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Chicago Fri Jul 27 2012

Either I Just Skewed A Chicago Cultural Plan Town Hall Meeting, Or This Whole Thing Is A Farce

After taking a close look at the Chicago Cultural Plan draft released last week, I wanted to hear what other people had to say about it. More importantly, I wanted to hear how representatives of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and their consulting firm, Lord Cultural Resources, would talk about such a dense, buzzword-filled document to a room of concerned Chicagoans. So I went to Malcolm X College on Tuesday night for the first of four town hall meetings dedicated to the plan, hoping to get some clarity.

The first sign that something was amiss was when I registered and was promptly given a transponder. I was informed that I would need this to vote during the "audience participation" part of the town hall -- nevermind that the implied goal of a town hall is audience participation.

After an introduction from DCASE Commissioner Michelle Boone, a representative from Lord took the podium to give a PowerPoint presentation to a room of 60-something people scattered across a sea of folding chairs. It ran through 10 "priorities" of the plan, including "Strengthen capacity of arts providers" and "Honor authentic Chicago culture in daily life," and talked about how the meeting was about seeing how we, the audience, liked the plan.

Then came the first round of voting.

We were asked to press a number on our transponder to a corresponding answer on the screen to answer demographic questions, followed by ranking our support of each of the ten priorities. Essentially, it was like participating in a phone or online survey, except slower and more awkward. After some technical difficulties, the votes were tabulated, and (eventually) we were shown percentage breakdowns that demonstrated how most of us supported all of the goals in question to some degree.

After this, we were asked to break out into groups based on the priority we cared about the most. I was confused as to why the voting took place before discussing the details of what any of them meant to the actual recommendations in the plan. Adding another layer of confusion, these 10 priorities were divided into four groups focusing on what they called (I wish I was making this up) the four "Ps": People, Places, Policies and Planning Culturally. As if that wasn't confusing enough, the groups were further divided again within each P back to one of the original policies. From there, a group facilitator handed out print-outs of the relevant recommendations from the plan, led a discussion about the details within those recommendations, and had someone take notes about the discussion for Lord to compile and analyze after the meeting.

As someone concerned with several parts of the plan, I was a little peeved that I'd only get a chance to speak up about one area. While I was interested in seeing what people had to say about the plan's approach to arts education, neighborhood planning, and creative professional development, I opted to go with the only part of the plan that ultimately matters -- "Optimize city policies and regulation so creative initiatives thrive." This priority corresponded with the plan's Recommendations 21-23, which cover initiatives concerning a new arts and culture tax, "augmenting" the hotel occupancy tax, updating the permitting/zoning procedures, and optimizing the operations of DCASE. In other words, how the entire plan was going to be put into action.

While other topics formed large groups, my group ended up with four people total: a DCASE planner who led the discussion, a recent transplant from Columbus, a member of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce who walked in halfway through, and me. And even with barely enough people to justify calling it a "group discussion," I wasn't sure to what extent my voice was being filtered through. When I pointed out that some people might not want to pay higher taxes or allocate a higher percentage of cultural funding for infrastructure projects, the other people in my group turned those around and suggested ways to counteract those lines: offset a raised hotel occupancy tax by pointing out the amount of free things to do in Chicago, encourage city departments to use Second City for team-building exercises, and if all else fails, sell special vanity license plates and hold citywide fundraisers. On multiple issues, I kept repeating, "We need more transparency on how these funds are going to be spent." Which, given the city's history, is probably the most crucial thing to demand. The facilitator and other group members agreed, but then my suggestion was suddenly turned into "Transparency will help win over skeptics" and written down.

Then came the second round of voting.

We were asked again about our feelings on vague statements related to the plan's priorities. By the end of the voting (amid further technical difficulties), it became clear why the meeting was set up the way it was. The final question was something along the lines of "Do you see yourself having a role in making the CCP a reality?" Never mind that the CCP was supposed to be a draft, and this meeting was supposed to be about concerned citizens having a chance to further shape the draft. Instead, it turned out that this meeting was actually about selling us what was already in the draft. The meeting then concluded with a Lord representative imploring us to fill out a "Sign-Up to Step-Up" sheet asking the question, "How Will You Make the CCP 2012 a Reality?"

I found it disconcerting that the only formal citizen input between this draft and the final Cultural Plan to be released this fall would be these four fractured and highly choreographed town halls that seemed to do more to redirect and stifle feedback than encourage it. The most amusing (and frightening) part to me was that my voice was going to be a huge chunk of the citizen feedback solicited about a sure-to-be controversial set of recommendations. Doing some quick math, I realized I was part of the 0.001% of the city population that was somehow supposed to represent what 2.8 million Chicagoans wanted out of culture. This was ironic, because for all of my feedback, I didn't get any closer to understanding how the plan would actually be implemented.

After the town hall concluded, I wondered if the opinions I voiced really mattered. Because if they did matter, then I only got to sound-off on 1/10th of the actual plan, and had a significantly disproportionate voice in that sound-off. And if they didn't matter, then I had just spent two hours participating in a city-sponsored focus group masquerading as democracy.

There are two more town halls left before DCASE and Lord work on the final version of the plan: Saturday, July 28 at 10am at St. Augustine College-Essanay Studios at 1345 W. Argyle, and next Tuesday, July 31 at 6pm at the Chicago Cultural Center.

I would love to encourage you to go out and make your voice count, but I'm not sure if mine even did.

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Brian / July 27, 2012 12:53 PM

Nice article. I noticed the date for the upcoming July 28 town hall meeting is incorrectly listed as June.

Jason Prechtel / July 27, 2012 6:02 PM

Fixed it. Thanks, Brian!

rp / July 29, 2012 3:31 PM

Thanks, Jason. While I agree that this may not be the most effective way to build a cultural plan, I'm curious to know what process you would recommend. This type of facilitation is common for consultants in order to keep the conversations focused and to get decisions made. Would an online wiki forum be more effective? I don't have an answer, just offering another method.

Jimbo2K7 / July 30, 2012 10:18 AM

These types of consultant facilitated sessions drive me crazy!

They seem designed to stifle any real discussion by overwhelming the group with rules, processes, and procedures which only serve to keep the meeting moving along.

Jason Prechtel / July 31, 2012 9:45 PM

RP, I'm not entirely sure what an different, better approach to getting citizen input would be, but I have a few ideas.

As I alluded to, some of the questions we were asked seemed more appropriate for a phone or online survey, so I feel those tools should be utilized to capture citizen voices that can't (or won't) make a public meeting.

I think it would also be more fair to all the participants at a town hall like this for the facilitators to ask all the same questions to the smaller breakout groups instead of dividing groups by single topic. Many aspects of the plan overlap and will influence the implementation and execution of each other, so groups of people being able to connect those dots would be crucial to providing truly constructive feedback to a plan like this.

Those are just some thoughts to come to mind, and I'm sure there are plenty of better ways out there as well.

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