Next Doors: Connecting Complicated Issues

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Posted By on December 5, 2019

Arizona Town Hall’s conversations show how much needs to be done to create healthier families and communities

By Tom Evans

            It’s a fairly simple premise — create an environment where Arizonans from all walks of life can discuss some of the issues affecting our state.

            But what the Arizona Town Hall has found over the past few years is far from simple. The organization is helping create a pathway where Arizona residents can tackle some of our state’s most complicated issues. And sometimes, just like any conversation, things come up by accident.

            First, a quick bit of background: Arizona Town Hall was created in 1962 by a diverse group of Arizona leaders looking for ways to solve big problems facing the state. “That’s what we still do,” said Tara Jackson, Arizona Town Hall’s president. “We’re bringing diverse people together to have fact-based discussions to work toward solutions.”

            The organization holds a series of meetings across the state in a variety of different environments. Rural. Urban. With the elderly. With young people. They even hold meetings in prisons. All the while, Arizona Town Hall is encouraging discussion with four key focuses: to educate, engage, connect and empower. It all culminates with the Arizona Town Hall main conference, which wrapped up a few weeks ago.

            “One of the things I look for is where there are commonalities in these conversations, especially when the groups you are engaging are very different,” Jackson said. “So for example, how was the Lake Havasu meeting similar or different than the one that happened in Lewis Prison, or Apache Junction, or Sierra Vista?”

            You would think the Town Hall would pick a key issue, facilitate some discussion around it and try to find solutions. Easy peasy. But what happens ends up being far more complicated than that.

Take the past few years, for example. The 2018 Arizona Town Hall focused on criminal justice. For most of us, that’s a pretty esoteric concept, assuming we have not been directly involved in the criminal justice system. You might not think about the criminal justice system and the effect it has on our communities much at all.

            If that’s the case, it might floor you to hear that a 2015 study found that one out of every nine Arizona children has a parent who has been incarcerated. The number is probably higher now. So think about how that affects educational outcome, or hunger and poverty, or employment, or the economy as a whole.

            Many people operate with the mentality that we should simply lock up anyone who commits a crime, no matter how serious or what the circumstances might be. But that’s the kind of action that breaks up families, which can have ruinous effects on children and perpetuate a host of problems that our communities face.

            “What we are doing with policies with a ‘tough on crime’ message has created a system where we have more people in prison per capita than almost any state in the country,” Jackson said. “We should be smart on crime, and focus on how we can keep the family together.”

            So as Arizona Town Hall moved from 2018 into 2019, the focus changed to “Strong Families, Thriving Children.” You’d think the conversation would shift a bit, and you’d be right. But it became exceedingly difficult to have a conversation about strong families and thriving children without revisiting criminal justice, for the reasons I mentioned previously. Common threads stretch through all these conversations, despite what you may think going in.

            One thing that Jackson said surprised them was the conversation about a very basic question: What is a family? That answer can differ significantly depending on your life experience. Some people have very “normal” family structures, but others may have lost a loved one or had a loved one leave. Some people have escaped abusive families, and their family infrastructure may be more focused on supportive friends.

            “The answer to that question is that family should be defined very broadly,” Jackson said. “We need to recognize in this day and age that family should be broadened to include those who support you and care for you.”

            For 2020, the theme is “Creating Vibrant Communities.” And the conversational threads will almost undoubtedly continue.

            “I might have thought criminal justice was separate from families and children,” Jackson said. “Now we are realizing they are very much connected. The same is true with vibrant communities — you create one by having strong families and thriving children. Those are the building blocks. So there’s a natural overlap where these conversations are built on and elevated.”

            From conversations comes understanding, and hopefully, consensus. Once that happens, change for the better can be just around the corner. Once the conversations are over, Arizona Town Hall encourages people to focus on the things they can do individually to help address the problems we face as a state, as well as creating public policy recommendations for state leaders. But it all starts with an exchange of ideas.

            “The one way to create change about these big topics is to have constant conversation,” Jackson said. “Next year, as we shift to a new topic, it will allow us to continue conversations that have already started.”

            To learn more, go to aztownhall.org.

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