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Example: Interview with B.L. Hathaway

B. L. Hathaway is the coordinator of the Lower/Outer Cape Community Coalition; she spoke with the Community Tool Box about her experiences with public hearings.
CTB: Tell me a little about where you work and what you do there.
Hathaway: Sure! I work at the Lower/Outer Cape Community Coalition, and we are a coalition whose origins are within the health and human services community. We've been around for the last 13 years, which makes us sort of one of the elders these days in the community coalition efforts. And of course as times have changed and we recognized that it was important to bring all the sectors into the community, we made it our business to try to recruit others to be involved in the work of the coalition. The way we get our work done is to engage people around a community identified issues of concern and bring the people and stakeholders to the table and facilitate problem identification and strategic planning. We've been very successful over the years in coming up with those community-based solutions that are representative of the needs of our broad-based coalitions.
CTB: What kind of public hearings have you been involved with?
B.L: Well, the one we've been most recently and directly involved with was a hearing on access to dental care. This was really probably our most direct involvement. We have a dental commission that had been looking into the issues that was made up of state legislators. And they decided to take the hearings out into the community at six different places around the commonwealth, which I thought was a really wonderful idea. I know it's always difficult for all of us to go to the capital and give our testimony, so it was much easier for community involvement to have them come to us. We have an on-going relationship with our statewide advocacy organization, Health Care For All, and they were the folks that were providing the technical assistance to the commission to set these hearings up statewide. And because of our ongoing relationship, we were asked to assist them in putting the hearings together.
CTB: What kind of things did you have to do to prepare for the hearing?
Hathaway: I think that what we found to be the most successful way in actually recruiting and getting people engaged to come and participate in these hearings was to ask for them to be co-sponsors of the event. We had probably 20 different organizations that had signed on as co-sponsors. The lack of dental care is a very serious and ongoing issue on the Cape, and so I made personal calls to these organizations and agencies who are very well aware of this need and said this is the issue, this is when the hearing is, would you be willing to consider yourself a co-sponsor of the hearing? Now, obviously they are not literally sponsoring a legislative hearing, but that's how we framed it... All that was requested of them then was to have their name on this flyer and also to guarantee that they would bring community representatives the meeting. We found it a very successful way to get people who had either been directly affected by the lack of dental care or were well aware of this in an advocacy or provider role to come to the meeting. Part of it was that each of the co-sponsors would bring up to five people, and that each would identify at least one who would be willing to testify. So each of the co-sponsors got up to five people to come, and one or more of those five made a commitment to testify...
I think the idea of having our legislators or our commissions come out into the community (for the hearing) as opposed to asking us to go to them was really positive. This co-sponsoring thing really, really helped. Plus it was an issue that our community was really concerned about, and we had already had begun to explore this area, so the timing was really right for us. People were more than happy to come in and speak and address it.
CTB: Great. You may not know this since it was done by other folks, but I'm wondering what kind of preparation people who are testifying went through.
Hathaway: The people who were testifying? To be honest with you I don't think there was a lot of preparation because what we felt in asking people to testify was that each of them was an expert about their personal circumstance, and so what we were asking them to address was their own experience in dealing with the lack of dental care. And we had a wonderful range because we had consumer patients, we had dental providers themselves, we had advocates, so we really got it from all perspectives. I think that the only thing we really did to prepare people was to help allay any anxiety they have by telling them, You are the expert on your circumstances, whether you're a provider or a patient or whatever, and all that we're really asking you to do is talk about your own personal circumstances. I did from my perspective as an organizer try to ask people, direct a little bit, and guide people, give a little bit of direction depending on who they were. Like obviously elder services, I said, If you could have your person speak from an elder perspective, for example, so that we could sort of get that range of input. But there was really no preparation for them beyond that. But our coalition commonly has public meetings and public forums where people come and express their concerns. So, we sort of have a history of doing this and people see this as something the coalition does. So it wasn't really perceived as something out of the norm of what the coalition typically sponsors.
CTB: How long did the process of planning the hearings take?
B: I would say, from the time we actually scheduled the thing, it was probably two months. And then, of course, as things got closer, and we were trying to promote it and get people there and do press releases and all that, the last month was really when we were very much engaged in the effort.
C: Did you feel like that was enough time to do it well?
B: Yes!
C:. About the hearings themselves? how long did each one last, what kind of format did they take on??
B: They were in the evening. Ours began at 7:00 p.m., and we were hoping they'd last from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.. However, we went longer than that just because we had so many people that wanted to testify and we wanted to give everybody an opportunity who wanted to speak. So it did run actually about two and a half hours.
C:. The only other question I have is what sort of advice you might have for anyone else who involved in planning a public hearing?
B: I think you've probably already heard it. If there's any way to get folks, you know, legislators to come to the community as opposed to vice-versa - I know that's a challenge in of itself, but boy did it make it easier, because we were getting people here on Cape Cod to come to. You know, everybody on Cape Cod lived within 40 or 50 miles of the hearing location, as opposed to driving all the way to Boston. I think the co-sponsoring thing really helped us, because people wanted to be recognized as being supportive of this issue and that way I didn't feel I was responsible for getting 70 people there, or 80. Each co-sponsor was responsible for getting a certain number of people there, and also identifying people to actually testify. And I think that turned out to be I think our best strategy.