Cover Story: ‘There Is Power in Positivity’ 

There is a lot to unpack about Sybil Francis, so let’s get the parochial stuff out of the way. She grew up in a bilingual family of academics, speaking French at home and spending summers living with her grandparents outside of Paris. She is an accomplished flutist, a nuclear weapons expert and the wife of ASU president Michael Crow.

Despite her extraordinary background and résumé (more on that soon), she believes her most significant work is happening here and now. “When I present our findings, people get so emotional. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you for saying that,” she said.

Francis, the president and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, is a kind of pied piper of positivity. Buoyed by partnerships and polls, she is ready to show how data and our shared values can lead people together to create positive change.

Francis is extremely effective when she talks about her lifetime of optimism. “There is power in positivity. I have experienced it,” she said.

In her youth, Francis harbored dreams of becoming a professional flutist, dedicating hours every day to her craft. Her talents led to some prestigious music camps, but when it was time for college, she decided to study chemistry instead. “When it came down to it, I became very passionate about doing good in the world,” she said, noting that environmental issues motivated her to study science.

After graduating from Oberlin, Francis went to work on Capitol Hill, serving in a variety of  leadership roles, including as a senior policy director in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she played a key role in shaping energy, environmental and national security policy.

It was a dream job, but six years in, Francis craved something else. “I thought, this is starting to feel a little repetitive. I want to go train my brain,” she said. Interested in national defense issues as well, she enrolled in the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program at MIT, then just the fifth woman in the program’s history.

“There are some quarters in which I’m known as a nuclear weapons expert, particularly the history of nuclear weapons and how our U.S. system of nuclear weapons evolved,” she said.

After earning her Ph.D., Francis put another vision into action. “I had always dreamed about going to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s the Capitol, and then there’s the White House,” she said. So Francis went to work down the street from her old job as a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

“That’s actually when I met my husband,” she said.

Surprisingly open and down to earth, Francis recounts how she met the man who would go on to be named #44 on Fortune’s 2019 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

“When I had just started at OSTP, it came to my attention that there was a conference going on at Columbia University about the impact of Vannevar Bush, who was considered a godfather of science and technology policy,” Francis said. (Bush made an appearance in the movie, “Oppenheimer,” played by Matthew Modine.)

Given Francis’ interests, the conference seemed fascinating.

She drummed up the courage to ask to attend, a choice that “changed my entire life,” she said. Francis went to the conference, which Crow was leading, and heard him speak. The intellectual bond was intense. “I thought, my gosh, a kindred spirit in terms of how we think,” she said.

After she returned to D.C., Crow sent her a handwritten note and a copy of his book. She responded with a copy of her dissertation. “And thus, love was born,” she laughed.

Francis with her daughter Alana

Francis knows how unique their love story is. “We are just geeks,” she said. “With big hearts, though.”

Those hearts propelled them to marriage, a move to New York and the birth of their daughter, Alana. Then, in 2002, Crow got the transformative opportunity to come to Arizona and lead ASU as its next president.

A maverick optimist himself, Crow saw it as a chance to address the deficiencies he saw in higher education by designing a more egalitarian university. For her part, Francis was ready for a new view and a new challenge.

“I grew up on the East Coast, but I love the openness here. People love newcomers — they like fresh blood, new ideas,” she said.

Accordingly, when they came to Arizona, Francis was ready to dig in locally. And off the bat, she found the ideal ally in the man whose job her husband was taking over.

Lattie Coor, who was stepping aside as president of ASU, had come up with an idea for a center focused on the future of Arizona. “He had taken out the legal paperwork, and I was thrilled because it was a way for me to bring my public policy background to an entire state to think about the future of the state. It was really exciting,” Francis said.

One of their first exercises was to review 15 years of policy reports from various entities. They compiled the best thinking of Arizona leaders and boldly published it in The Arizona Republic as “A Vision for Arizona.”

“Somehow, it fell a little bit flat. It didn’t naturally lead to anything,” Francis said.

That’s when the idea of listening to Arizona came in. Around 2007, the folks at CFA started thinking, Maybe it’s not up to us to say what’s important to Arizonans. Maybe we should ask Arizonans what is important to them.

That shift in thinking was powerful, and prompted CFA to partner with Gallup to conduct statewide surveys to better understand Arizonans’ priorities and values. The breadth of polling was impressive — and not cheap. Many organizations are interested in particular issues; CFA was interested in the full breadth. They conducted their first survey in 2009, with no idea what they would get.

What they learned turned expectations on their head.

“It was our first big aha moment that still informs us and drives us today, which is that Arizonans agree on much more than we disagree on the important issues,” Francis said. “We found so many areas of common agreement.”

Healthy communities, rewarding jobs, high-quality education for all — these are a few of the aspirations Arizonans share for our state. Moreover, residents are committed to stewarding the state’s natural resources, and believe in equity and justice for all.

Knowing what we care most in common about, the next step was clear to the data-driven CFA: Share trusted data showing how Arizona is doing in those priority areas. Inspired by the belief that “what gets measured, gets done,” CFA created the Arizona Progress Meters. These web-based tools provide interactive data and downloadable charts on eight key common-interest areas — jobs, natural resources, education, infrastructure, young talent, civic participation, health & well-being, and connected communities — tracking how Arizona is doing on a state, county and local basis.

As its name suggests, CFA’s work is focused squarely on the future, here. It has gained traction by finding and focusing on overlaps where people agree, bringing critical issues to public attention, and working with communities and leaders to solve public problems. But after a decade, the CFA team thought it would be wise to check back on some of the big issues to see if Arizonans’ priorities for the future had changed since the first survey was conducted in 2009.

Again, they turned to Gallup. To ensure that they accurately represent Arizona, they collected more than 3,500 responses from all over the state. “We made sure that we can speak confidently with scientific validity about people of different political persuasions, race and ethnicity, income level, education, religion, LGBTQ and more,” Francis said.

Francis with CFA’s Young Talent Advisors at the launch of the Arizona Young Talent Progress Meter in 2019

Fielded during the late summer and early fall of 2020, amid the COVID pandemic, a heated presidential race, and unprecedented social reckonings, the new Arizona survey uncovered something incredible.

Our shared values remained the same.

CFA defined a “public value” as an issue with at least 70 percent or more of Arizonans in agreement. “That means by definition, you have to have Republicans, Democrats and Independents, people of different races and ethnicities, income levels, education levels, etc.,” Francis said. “We sharpened our understanding of the Arizona we want by identifying those shared public values. But we also started thinking about the gaps between what Arizonans say they want and what we have.”

Now, with another election on the way, Francis sees an opportunity for CFA to serve Arizonans by using its nonpartisan voice to illuminate common issues, raise questions and point to opportunities. It has created the Arizona Voters’ Agenda to prioritize the common concerns of Arizona voters. Countering the common narrative of polarization and division, it acts as a data-driven guide for common-interest issues, informing voters, candidates and media.

Francis points out that CFA isn’t Pollyannaish. It knows that not everyone agrees on everything. But the organization focuses on what brings people together, and focuses on who we are as Arizonans.

“People almost seem suspicious, because it’s so counter to what they’re hearing. So I really see our mission and my passion as presenting this other way of seeing ourselves that is grounded in reality,” Francis said. “We really do agree on these big issues. Arizonans understand the importance of education. They believe in fairness and justice and our criminal justice system. They think our elections are fair, secure and accurate. People love Arizona’s natural beauty and they want to protect it.”

Francis has a secret weapon for getting people to hear this message: data. “It’s kind of magical, almost. When you put data out there, that’s what people focus on,” she said. “They’re not focusing on how they might feel differently from someone.”

At the heart of CFA’s mission lies a commitment to positivity and partnership. As Francis views it, changing how we see ourselves in our communities is the first step in coming together to create the positive change we all want.

So, CFA works all over the state, partnering with employers, businesses, schools and other nonprofit economic development groups to extend its impact. Among its top priorities — getting Arizona to focus on what’s possible.

“I actually think that changing the way people in Arizona see themselves and Arizona is the most important priority,” Francis said. “Having this data is like rocket fuel. What we share is leading people to question the negativity and see possibilities.”

Francis is excited that CFA’s messaging seems to be resonating. “I would love for this idea of The Arizona We Want’ to become internalized for people, along with the positive approach and positive message,” she said. “I think we can recognize where we have things in common that can bring us together.”

When she is not thinking big thoughts about uniting the state, Francis likes to hike with her husband. She spent summers as a child trekking the French Alps, and Crow led backpacking trips in his past. So, when they want to unwind, the pair now pinch themselves to have Arizona’s trails at their disposal.

This kind of gratitude flows naturally for Francis, who has brought her positive outlook and remarkable skill set to stump for our state. At the Center for the Future of Arizona, she offers an idealism tempered by experience to make a difference in the place she’s come to love.

“I am very passionate about what I do,” she said. “I’m an optimist.”

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.

From Frontdoors Magazine

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