, cake, soda and cookies for refreshments. People who attended wore everything from suits to sweats, from gold chains to nose rings. The diverse personal style indicated to me that people from all walks of life had an interest in this issue. Despite the differences in appearance, everyone still dropped a few crumbs in his or her lap.

Unfortunately, those who attended did not reflect the ethnic layout of the community. I decided that I would have to hold other town meetings in areas that would draw stronger attendance from underrepresented groups. The fact that I had been unable to personally invite more than a handful of people may have affected the diversity of the group.

After everyone had filled up on goodies, we followed the standard procedures for running the meeting. We designated a facilitator, provided plenty of newsprint, set time limits, and summarized what was discussed. The group numbered about 35 so we did not break into two groups. The brainstorming session generated many different remarks. While some of the topics resulted in a variety of responses, others produced only one or two ideas. The atmosphere was generally easy-going, but it became tense when a representative of a group favoring an unpopular view expressed her opinion. Her suggestions roused the ire of several other participants who angrily responded with criticisms. I quickly reminded the participants that all suggestions had to be accepted with an open mind so that everyone's idea could be put on the table for later discussion.

The main goal at this meeting was to give community members a chance to share their thoughts and ideas about this issue. Although I had to speak directly and diplomatically to one participant to remind her of the importance of letting each participant talk, I think everyone felt comfortable expressing his or her ideas. In addition, I limited participant input to short, easily recorded suggestions and limited each person to one minute, so that everyone could present his or her opinions. Everyone's suggestions were recorded. Later, I summarized the important points, distributed them to committee members, and mailed them to all attendees.

The meeting ended after I reviewed the key issues and gained general agreement from everyone about the nature of our discussion. I handed out information on Project STOP and asked everyone to become a member, suggesting how they might be the most valuable to the coalition. The group dispersed quickly, although several people stayed to talk with me. Others lingered to continue their debates. At least one hungry looking young man helped clean up the left-over cookies by stashing most of them in his pockets.

This meeting was one of several we held to assess the concerns of community members. We attempted to be as inclusive as possible by providing transportation and holding meetings in diverse areas of the community. We tried to locate the best site in each part of town, but sometimes we just used what was available--a community building, a church basement, and even a senior citizens' building game room. We sought the widest participation possible, and tried to create an atmosphere where a variety of participants felt comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.

Example 4: Bridging the Divides in Our Communities and in Our Nation

Image of a Kentucky public forum.

 

The Hands Across the Hills experience initiated in the small community of Leverett, Massachusetts, with Letcher County Kentucky was powerful and positive. They listened to each other, learned from each other, and actually left loving each other. It gave them hope that the divisions in this country can be overcome.

Contributor 
Vince Francisco
Jerry Schultz