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May 18, 2009

What Role Should Government Play In Our Lives

This dialogue employed the method of Appreciative Inquiry to explore attitudes toward our government as it is today and to imagine how we would want it to be in the future.

Pamela Zivari facilitated the meeting. She began by introducing some theory about Appreciative Inquiry, which she called "a radically affirmative approach to change." It assumes that every community can be viewed in terms of what is right about it and that progress begins by uncovering its strengths. Instead of searching for what is wrong in a community, or in this case a nation, it turns attention to who we are when we are at our best.

The topic was explored through go-rounds during which participants responded to three questions. A talking stick was passed around the circle to each person when it was their turn to speak.

The first question, called in Appreciative Inquiry parlance as the discovery question, was: "Introduce yourself and then describe what you value most about government and the role it plays specifically in your life."

Responses:

  • I'm retired and social security is very important to me. Without it I would have to find some kind of job. I also appreciate our government's tolerance for entrepreneurship. I am afraid if there is too much control by government, people will lose their sense of initiative.
  • I also could not get along without social security. Lately I have been appreciating the Obama administration's efforts to open up channels of communication with the public.
  • I lived many years in Europe. During the Bush years I was often viewed as the ugly American, but I insisted on proclaiming our founding moral values. We can become a good country, thinking of the poor. I was happy when the majority of voters decided to elect a black man to become our President.
  • I appreciate street lights, traffic lights, the city water system - the things that are there to help us live collectively. An example at the national level, we have the Center for Disease Control to help fight an epidemic, such as the current swine flu. Despite all troubles, we have lots working for us.
  • I value the freedom to express opinions we have. It is an imperfect society but it's the best we have. I'm happy to be an American. I'm concerned about health care but I think there are enough ideas out there so that soon it will work out.
  • I came to the U.S. as a political exile from Cuba. Everything was taken away from my family there. I was educated in the U.S. and later taught in a school here. I am grateful to the U.S. for the opportunity to share education.
  • I appreciate our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the rule of law. I value the freedom to be who we are and to speak who we are.
  • I appreciate the possibility for our government to advocate for people vs. corporations. The current administration is re-recognizing its role as a moderator.
  • I grew up in a family that served in the military and revered the government. I haven't always agreed with that but I appreciate the good schools in the town where I live. I am also amazed that we can make room for all the different opinions that exist here.
  • People who are hard of hearing sometimes talk a lot because they are afraid someone will ask a question they won't understand

The Second question(the dream question): What might some productive actions be that you might envision the government or citizens taking to strengthen the nation? These could be taken by you, by a group, or by the government itself?

Responses | Round One:

  • I would like to re-establish standards. I would like to make sure those in charge adhere to the Constitution. I'm afraid some are trying to alter it, but it is based on God's law. Atheists undermine any kind of standards.
  • I am not a fan of nations because they always seem to get into wars. My dream would be to have some sort of system beyond nation-states that recognizes that everyone in the world is connected. At the same time I think ecologically sustainable communities have to be organized on a small scale, almost neighborhood by neighborhood.
  • I dream of health care for everyone, care for the aged. These are the roots of a healthy society. In my dream, there would be no more torture, as at Guantanamo Bay, and no such thing as detainees without the opportunity to have lawyers.
  • In my dream I would keep up on a regular basis with what needs to be done politically by consulting the Catholic social justice lobby Network and follow their recommendations.
  • I see local communities greening themselves. This approach gets people involved in community projects that benefit everyone. In NY the mayor seems interested. This would be a starting point for larger issues where everyone can participate.
  • Education in this country is below the standards of others. The children are in the streets here. They should wear uniforms. One of the reasons private school tuition is so high is that they have to subsidize a few poorer students who are able to do the work. Government should give access to quality education and ensure good conduct.
  • I am an educator and conduct a project for inner city youth. In NYC only 20-30% of youth graduate from high school. Afghanistan has only 18% of its girls in school. I dream of providing opportunities for all children to have the opportunity of safe schools with good teachers, guidance and counseling and opportunities to go to college so they can work for decent wages.
  • I work on a project dealing with the rule of law. I work with an organization which interviews lawyers advocating for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. I would like to create a body of knowledge about the process of how we got into human rights violations. These violations were committed by people who thought they were doing the best thing for the country. How can we avoid this in the future? I also want to see the government developing more of the beautiful websites like whitehouse.gov where people can be education about what the government is doing.

I'm glad to see a new Office of Public Engagement through which people are encouraged to submit their ideas. I am also interested in education. The Harlem's Children Zone seems to be a good model, although not everybody agrees with it. Even so it seems to do a good job of instilling middle class values such as being on time, being tidy, cleanliness

Responses | Round Two:

  • Our national sovereignty needs to be strong. The idea of one world is nice but I could bring homeless people into my home for dinner and have them walk off with all my belongings at the end of the evening. I believe boundaries and borders are necessary.
  • The ideas expressed here of wanting health care for all and quality education are very nice but none of it will happen unless something is done to reduce the obscene military budget and end the wars.
  • I don't know how to do all the things that need to be done.
  • I dream of Single Payer health care. Doctors could be on a salary and not have to pay taxes. Experienced teachers could also be attracted by absolving them from paying taxes. Single people should have the same tax benefits as married people. Affordable housing is also key. In Vancouver there is mixed-income housing that is very attractive.
  • I'd continue to stress education. The prisons here are packed and they wouldn't be if those people had education.
  • It might a good idea to nationalize curricula, as is done in Europe, Japan and Korea. On the other hand there should be flexibility so that not all students are tracked into one kind of program. There should be less stigma about vocational choices and on certain kinds of work. I'd also like to see lots more regional farmers.
  • Society should be less hierarchical so that white collar workers and laborers are given more status. They can have elegant opinions.

[During the discussion, one person used the term "Latino" in what seemed to another person to be a derogatory way. There was some discussion about the term : A person of Cuban descent said she preferred to be identified as a Cuban and that it was not a good thing to lump all Spanish-language people together as "Latino.: They would prefer to be identified by their country of origin, she thought. The talking stick went flying around during these exchanges.]

Question 3 (design and destiny): Imagine the government's role ten years from now when everything is just as you always wished it could be. What is different? How have you contributed to it?

  • The young are more realistic and practical.
  • Education is no longer about sorting people out and slotting them into the social pyramid or hierarchy but about developing the potential of every child. There is money for good schools because military spending has been reduced to modest levels.
  • Every individual would have the possibility to follow his or her dream. Whatever they chose to do would be respected.

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