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Richmond Matters Podcast
66 minutes | May 9, 2021
“I can do something to make it better.” Acacia St. John and Alex Painter on community needs and strategies
You hear a lot these days about data-driven decision making. You hear it in business, you hear it in government, and you even hear it in the context of our personal lives, as people track their steps, exercise, sleep, food, location and more to help them achieve their goals. Data can be helpful, and it can be overwhelming. Data can be powerful, and it can also be too abstract to mean anything. But when gathered and delivered and understood in a way that tells an interesting story, data can change our lives. It can help us see things in a new way. It can shift our focus, it can clarify our priorities. Last month the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County released their April 2021 County Indicators report (PDF, local copy). It’s a document that at first seems to be a collection of graphs and tables and numbers, but when you dive into it, it starts to tell at least part of the story of our community. It sheds light on issues of poverty and education, wages and population changes, housing and employment opportunities. And for people who want to work on making Wayne County a better place, it gives us strategies that flow from that story. The report deserves your attention when you have some time, but I wanted to sit down with the people involved in producing it to talk through some of the finer points and see what they learned in the process. My guests in this podcast episode are Acacia St. John, Program Manager at Forward Wayne County and Alex Painter, Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne County Foundation. We talk about how the report was developed, who it is for, and what it means for the health and future of our community. I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: We’re here to talk about the County Indicators Reports that the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County released last month. Before we dive into that, in previous podcast episodes, I’ve covered a bit about what the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County are and do. Let’s just briefly touch on that and remind people if you could both tell me a little bit about those organizations and your background, your role? How you got to this point working with them? That would be great. Alex Painter: I’ll start if that’s all right, Acacia. My name is Alex Painter. I work as the Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne County Foundation. The Wayne County Foundation has had a presence here in Wayne County since 1979. We exist because we want to encourage private philanthropic giving and enhance the spirit and vitality, and improve the quality of life here in our community, Wayne County. We do that through a multitude of ways. I guess, perhaps most visibly through making grants to local nonprofit organizations, as well as we’re the hub for facilitating scholarships for our Wayne County students. That’s a bulk of what we do. As far as what I do for the Foundation, in my role, my goal and my ongoing charge is to tell the story of our shared impact here in our community, which is I guess, one of the reasons why this County Indicators Report was born. Acacia St. John: I’m Acacia St. John. I am the Program Manager with Forward Wayne County. Forward Wayne County is the umbrella initiative under the Wayne County Foundation starting in 2018. Forward Wayne County is a backbone organization that uses collective impact models through coalitions to create a vibrant economy and promote prosperity at Wayne County. We do that through a variety of areas. We have three current coalitions, which is our Main Street coalition, employability coalition, and early childhood success coalition. Then as part of that, we have eight focus areas. All of that information can be found on our website forwardwaynecounty.org. Chris: Awesome. I’m glad for the website pitches there because there’s so much information that we’re talking about today and so much to learn. I’m sure we won’t even scratch the surface, but there’s a lot more online at forwardwaynecounty.org, and I know at waynecountyfoundation.org, is that right, Alex? Alex: That is correct, Chris. Thank you. I’ve realized I forgot to put out our websites. Thank you. Chris: That’s okay. I saw this County Indicators Report go by. It’s I think a 28-page PDF document. It was just chock-full of information and statistics that it’s just so important. I took some time to try to digest it, but part of why I’d asked you all to join me today is just to look at it together and talk about what it means and what we do with it. Just introducing it a little bit, it’s a County Indicators Report. You touched on, I think it’s five key indicators. We’ll talk about them more but there’s population levels, poverty levels, and related factors, income levels, educational attainment levels and housing. Can you talk a little bit about how those particular high-level categories were chosen as indicators of, I assume, how we’re doing as a county, as a community, the health of our area? Acacia: Sure. Those big indicators really were developed under the Forward Wayne County model, to look at what can we do collectively as a county to increase our quality of life or quality of place for the county. If you think about it, things like poverty level, reducing that number, increasing our population, getting better educated, whatever that form may look like, certifications are higher, et cetera, it all moves us forward. Some of those goals, also the increase in housing, those are big-picture items. At the same time, some of that is attainable if we are creative. I will also say if we partner well together. That’s the whole purpose of Forward Wayne County is to bring all of the parties to the table to make sure that we are working together and not against each other to make some of these indicators happen. Alex: As Acacia mentioned, these link directly to the goals of Forward Wayne County. There’s big goals but as always, if you want to paint a goal, it’s always good to know where you’re starting from. I think I have no doubt. I learned a ton in putting together this indicators report. I think Acacia did too, even though she’s a lot sharper than I am on a lot of this. We put this project together because we wanted to unify the efforts of the foundation in Forward Wayne County, of course. We really wanted it to be a resource and as a conversation starter that could be used by nonprofit leadership or grantmakers like us or folks who are in community policy or just the general public. I think it’s really good information. Again, if you want to know where you’re going, and if you want to know about what goals you should set, it’s always good to know where you stand currently. Chris: My understanding is that some of the origin story for Forward Wayne County, and some of the things that the foundation have wrestled with over the years are trying to get people on the same page about any given conversation about priorities, any given conversation about funding allocations, things like that. If a group of people are sitting around the breakfast table talking about what does Wayne County need to be a better place to live or to work or to raise a family or whatever it is? You might get four people are sitting there. You might get four different answers when it comes to any given issue. My understanding is that that can make it really hard to make progress because you have diverse opinions. You have strong opinions. As part of gathering this data, looking at this data, is it to bring some clarity to those conversations? Is it to reduce the amount of confusion or overlap that might be happening as we talk about those things? Have you seen that happening as you start to work with more clarity about the data? Acacia: Well, I would definitely say that we see a lot of overlap throughout the county. We know that individually, organizations do great work, but collectively, they could do great work if they were all to look at maybe some of these indicators and say, “Well, how can we do this together? If we’re all doing very similar work, what is maybe one or two things that we can do together to really move some of these goals forward?” I think that’s the key to this. This document and pulling all this information together was really one of our ways just to have it all in one location. Chris as you know, in work that you do, when you have to research a lot of things, it’s a lot of work. We’ve covered a lot of different areas. If it’s current information, we’ve pulled you where we’ve got it, where we sourced it from so that people can use this to do some of that work. Like you said, “How can you do it together and maybe do some greater things?” Chris: Maybe we’re saying too, this document we’re referencing is a PDF. I know on the Forward Wayne County website, you’ve established a clear impact scorecard or score chart where you take some of these things and make it a little bit more interactive. My understanding is the goal here is not to just have this report out there and say, “Well, there, we did it,” [chuckles] but to keep that information up to date over time to talk about target values, to talk about changes over time. Is this report the first one of these? Have there been others? Will there be more? Alex: This is actually the first I can tell. Maybe Acacia you can correct me if I’m wrong. I think this is the first one, at least, this comprehensive that’s spun out of Wayne County, at least that I have seen. I’m glad you mentioned just the nature of the report, Chris. Yes, it’s been released. It’s out there, but the goal, again, the idea is that we can constantly update it. This gives us a really, really strong starting point. Again, we can see our work in action. Something Acacia just mentioned that I’m glad she did is, there’s a lot of really passionate people here. I think it’s trying to get everyone to see where some of the lower hanging fruit as far as how we can collaborate together and roll out of the same canoe or whatever expression I’m looking for. Anyways, yes, the idea is that we can collaborate and hopefully see gains, and see them in this report and future iterations of this report. Acacia: I would also say that I think the plan is yes, that we are going to try to update this yearly. Chris: Great. Acacia: Depending on some of the data, sometimes it changes every six months, sometimes it changes yearly, sometimes even depending on the resource that you’re looking at and the sourcing agency, sometimes it’s an 18 month. Our purpose and our goal is to try to update this yearly. Again, one location, like Alex said, “Well, we know where we started and we know where we’re going.” Maybe we can look at some very specific things, not just strategies that Ford Wayne County has, but maybe people can look at this to say, “Okay, I can take this information and work on a strategy collectively, or maybe even individually and really make something happen in the county.” Chris: Let’s talk a little bit more about who the target audience is and what people can do with this? Maybe this will get a little bit clearer as we dive into some of the specific data points. Do you all picture an individual resident of Wayne County downloading this report and saying, “Okay, now that I know these data points, I’m going to make some changes,” or is it people in leadership positions in the county? Is it something you picture a business owner or a manager trying to incorporate into their day-to-day decision-making? I’m thinking about, if we talk about, let’s say, median income levels, someone who’s setting the salary structure for a business might care about that when it comes to what they’re paying for a given topic area or skillset. Then collectively, businesses in the area need to care about, “Are we paying well enough to draw people to the area to keep them here?” I can see it trickling into that decision-making, but is that the audience that this report is made for? Acacia: This document, Chris, is really for everybody. An everyday resident to look at this and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize some of this stuff.” That might spur them to volunteer. It might spur them to donate in certain areas. If they serve on boards or et cetera, it might give them pause to say, “I’m want to bring this to my board and my board’s attention.” Everything from business to economic development to our city-county governments, I really think that there’s something for everybody in here for our school systems, whether that is Pre-K through college. It really does touch on everything. A common resident, I say common, but just an everyday resident could look at this to say, “Wow, I could make some changes,” or it would maybe spur them to get involved a little bit. As you said, a business might say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that we are below-median income as compared to the rest of the State and might say, ‘How do we maybe restructure some wages to better attract workers, to better attract residents to the county, et cetera?’ ” In my opinion, when I look at this document, I see it going from everyday resident all the way through our top leadership in the county. Alex: If I may just interrupt there, I don’t think I could have said it any better than Acacia just did. I would just certainly reiterate on the fact that perhaps we wanted to make it accessible. Aside from just finding the data and finding trusty, reliable apples-to-apples data, so to speak, we focused a lot on presentation. How it was grouped together and how it flowed together. That way, anybody could truly pick this thing up. You could be the CEO of the hospital, or you can be anybody. Hopefully, I think there’s a lot of take-home. Like I said, Acacia has spelled it out very well. When you look at the report, you can see, hopefully, it has a natural flow to it and a natural order to it. That’s something that we were really cognizant of throughout the process. Chris: Well, let’s dive in a little bit. I have the report in front of me. [chuckles] I know for people listening to this in an audio format, it might be a little tricky to follow along. We won’t spend too much time on the individual numbers, but I want to talk about the trends and implications. The first area was population. Very clearly, the data shows that Wayne County’s population has been decreasing since 2014. It’s not always dramatic numbers, but it’s a trend. At the same time, I think what you’re showing is that people 45 and over collectively comprise about 46% of the population. We have a decrease in population and older population, older than State averages. What does that mean? Why does that matter when it comes to the health of the county? Acacia: When you look at population, you’re looking at population not income. It’s just the age of the population, but that’s also your workforce. When you think about it, we have a medium age of 41. We are just slightly older than the State average, not anything drastic. That is the core group that is choosing to remain here. They have buy-in to the county. They live here. They will probably work here. That means that they’re settling here. That’s a good thing. I think it will be interesting to see in the coming years just with the introduction at high level of remote work, what that number starts to look like in the future. Demographic, when you also talk about your workforce, it also shows us there’s some concern in that area. We know that we’ve been decreasing in population for a while now. We really need to think about why is that? Part of that is, do we have job opportunities here? Yes. Do we have the wages that match? Probably not. I think that’s something that we really need to start looking at just as a county. I think businesses, both large to small really need to look at– If we’re serious about retaining workers, if we’re serious about the value of our workers, if we want people to move here, live here, play here, then we need to look at our wages to see, “How do we be more competitive with someone who is 30 minutes away, but can draw our workforce away?” Chris: I’ll probably ask a bunch of questions here that just maybe are dumb questions or don’t make sense. I could imagine someone saying, “Having an older workforce maybe that’s not such a bad thing. They’re more established. They’re more skilled. They are probably a little bit more financially stable and so maybe have more disposable income as a result of that.” Why do we want a younger workforce, or why do we want to make sure we’re balanced in the age draw that we have for our workforce when it comes to the strength of the economy? Acacia: That’s a great question. You want your younger workforce involved because that’s your pipeline. As these older workers continue to work, they’re going to, at some point, want to retire. You need that younger population to come on up and be that pipeline into our businesses here in the county. If we’re consistently losing population by age at a younger level, why are they going away? Is it because we don’t have good Internet access here or availability? Is it because the amenities don’t appeal to them? Is it for a number of reasons? We need to be looking at it and be serious about it because although we have this medium age of 40, you still need your younger population to come up to be that pipeline into your workforce. Alex: Absolutely. I would just add, we did a lot of digging into, of course, Wayne County and then obviously, State averages. One of my exercises, and I know Acacia is very well aware of this too in other counties and what are other counties looking like? I think it’s not a struggle that is unique to Wayne County. I think everybody aspires to be at that State average of median age because, of course, that’s how counties are sustainable. You won’t see the precipitous population decline. I agree. I think it’s all about attracting, keeping, retaining the young folks here in Wayne County. Then finding new innovative ways to attract younger employees who can bring different ways of thinking, or be attractive to different consumer bases or whatever it might be. Chris: I remember about, I don’t know, maybe it is a decade ago now. There was an effort to connect older business owners who were thinking about retirement with younger entrepreneurs who might be interested in taking over a business, starting out as an apprentice for a couple of years, and then eventually owning a business so that someone can retire in it. It sounds like that’s one way that this plays out is that we have lots of really neat established small businesses here. If there’s no one there to work there, let alone to take over ownership, we start to lose some of that rich history and that rich knowledge base that’s in the community for different business areas. Acacia: I’ve been encouraged by some of the local things that have been happening over the past year. The Chamber is ready to have their hiring fair for seniors in high school that have no current plan after high school. That hiring fair is that it’s really itself it’s exactly what it is. It’s a hiring fair. It’s not just you go and learn about companies, but these are local employers within the county who have job openings. They’re going to interview those seniors. I think about some of the things that are going around the county, that’s a direct career pipeline that you’re looking to attain. That has a high school level to local employers. Our colleges are starting to really try to work on the work experience, internship, externship, whatever you want to call it, to really connect their students to local employers. Forward Wayne County is supporting some workforce development initiatives to connect people, students, et cetera, to local employers and what that means within the county. I’ve been encouraged by just things that are happening throughout the past year to really start looking at how do we engage this younger audience, and make sure that they know that we have opportunity here and they have opportunity and that they can excel? I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve been seeing over the past year. Chris: That’s great. That’s great. I was also wondering, there’s been a conversation since the pandemic. There was an original expectation that there would be a baby boom following the pandemic. Then I think the CDC, even this last week released some data that basically said it was the opposite that in the light of a lot of uncertainty and maybe additional stress, people were not having children as much. That followed on a national trend of population decline. Did you all look at all about the factors that get into someone’s decision to have kids to raise them in this community? Are we seeing any kind of dynamic around how maybe economic hardship or uncertainty affects that decision? Alex: That’s a great question, Chris. Unfortunately, didn’t really delve too much into that, at least, not directly. Acacia do you have anything you can add? Acacia: You’re right. We did not look at that level. Chris, just to go back to that question in general, just if you think about it though, yes, there’s probably that uncertainty, but as a parent, you’re looking at some of the same quality of life things that any other resident would look at. Is my county safe? Do I have parks? Do I have access to things for my kids that, for example, Little Leagues and opportunity, is that here? We didn’t go into specifically about the why or why not of having kids or anything like that. I would say taking it just back to that quality of place, not only for maybe new parents but single residence, I think it’s very important that those quality of place things are here. I know that Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County is working as well as others on some really strong quality of place initiatives that are going to be happening in the next couple of years. Alex: Yes, really supplemental case study to this is really maybe getting some voices to share their thoughts on this. If you look at my family, there’s four newborns in my family right now. [chuckles] I know it might greater family. I have a big family to be fair, but yes, I saw that exact report out of the CDC, Chris. I thought that was very interesting because yes, I think common knowledge would have otherwise indicated the opposite. Chris: It’s just interesting to see as creatures that react to the environment around us that uncertainty has played a factor. I know that affects everything from leisure spending and disposable income to having kids and raising kids and where you stay. Let’s turn to poverty level now as this second big picture indicator. The goal here, of course, is just to reduce the number of people who are living in poverty to at least get to the State average, which may itself not be the best target, but it’s a place to start. I know you made it clear in the report that we have as a county a higher percentage of people living below the poverty level than either the State or the nation. You also make it clear that the federal poverty level is a pretty low number. The examples, for an individual, it’s income of just over $12,000. For a family of four it’s $30,000. For a family of eight, it’s $44,000. Those strike me as some pretty low numbers that I think a lot of people would say are not workable. I think that’s maybe why you make the distinction with the ALICE population. Can you talk a little bit more how we think about poverty level, what the differences between the federal poverty level and the ALICE population? Go from there. Acacia: I think that’s a loaded question, Chris. Well, I say that jokingly because there’s so many factors that go into poverty level that it’s really hard to just say, “Well, here’s how it correlates to ALICE.” When I think about poverty levels, I really look at just from a workforce development perspective, number of individuals within a family, whether or not they are employed, and what that wage looks like. That really, really affect a poverty level in a certain way. Then when you throw ALICE into it, for example, and I think I’ve stated this in other places, you could be making a great wage. If you are the only person working in your home and you have five or more children, you could still be almost at a poverty level. That question in and of itself, there’s so much into those words poverty level that it’s really hard to pull them out a little bit. You just have to look at it from so many different angles. Chris: I should interject real quick to say ALICE, you spell this out in the report is an acronym for, “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, but Employed.” Again, that’s people who have employment, the wages and assets they have to work with may put them above the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living. Sorry, go ahead, Alex. Alex: No, Chris, that’s actually exactly, what I was going to expound upon is just how important the ALICE number is in providing some context to the entire conversation. I think a lot of folks might look at just poverty level. The conversation starts and ends there. When you really, as you mentioned, Chris, look what the levels are and the amount of money that constitutes the poverty level, personally, I think it’s criminally low. That being said, ALICE does provide a lot of context that just because you’re above the poverty level, doesn’t mean that you’re not constrained to use their word. I was actually unaware of what ALICE was before this report and yes, it was incredibly enlightening. Chris: I guess why I ask, and maybe this is just not a fair question to pose to you all, maybe it’s too philosophical. Is there a difference if we target for at least getting people to the State percentage of people living below the poverty level and we’re optimizing for that, but at the same time, acknowledging that poverty level as defined at the federal level is just a really low number? Are we missing an opportunity to really rethink what kind of community we’re trying to create? Just in my mind, getting to a point where everyone is making enough to just be getting by still doesn’t sound great. Getting to a point where households are economically secure and people are fully employed as they can be, and everyone has the income to cover expenses, that sounds like where we want to be. I don’t know if those are two different paths and if we have to choose. If it really is that getting people to at least the State average is a milestone along the way to a much better place. That’s my worry and maybe it’s an unfounded worry or maybe it’s a worry I’m not expressing very well. How do you all think about that when we’re talking about a target that might feel artificially low, but that gives us something to work towards? Acacia: I don’t think it’s an unfair question or unfair thought. I think probably many of us throughout the county have been thinking about this. How do we look at this and say, “How do we make Wayne County better and for our residents?” I think a lot of it comes down to economic stability. You alluded at that the economic stability of a family or person or whatever that looks is that they have a livable wage. They’re able to take care of themselves, their families, others. They also have the amenities here that will inspire them to keep going. They have a connection here. They bonded to something in the county. They are working towards bettering themselves. Some of that comes along with educational attainment. They are economically stable. I think that is the key to what we’re looking at is someone being economically stable means that they are [chuckles] not at an ALICE level, and they’re not at a poverty level, doesn’t make them a millionaire. It means that they’re stable enough to be able to take care of themselves, and then maybe do some things extra. Alex: Absolutely. I think a big player to this, of course, and not to jump the shark and move several slides ahead is educational attainment. That’s something that is spelled out I think fairly well on this report is you can see right about the point where Wayne County falls behind. Anyway, I don’t want to jump. Sorry, Chris, go ahead and continue. We can pause on the education scene. [chuckles] Chris: That’s great. It’s good to say, it’s good to acknowledge several times that all of these things are connected to each other. You can’t untangle income level from housing, from population, from poverty from education. They’re all related. We can jump around as we need to. I was struck as I was reading the report. Sometimes our conversation about quality of life, people can start to picture really specific details in their own mind and what that means. It’s how many ball fields there are in a park, or is the bike path, six feet wide or eight feet wide. As the report points out, so many adults in our community don’t have any leisure-time physical activity. There’s the 31% of adults 20 and over. For a lot of people, like when we’re talking quality of life, we’re talking about, “Do they have the time and the place and the help? If they need childcare or whatever it is to take care of themselves, to take a mental health day, to take the time to shop for groceries and make a healthy meal, as opposed to maybe buying something that’s not as healthy?” When you’re out in the community talking to people about quality of life or those factors, do you find you have to really get into definitions and breaking down? What exactly are we talking about here so that people don’t gloss over all those different interpretations? Acacia: I think it’s interesting when we talk about these things as what I have found, this is again my own personal experience, my own opinion is that sometimes when you talk about all those different areas, it really comes down to the person and their initiative to do something. Whether that means, “I’m going to look at, how do I make a better wage?” Sometimes that means you’re going to have to maybe get some credentialing. Am I going to make that decision to do that or I don’t want to do that? Therefore, I might be stuck at a wage level for a while that does not make me economically stable. Another example, health and wellness. Wayne County has parks, every community. We have some bigger locations that you could do to the Cardinal Greenway, Cope Environmental Center, Hayes Arboretum. We have so much. Again, it’s going to come down to the person. Am I going to watch Netflix for a couple of hours, or can I go take a walk, or kind of grab a buddy and we can ride our bikes on the Cardinal Greenway? It really comes down to the initiative of the person. How they’re going to make decisions for themselves or with their family? Again, that’s my personal opinion. There are some things like time constraints. Maybe the work schedule doesn’t work, but there’s a lot of time within a week. People sometimes just have to re-evaluate, which I thought was really interesting during 2020 when we were at home a lot. I think you found a great increase in a lot of those health and wellness areas. People were outside. People were playing with their kids. They were doing all kinds of things. They say that they don’t have time for when they’re working full time, but sometimes they were working full time at home. All of a sudden it was they couldn’t go anywhere. Some of those things change. My own personal opinion, I think some of that comes down to the initiative of the person. Chris: I’m sure that part of what you’re working with too, is helping people see that there are investment in whether it’s exercise or credentialing, help us all see the path that can take us. Sometimes it can be hard to imagine, if I felt healthier [laughs] and I watched Netflix, what would that mean for these other areas of my life. If I got a bump in pay because I got an additional credential, what would that mean? It can be hard for people to imagine that. I think taking some of this data and personalizing it, making it a story that people can see themselves as a part of, I’m sure that’s helpful too in turning it into action. Acacia: I want to encourage our residents in the county to really seek out some of our great businesses that we have here and the resources that we have. Purdue Extension, I think they have cooking classes. How do you cook on a budget? Cope has all kinds of activities that they do for residents. We have some really great community organizations and businesses in the county. If people just took the time to do a little bit of research and seek those out, maybe they would just have a pot of gold at their hands to do some great things. Alex: That’s a great point, Acacia. We’re in the midst of the foundation’s Spring Grant Cycle. That’s one thing that I would definitely impress upon folks is the fact that we have got so many motivated, fervent, passionate nonprofit organizations, community-serving organizations here who are constantly thinking of ways which they on, even just their little micro-level, some micro-levels larger [chuckles] than others, admittedly, but how they can better improve our community. It’s hard because there’s not one silver bullet. If not to use that phrase. It’s not a simple answer to a complex question. They’re all tied together. You have the obesity rate. If you’re not making a livable wage, typically, you’re buying cheaper food, which preservatives, and it’s just not as healthy. As Acacia says, there’s a lot out there that our residents can really take advantage of. My wife, she works over at the Boys & Girls Clubs. The amount of programming they have for kids starting at age six is astonishing. It’s very, very cost-effective. I’d just like not to stump [laughs] for the Boys & Girls Clubs because, of course, there’s tons of other organizations just like them that are community-minded. That’s one thing I would always impress upon folks, is don’t hesitate to seek them out and utilize the services. Chris: A number of different efforts over the years of projects or studies have shown that sometimes it’s not a matter of not having the programs or the amenities or the options, it’s just people knowing about them. It’s being able to find out about them in a [chuckles] reasonable amount of time to make plans. I know we’ve made improvements there and can continue to do that. Let’s jump into the personal income and medium income category. I think again that the data shows that the median household income in Wayne County is 24% less than the United States average. Sometimes we get into this narrative in Wayne County about; we have a low cost of living. It makes it an appealing place to live in that way. We attach them the idea that housing costs are going to be a little lower. It’s okay if income is a little bit lower. I want to ask, is that narrative accurate? Is it helpful? Does that set us up for success or why is raising that household income level an important thing for us to be focused on? Alex: That’s it. I appreciate that question. This is just my own personal opinion. I agree in the sense that our median household income is dramatically lower than the United States average and a good bit lower than the Indiana average. Some points you find yourself realizing like, “Oh, some of the amenities are much less expensive in Wayne County than the rest of the state or your family or friends in other parts of the country.” I think that is nice. I do think it is perpetuating a bit of a cycle, a bit of stagnation for the obvious reasons, places where the median income is lower and wages are lower and that affects everybody uniquely. Like I said, I don’t have the neat-and-tidy answer, but I think that is something that we need to look at with nuance. It’s nice in some regards, it’s nice in some respects, but looking at the big picture, I think that’s a pretty big issue with the stagnation of population-level and all of that. Chris: That was one area where the strategy points coupled with this goal of raising those income levels struck me as just really difficult or just really broad. The first one is supporting better employment options and wages for residents. The second one is supporting training and education that will lead to promotions and increases in wages. How do we tackle that? How do we tackle better employment options and wages for residents? Short of marching into a place of business and saying, “You need to pay people more,” which is maybe what we should do, but short of that, what can we be doing as a community to make sure that we have better employment options and higher wages that are available for the jobs we have here? Acacia: Good question. There are a couple of different things to that. When we talk about supporting better employment options and wages for residents, in Forward Wayne County, we are advocating higher wages to our businesses. Sometimes that means educating an employer on what their wage looks like to a worker. Sometimes a business may not understand fully that if they’re paying $10 an hour, that sounds like a good entry-level wage, what that might mean for that person that at that wage because take out insurance, take out taxes, what does that really look like to the worker? We do advocate for those higher wages for workers, but sometimes it’s the educating our employers about what their wage looks like. I know that Natco Empowerment Center, they do a good job where they can actually talk to employers and say, “If this is your entry-level wage, this is what it looks like for a worker.” The other part of that is supporting and training education. There are pathways in employment. You can get to a certain level through experience, but you can also get through certain levels, maybe faster with training and education. When we go back to that topic of economic stability, at Forward Wayne County, we do advocate to our residents that training and education are important, and that pathway could look different for everybody. You can get educational attainment through an apprenticeship, through a structured registered apprenticeship, which we have those in Wayne County. You can go back to school part-time, you could go full-time, you could take one class this semester, but there are things that are attainable should you choose to do it, those credentialing methods, whether it’s a certification, maybe industry-specific, et cetera, that will help you accelerate your wages and promotions. Again, if you have to go those paths, then you might still get there someday. It’s just going to take you a lot longer. Part of our reasoning is that we want people to understand, you have a choice on how you get there, and sometimes life throws you some curveballs, but there are options. It is about if you expect to start a company and you want to be at a high-level position within five years, but you don’t want to get any education, it’s probably not going to happen. Alex: Of course, it’s important to know, Wayne County is a groundswell of higher education. There’s not a lot of counties across the state that can say they have a world-class– I’m an old graduate, so I’ll throw it out there, a world-class, liberal arts college, but also Indiana University, Purdue, Ivy Tech, as well as a couple of seminaries. It’s thinking as creatively as we can on how to leverage the fact that we do have a lot of higher education options. I know there’s a lot of people working really hard to make those options attractive to students in Wayne County and then in turn, trying to get the Wayne County students, or even students coming from outside Wayne County to stay and put their roots down in Wayne County. Like any complex issue, it’s going to take a fairly complex and innovative answer, but I do think that is something to consider like, how do we best leverage our institutions of higher education too? Acacia: I want to encourage all of our residents that may be listening today, that it’s never too late for you to get some credential or training. In my past life of workforce development, there were many times we assisted adults who just never thought that they could be successful in college and we would help them and assist them. They were getting associate degrees, finishing bachelor’s degrees, getting short-term credentials that moved them up in their companies. I will tell you that the satisfaction of knowing that they could do it was worth it. Again, it took that initial step for them to make the jump to do it. I would just encourage our residents, never be discouraged by what happened in your past. Maybe you weren’t the best student in high school or et cetera. You can do it. You may have to readjust some things, but that possibility is there for you with all these institutions across our county. I would encourage our residents that if you’re thinking about it, do it now. Now it’s your time and you might surprise yourself. Alex: Ivy Tech of course has articulation agreements with now, I believe, every other institution in the county. If cost is a worry or cost is an issue, as Acacia says, there’s a lot of ways to go about it, so 100%. Chris: We’re well into the educational attainment area here, which is great. Some kinds of professional development or training, the resources for that might be limited, but we do not seem to be limited as a county in educational options. When we talk about the goal that you have, which is to increase the percentage of the population that holds an associate degree or higher by 2025, it seems like we have the resources there for that. We have the options for doing that. Is it fair to say, it’s a matter of helping people understand the importance of that and seeing, again, a path for them to do that? Or are there other complicating factors there that make educational attainment a challenge? Acacia: You’re always going to have some of your standard barriers such as, childcare might be an issue, transportation might be an issue, but again, I would think that some of that is just also some of the knowledge, like “How do I get started?” Again, I would just encourage our students that our colleges are ready. If you can make contact, if you can send an email, they’re going to contact you back to see how they can help you. Right now, our state is so flush with training and education assistance that that shouldn’t be a barrier. The governor has his next-level jobs grant dollars. There are employer training grants where employers are funding people to get credentials, their workforce, and then on the flip side of it, they have workforce-ready grants, which are for the individual that they can apply. That’s free trainings just like Ivy Tech, other institutions across the state that people can do something, they just have to make, again, the decision to do it. If you have questions on education, I would definitely reach out to those colleges of your choice here in the county. If you need help with that, again, I would just say, call me, and I can at least direct you in the right direction to who you’d to talk to. The educational attainment, that goal of 35% by 2025, that aligns to the governor’s overall agenda, where he wants 60% of Indiana have some certification or higher by 2025. We are seeing increases in that. We are moving in the right direction. It’s a slower rate, but it is something that can be attained. Chris: I wanted to ask a detail about that. Do you feel like our employers that are located in the county are ready to be a part of that effort? In other words, if someone goes off and spends a year or two really upping their game, getting a certification and degree and then they come back to a local employer and say, “Hey, I’ve invested in myself. I’ve got this knowledge now. I’m ready for the increased pay level. I’m ready for more responsibility,” are employers ready to be a partner in that and offer those? The worry would be, of course, that someone invests in their education and then says, “Now, I can go across the state line or to another city and make more money,” and then we see them leave the community. How do we anticipate that and make sure we’re ready for that? Acacia: I would say, I know for a fact employers are absolutely ready to do that commitment. Retaining their workers is such an important factor for them that if they go through tuition reimbursement programs through the company or the person does it outright and is ready for that next step, our companies are ready to promote. Again, not unique to Wayne County, but here in a few years, we’re going to have a real problem because we have a retiring workforce. There needs to be someone to fill that, so our employers work really hard to retain their employees. If you take that initiative just to get some sort of credentialing et cetera, they’re absolutely going to work with you to try to promote you and keep you on board. If a company is unwilling to do that then there are lots of other companies in Wayne County that would snap them up in a heartbeat. Alex: I’ll just echo this briefly, what Acacia said. I don’t think I could have said it better, but in my sense, there’s a lot of urgency from local companies, and in this retention. It’s always urgent, but here of late, that urgency feels like it’s been increased. I think that companies are trying to make themselves as accessible and open and friendly to workers of all classes. Chris: Great. Well, let’s turn to improved housing, our last big picture indicator area. Again, I think sometimes we get ourselves in trouble with the narrative that develops about housing in the area like it’s a very affordable place to live, you can find amazing houses very cheaply. If you’re handy, you can find an investment property really easily to fix up. Your report shows the median home value in Wayne County is $97,400 which, compared to the national median home value of $204,900, we’re less than half of that. Why is it important for us as a community to be thinking about the value of the properties, I don’t know if this is true, but if we’re mostly buying and selling houses to each other within our community? Is it okay if our home values are lower and that just makes us a more affordable place to live? Or does that point to some possible concerns? Acacia: It does lead to some possible concerns. The housing issue has been a big topic of conversation for many years in Wayne County. It has been even more prevalent, I would say probably within the last eight months. Having a great, affordable housing doesn’t mean that it always has to be a lower value. When you think about that $97,000 average, we have a lot of older homes in Wayne County. What we don’t have is new housing developments or new housing areas. That’s where a lot of the struggle comes in is that we have a lot of older homes, our rental ratio is really disproportionate to actual homeownership. We also don’t have areas of housing development. I know again, that is something that county leadership, Economic Development Corporation at Wayne County, top business leaders, the Chamber, everyone’s talking about that, tourism, is how do we start working on the housing availability in terms of new development and working with those developers in terms of helping assist with the infrastructure costs? At $97,000 average, all the infrastructure is already there. It may not be the best infrastructure but it’s there. When you talk about new housing development and what modern needs are, that’s where the deficit really becomes prevalent. Chris: Just to clarify for folks who might be out there saying, “If we have enough existing homes even if they’re older homes, why would we build new ones?” Can you talk a little bit more about why it’s so important to have new housing developments happening or what that means for all these other indicators? Acacia: Great question. It’s important because that’s how you attract new business. It’s how you attract new residents. It’s how you attract new projects to the area. It doesn’t always have to be a business but new initiatives, and new grant opportunities. If there’s nothing new available, what are you offering a new person coming into the county? Use an older home? Or would you potentially have a higher-priced home, not that it is unattainable but it’s more value? Let’s say, for example, broadband is built into the infrastructure of your housing development. That’s one less thing you have to worry about. Guess what? I can work from anywhere then. My company might be out of Indianapolis Fort Wayne et cetera, but I live in Wayne County, and I love it. I have no problems because I can do all the same things that I could do in an office, but I can do it right from home. If we have areas of our county that don’t have that infrastructure built into it, that attraction piece becomes a little bit more difficult to calculate. Alex: The construction and development of real estate and building of new homes, of course, has an immense effect on the local government tax revenues, it provides lots of jobs, of course. It’s normally a pretty good indicator if you’re not the end-all, tell-all but a strong indicator of your economic stability and your economic growth too. Chris: Should our goal be to get to a point where we have neighborhoods of– Are talking about million-dollar homes? Are we talking about enticing tech millionaires or that kind of population? Are we talking about something that’s somewhere in the middle of what we have now? Acacia: Definitely in the middle. We know that million-dollar homes is not probably what Wayne County needs or wants. We also know though that lower price housing options may also not work, but somewhere in that middle of the road that is an attainable mortgage. Again, that attraction piece, everything, those amenities are already within that housing development, or within my home, that’s going to make me want to stay. 2020, as far as anything, we can work from anywhere, but we have to have access to the things to make sure that we can work from anywhere. Alex: Maybe just a few tech millionaires. Chris: It doesn’t hurt, right? Chris: We’ve gone through the five indicators. I just need to ask you both, looking at these goals, looking at these strategies, as you both said, this is complex stuff, this is hard stuff. There may be some low-hanging fruit there, but we’re talking about change that is pretty huge to contemplate. The vision of what we would be as a community if we got there is very impressive and it’s compelling. Do you all feel like it’s possible? Do you feel like we can get there in a short enough time to make a difference? Can we get there in a way that keeps the momentum going? How do you personally stay engaged and motivated about this work, knowing that in some cases, we may be talking about change that could take generations? Alex: It’s true. Just right out of the gate, I think it’s about perspective, and not to use a phrase that I’m not sure even exists, but it’s about taking a bite out of the apple, not a bite out of the elephant. All these things are truly connected. It’s locking in on attainable goals. When I was familiarizing myself with this role and I got familiarized with Forward Wayne County, that’s what I respected most. These are obtainable goals, and then when you reach them you can reset. Again, I think it’s about taking a bite-size, realizing all these things are incredibly complex but yet interconnected. If you can really lock in on a few objectives achieved, then you’re probably going to see gains in a multitude of areas. It’s about just keeping the focus sharpened, and like I said, trying to obtain first those achievable goals because nothing is more disheartening than goals that aren’t. Once, you’ll see those in a trickle effect but in a positive. Acacia: These are definitely attainable. Our own barriers and our own stumbling blocks are ourselves. If we have a mindset of, “This is not attainable,” you’re never going to be involved to make it actually happen. You’re never going to be invested in doing it. This is something we were working on through Forward Wayne County’s NICE program, Neighborhood Involvement and Community Engagement, if you change your mindset and you look at your community through an asset-based lens, then you start seeing all the possibilities of what could happen. These are attainable goals that will take all of us working together to make it happen. That doesn’t mean it’s just the key leaderships or leadership throughout the county, it also involves our residents. Looking at your community through asset-based models rather than what’s wrong with it, will help us achieve some of these goals. Chris: I really appreciate that. I appreciate the perspective of thinking about, “How do we want to create the community that’s the one that we want to live in?” as opposed to, “How do we address this problem or stop this bad thing?” Obviously, they’re related, but it might seem like a small mental shift, it seems like it can make a really big difference in what we’re able to do. Thank you both for walking through this with me, and getting into the weeds on some of these numbers, I appreciate that. I’m sure each of these points, we probably could have spent an hour on alone. Are there any final thoughts that you want to leave people with as they digest this report, think about what it means for them, and think about what’s next? Alex: I’m sure Acacia has probably more profound thoughts than I. I would just reiterate, if you have questions about it. I’ve actually fielded a couple of calls from people around the county just this week about “Hey, you found this. Where might I find this?” I think the idea is that this report gets to people’s hands and it gets them thinking about things. Don’t hesitate to pick up the report as often as you can– as often as you’d like, pardon me. It’ll be widely available, but as we alluded to earlier, it will be fairly consistently updated as well, so be sure to check back. Acacia: I would just add that some of the numbers and some of the data points within the report are disheartening. There’s no other way to say it, but at the same time, it should give everyone some pause to think, “How do I be involved to make it better?” Again, that comes from that asset-based mindset, is we know we have struggles, we’re not trying to hide that, but what can I do, what can we do, what can our county do, to really combat some of the things and make it better? I would just say, always looking at it from that, everyday, we can list all the problems, and we can do it probably to throw us off our tone, but if we have to stop and pause and really take some time to look at it from that asset-based mindset, then looking at those disheartening numbers, should encourage you and challenge you to say “I can do something to make it better.” Chris: Acacia St. John, the Program Director at Forward Wayne County, and Alex Painter, the Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne Country Foundation, thank you both very much. Acacia: Thank you. Alex: Thanks. The post “I can do something to make it better.” Acacia St. John and Alex Painter on community needs and strategies appeared first on Richmond Matters.
51 minutes | Jan 28, 2021
Mary Walker and Ashley Sieb on the power of story-telling to help us navigate COVID-19 together
When we talk about COVID-19 and its impact on all of us, it’s tempting to focus on the numbers: deaths, tests, positivity rates, charts that go up and down. These are very important, but they don’t tell the whole story. And if we only talk numbers, we risk losing touch with what’s really going on with our neighbors, friends, coworkers and children as we’ve faced down a public health crisis in Wayne County. The recently launched Share Your Story COVID-19 Wayne County campaign hopes to help us connect with the personal parts of this difficult time. By telling the stories of those who have been affected by the pandemic in some way, and by providing resources and activities that engage people from all backgrounds, the project hopes to help us remember why it’s so important that we mask up, practice social distancing and follow other recommended guidelines to slow the spread of the virus. (Come for the mask design contest, stay for the powerful videos.) In this podcast episode, I talk with Mary Walker and Ashley Sieb who are part of the larger group of people who brought the campaign to life in a short period of time. We discuss how the project started, the kinds of personal experiences they’ve heard about from local residents, and the importance of story-telling in helping people shift and evolve their perspective on our life together as a community. I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: The two of you are part of a larger group of people who have launched a public awareness campaign that’s aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our area, in Wayne County. As hard as it is to say it, we’re coming up on a year of having the pandemic be a reality in our lives. Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of public messaging, a lot of public awareness efforts. I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about the origins of this, Share Your Story project and how it might be different from some of the other projects or messaging that have been out there along the way. Mary Walker: With regards to share your story, how that really originated was from a press conference that the city and county was having with regards to, we were nearing the dreaded red on the Coronavirus map, the state map. After they were doing the county and the city, all of the data, we’ve been constantly influenced and they’re just overloaded with data, which is good in one way, but at some point, you start to tune that out and when you have it 24/7, and you’re getting it locally state and federally, it’s easy to start tuning those things out. At this press conference, there were three local businesses, Leland Legacy and Roscoe’s, and Cordial Cork. At the end, they each told their story of how COVID has impacted their business. I was really moved when all three of them were saying in various ways how it was affecting their business, but in particular, Amanda Marquis, when she was talking and talking about the isolation of her residents and how some were losing their will to live because they weren’t engaging and being active and being able to go outside even. Then she got very emotional and that really moved me. That was my “aha” moment, where it was like, how do we tell these stories in a way where they will resonate with others in an emotional way, in an interactive, heartfelt way where we get that message across of COVID and how all the impacts that it affects us. Whether that’s through just not the revenues from a business standpoint, but the mental health. The healthcare first frontline and the first responders, the schools and the kids and the teachers and the hybrids, and then the parents who have to stay at home because the kids are at home. All of those things were just weaving in and out. It’s like, how do we address those in a way that resonates with others to again, do those simple things, to help us get out of this COVID pandemic and wash your hands, wear your mask, and social distance. That really brought that home to me about getting people to do things in a different way that were emotional and tugged at the heartstrings. That’s when we pulled together a huge group, the full group and you’ve seen the list, of representing all various sectors of our community and our county and thinking about ways and having them impart ways that COVID has affected their companies, their patients, their residents, their kids, et cetera. That’s how all of this got started and then, poor Ashley, I forwarded to Reid, they had done their first COVID video, and it was very moving. It was with regards to their first patient who died. I forwarded, I put that on Facebook. Then I, fortunately, right, Ashley, I asked you to be a part of this movement and she just jumped on board and serves as our marketing guru. She’s just been incredible in this effort to move this forward and get these messages out. Chris: Ashley, what brought you into the project? What was the part for you where you knew it was an important thing for you to spend time on? Ashley Sieb: Mary covered everything so well, in terms of how did we get started with this project and the “why” behind it, in terms of that emotional moment, when Amanda was talking about her residents and something we could, most of us, I don’t want to say it all. Amanda specifically said, “I don’t have the relationship or connections with grandparents that some of you had because they weren’t around when I was younger, but most of you know what it’s like to have a grandparent and some of you know what it’s like to lose one. She brought you into the story and the experience and made you feel something that really just took over your body. The video from Reid of this older gentleman who lost his battle with COVID. I was sobbing. I was just sitting there imagining my own grandpa or my husband’s grandparents, you just start to really have immense empathy and that is the power of storytelling. As a marketer, when I see what’s happening in the community and in the world and I see my superpower of empathy and storytelling all align, it was one of those moments where I thought, “This is going to be a lot of work because I’m a mom and I have a full-time job. I didn’t know if Cooper was going to go back to remote learning, and we’re all going to be in our PJs again, just like trying to survive. I thought this is just so important that we need to be able to have the right storytelling fundamentals behind this. We need to be able to always consider the experience of a story because one key component of this, something that a lot of people can relate to is no one wants to listen to a story or see an ad or read an article if they’re going to feel shamed or fear. When we do these stories, we always go back to our checklist of, is this a story based on connection, based on empathy, based on compassion, based on unity, because if it’s not, then we’re not going to post it. We know those are our core values with this campaign and what we’re trying to convey, so we really hold strong to those. That’s how we gauge. What story should we tell? Then what experience do we want someone to have once they hear a story? Chris: It seems like it will take us probably generations to process all of the ways in which this pandemic has affected the world and in our community isn’t exempt from that and we know that those stories are out there, but the way the pandemic unfolded, there was all this fear-based information because the public health officials trying to get people to do one thing or not do another thing. It feels like we were launched into this mode of existence where it was responding to fear and not really having time to process a lot of those stories. As humans, it does seem like we aren’t always able to empathize with something at a large-scale loss of life, even as we can understand it as being tragic, but we aren’t able to feel it. If you show us a face or a name, the story of a life then there’s that shift, and doors of understanding can open. Changes in behavior can happen. Now that you’ve launched that project, how have you seen that dynamic play out since you started talking to people, understanding their stories, and figuring out how to share them? Ashley: I think the biggest thing is, it’s Mary and I on the call today. Telling you a little bit about what we’re doing and there are so many other people behind the scenes who make these stories come to life and really do a great job at making sure those stories are told and heard and captured. From a experience perspective, I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is it really does take a group of people who align with that common goal to know what to look for so that when we’re talking to people and you hear the story of, I’ll give you a great example, Sharrie from the hospital, she said, “I’m having this conversation with the funeral home director. He talked about how he had four funerals the weekend before Christmas. Four back-to-back Like every day, me and Ashley see with my job, I probably wouldn’t hear that story. There’s a lot of people who have daily interactions, but we are a little bit more remote. I don’t run into Mary at Roscoe’s. I maybe would have in the summertime where she could have told me that like, “Hey, did you hear that this happened?” Or, “This family was affected and then this happened?” Those little natural stories that would have been the small talk are just not happening. We needed to get way to tell those stories, even if they were small but so impactful in different channels that our community uses. We’ve got Renee from the EDC who– she was writing a radio ad script, I’m not joking, the day before Thanksgiving. She’s typing up this really clever video ad. Then we’re working on that. Then you’ve got Phil Quinn, who moved to Arizona, but he’s still supporting the project. He really quickly did audio for a commercial that we had some kids in. You start to see all these people that are like, “Hey, this is important.” These little stories matter because they have a big impact, even if it’s “a little story”. Mary: In addition to the incredible team, I think it’s also wonderful to see, and the hope is, we see even more of that where this becomes an outlet for people to share their own story. In Nathan Hog, I can’t remember, I think he’s 18, works at Reid, and he did a selfie. We want more of that for people to hear these things and be able to share their stories so that they have an outlet in which to do that and know that they’re not alone and that their stories can make a difference, too, not just ours. Ashley: I completely agree. Chris: Let’s do a quick inventory of some of the things you’ve created because there’s a lot. There’s a website covid19waynecounty.com, which is the landing page for all of this, with some stories and videos, and resources. You have different social media accounts on that website and in those accounts. There’s everything from information if people want links and information. There’s stuff for kids to do. There’s coloring sheets. Tell us about some of the highlights of the materials you’ve created and how those are getting out into the community. Ashley: We realized early on that we would have, and Mary was very thoughtful about this from the beginning as well, so give her a shout out here, we knew we were going to have different audiences for different stories. We knew that the way that you talk about COVID with a kid is different than how you would talk about COVID when you’re talking to someone struggling with mental health just from a parallel perspective, maybe the terms you use or the outlet or the channel. We thought, “If we know that it’s important for everyone to be bought into practicing these distance measures and wearing a mask.” In the beginning, I think a lot of people felt silly, or they thought, “I’m not going to do this because I don’t know if they’re effective or not.” You have all these fear-based messages. Like you said earlier, Chris, you got all this stuff to come back and we thought, “You know what, who really rocks all of these protocols? It’s the kids. They rock every one of these.” They’re like, “You know what, I want to be in school and hang out with my friends. I’m going to wear my mask and I’m going to have my desk a little further apart. I’m going to keep washing my hands.” They were rockstars. We thought, “Let’s really tap into them first because we can really learn from them.” Chris, what gets the most engagement on social? Kids, dogs, the whole thing. [laughs] We started there with some of the efforts, like you mentioned, the coloring sheets, getting those into the schools, and putting them on the website which Ed DeLaPaz has built for us and had some videos for us. We really started to see some of that takeoff and then Angel Grove and Bill Matthews who helped with social media, they were really thoughtful about sharing content that would be helpful for people who maybe don’t follow the CDC on social media. I don’t know about you, Chris, but I wasn’t following the CDC on social media before this started. [laughs] Chris: No push notifications there. Ashley: No one, like daily, subscribed to that one. We thought, “There’s value in diversifying the content that we share, but let’s start with a group and a message and options that speak to something that all of us can get behind, which is keeping our kids safe and let that spread out and to keeping each other safe and keeping your grandparents safe. What does that look like when we can be in this together?” Mary, I don’t know if you would like to anything else, but I think that’s kind of how we originally approached creating some of those assets for the campaign. Mary: Absolutely. I think you’ve said it very eloquently and just looking at all the different segments and that people, through the pandemic are being affected and thinking about what that messaging might be and what that audience and how do we reach. Even with one of the segments that we have as an upcoming messaging is minority health. What we’ve learned through Sharrie Harlin Davis is that, at least I learned is that the African-American and Latino populations are much more susceptible to getting worse symptoms with COVID and even more susceptible to death from COVID. I didn’t realize. How do we take that messaging and gear that to that audience, that target market to really say, “This is important. This is the things you need to do.”? The difficult thing and this is where we really have to think outside the box, is that not everyone reads a newspaper, not everyone listens to the radio, not everyone is on social media. What are the additional ways that we can reach the target audiences in ways that will be good for them? One of those interviews that we did was Terrance and Terry. They play on the Lunch Bunch, a basketball group that plays weekly at the YMCA. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s on our website. They were just talking about, they both had COVID. They both got it from some of their fellow teammates and spread it amongst each other. They were very forthright. They have their own following on social media and in other areas. It’s looking at ways to have those opportunities where people are willing to share their story and then get that out to their own segments, too, because that’s how things become, as we all know, viral. That’s just one example, but looking at ways that we can ultimately– we haven’t figured out exactly how, but the Amish and the religious segments where, how do we get messages out to them that might be applicable and that might be helpful and resonate as well. Chris: It strikes me, both of you are people who focus on projects and initiatives that have measurable results. I want to talk a little bit more about what you do in the rest of your lives when you’re not working on this campaign, but this is a campaign where it’s hard to measure success. You can put all this out in the world and you can see website traffic, you can see video views, social media shares. Is there any way really to know if it’s having the desired effect when it comes to what’s in people’s hearts and minds or do you have to just work on it, knowing and hoping that it will make some kind of difference, but not knowing exactly what that will be? Ashley: Yes. We thought about that upfront, how are we going to measure the success of this campaign? What does that look like because it’s not as easy as an ROI where as a marketer, I might create a white paper and put it on my website and if 50 people download it, I could say it’s successful? That’s very tangible to look at. Instead, we’ve started to look at– we worked really closely with Ken from the government. We say, “Ken, how many people do you think percentage-wise are wearing their mask in Wayne County?” When we first started, it was much lower, I would say. Now, I think the last meeting we had, Ken said something like, “We’re seeing the mask-wearing rate in the high 90s, which is amazing.” Can we take credit for that? Probably not all by ourselves, but can I go to sleep at the end of the night and think, “Maybe somebody thought a little better about wearing their mask because they saw Terrance’s video? That kind of stuff that’s anecdotal, I think is helpful to say, “We know that through these stories, we’re helping inspire change and behavior.” It’s harder to track, but that’s really what we’re trying to do. We want someone to feel when they wear a mask, it’s not just for them, it’s for the other person. We want someone to know when they get a vaccine, what are some myths or concerns? We’ve got another great video coming up in the next few weeks with a professor from Earlham, who’s going to talk a little bit about debunking those myths around the vaccine because, my gosh, Chris, I’m sure you’ve seen them. I know Mary and I have around like, “It’s going to change your DNA and microchip you.” It’s like, “No, no, no, no, no, that’s not what’s happening at all,” and answering those questions that everybody has. How did this get developed so quickly? What are we looking at in terms of the influence of this vaccine what it could do for us and really having someone come in and have a good perspective. Can we look back and say, that video with him helped increase the vaccine rate Probably not, but, again, we’re going to hope that somebody, even if it’s one person, watched it and felt a little bit differently. When you think of your brain and the way that it develops, and not to get too nerdy and outside of my scope of expertise, but when do you think of the brain, when we take in new information, it’s actually reshaping how our brain fires, and when we consume new information, and we take new stories, we’re actually changing how our brain works and fires, and sees information. If you compare that to, I’m going to take in the same information over, and over, and over, and I’m not going to let in new information, then you do see the people who are stuck in that one lane of thinking, it’s because they didn’t get access to this other perspective, or this new story, or this other video from somebody they know in their community. We’re hoping that happens. Chris: Maybe that’s a good opportunity, just to say, we can be really clear just with the three of us talking here, that the science behind this project is real. The studies in real-world experience, clearly show that mask-wearing, and social distancing, and limiting indoor social activities, all help to slow the spread of the virus. There’s no “maybe” or “possibly” about it. These are the things that we know can reduce the spread and save lives. As you said, Ashley, it’s not just about the current situation, but with the vaccine rollout, it’s going to be so important for the community to understand the value and the power of that vaccine, to continue observing these guidelines and in the meantime. I think the latest timeline put forth by the federal government, at least, is talking about a vaccine supply that would lead to every adult getting a dose by summertime. We have a ways to go, so it’s important and it will be important for a while for us to be thinking about understanding the science behind it and getting rid of some of those myths so that’s great that that’s happening. Mary: I’ll just add one thing and, Chris, you mentioned it just a moment ago, and that’s believability. I think one of the things that this type of campaign could do is, because we have 24/7 news, and because we’ve been through all kinds of topics that we have to make decisions on whether we believe or not believe with regards to COVID, I think this kind of campaign that we have regular Joe Blow, John Q citizen, that is telling their story becomes much more believable and relatable than maybe someone who we don’t know and they’re spelling all of these data points and information on that. I think while it’s not measurable, there is also that ability that I think, the believability is even higher with regards to those stories if that makes sense. Chris: For anyone who’s curious, you would mention Ken Paust, President of the Wayne County Commissioners, I believe, he’s been instrumental in some of the funding side of this. Mary, can you talk a little bit about how this project is being funded and supported knowing that there’s tons of time and resources that go into this kind of thing? Mary: Sure, you’re absolutely correct. Ken Paust, Wayne County Commissioners, This initially started because of CARES Act dollars that were available from our federal government down to the state, from the state to our counties and cities. That’s really where this mechanism, in terms of being able to do outreach on TV spots, and radio ads, et cetera, became available because of that funding. Then from that, now we’re in the second round of budgets and funding, and the Wayne County Council again through CARES Act money to some extent, all through deviated in such a way and that the county was, with regards to certain things that they were doing correctly and they were doing a good job at, received dollars, and then from those dollars, they go into the general fund. Then these dollars that were having our second round of marketing expenses come from our county but in a way, they’re through still the COVID-19 dollars through the CARES Act in a roundabout way. The county has just been instrumental and being able to make this project and campaign go forward, and they should take great pride in what is being accomplished in such a short time. In addition to the dollars, you have this wealth of people and volunteers that are donating their time, like Ashley and others. You can’t have enough money to pay for those kinds of experience and expertise. You have that subset to all of the people who have given their time to make this happen because the budget only does so much. The budget does the things of putting the ads on and doing the radio spots but it doesn’t, at all, cover creating that messaging, creating those radio spots, creating those 30-second spots, creating that ad for that magazine, or that media. To me, that’s the priceless part of all of this is that, I don’t even know what type of budget would incorporate the people that we have, both in the full group and the marketing group that make this a reality. Chris: It sounds like a really impressive coming together of different parts of the community, people with different backgrounds, and we’ve seen a lot of that over the last year. People who might not, naturally, collaborate just finding ways to do things for the community, that’s really impressive. I do want to take a moment just– I’m sure a lot of the people listening to this will know your names and know your work, but just in case they don’t, could each of you just share a little bit about your background, your connection to the community? What do you do, out in the world, when you’re not working on this kind of campaign? Mary: Sure, I’ll start. My name, of course, is Mary Walker, and I’m director for the Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau. I’ve been with this organization, actually, since it’s inception. I started when I was nine, in a joking way, but I tend to get involved in a lot of community projects in countywide projects, anything. My whole mantra of the Bureau is not just from hospitality and tourism-related, that is absolutely important, but it’s also from a quality of place and what kinds of things in working with the EDC and the Chamber, and a myriad of other organizations, to really make this a place that will people want to live, want to stay, want to relocate and want to visit. My workday is really in a variety of different positions, all dealing with that end goal of bringing people in but also enhancing our quality of place. Ashley: Mary, I haven’t been here since I was nine. I’m not a natural [crosstalk] resident. [laughs] I definitely relate to the idea of my passion of writing when I was 9 or 10 but I definitely relocated to Richmond in, I think it was 2016. My husband grew up here and his family actually owns Esmond’s Shoes. I knew a little bit about Richmond just from the weekend trips that we would take to visit family when we were at Ball State together and moved to Richmond whenever we started our family with a little guy named Cooper, who you’ve seen in the Share Your Story adds. [laughs] I definitely have him as an actor when we needed a crunch-time performer. My background really has always been in writing, or journalism, and marketing. When I moved to Richmond in 2016, I actually had lost my job because they wanted me to transfer back and forth to Indy every day, and that just wasn’t realistic. I thought, “What am I going to do in a community where I don’t know a single person besides my husband and my inlaws?” I just started to work, at the time, in the Innovation Center, and supporting small business owners. That led to teaching classes at the Innovation Center around social media marketing, so bringing back to life The Richmond Social Media Group that had been developed before my time, but they asked to reinvigorate that with Lauralee Hites, who, Chris, you did a great podcast with. I love Lauralee. I listened to your podcast with her. Chris: We had a great conversation. Ashley: That was an awesome– she’s just amazing. She and I worked together on some projects, and that was really how I started to get acclimated to the community and meet people. It just started to open up more and more of my eyes to what is the community all about? What’s the culture like here? When I worked in Indianapolis, I never would have been working on maybe a radio ad or a billboard, because that’s not really what that market and those clients that I was working on, we were doing. I was able to learn new skills, learn new channels, meet new people, and really evolve the impact that I could make here by supporting nonprofits and small business owners. It’s really where it started, but I ended up taking a teaching job at Miami University, not too far away, and doing some digital marketing teaching over at the university level. My husband was one of the people that was impacted with COVID job losses, so budget cuts that came from COVID. Just recently, I took on a corporate job, that is one of my former clients. They’re actually not based in Richmond. I work for a company that’s based out of Pittsburgh, as well as India. I have a global marketing team that I work on and that definitely keeps me busy. [laughs] Chris: There could be a whole other podcast conversation right about the way the pandemic has changed what’s possible for organizations doing work. I’ll be curious to see how tourism is affected by people working from home. I’ll be curious to see how all these different landscapes work overtime, but we won’t try to tackle that now. Both of you have such great stories about different ways that you’ve been involved in helping the community and bringing stories to light. It’s clearly such a natural thing to take on this project, too, with the work that you were both already doing in your lives before that. Since we’re talking about personal ways that the pandemic has affected people, I wonder if either of you’d be willing to share just something from what it’s meant for your life personally. Not asking to share any private health stories if you don’t want to, but what’s something from your life if someone is listening about the way COVID has affected the community that you might share? Ashley: From my side, I really, really struggled with how this impacted my mental health. I’m a pretty big mental health advocate, I talk very openly about my struggles with anxiety and depression, just in general, as a human being. When the pandemic happened, and we were all locked in, I lost every coping mechanism that I had, which would be, “I’m going to go to the gym and work out. I’m going to go shopping. I’m going to go have dinner with a friend. I’m going to go see my therapist.” Everything that I relied on, I felt just zapped up and then I was in this house and I jokingly told my husband, ” You know I love you, but I really didn’t sign up for marriage and a family to be with you guys 24/7.” I thought [laughs] I was going to get a break from everybody. It was joking, but in the beginning, honestly, it was just so hard to have all of that stripped away. Then like you said earlier, Chris, the fear messaging started to creep in. My anxiety was through the roof. I remember walking outside when the lockdown first started and I’ve walked to the end of the road, and I felt like I was breaking a rule. Because you’re supposed to be in lockdown and you’re not supposed to do this, and you’re not supposed to see anybody. If you struggle with anxiety, anyway, that just exasperates everything. I had to really spend a lot of time with my therapist peeling back, what can I control, which is really not a lot. [laughs] She said a line that sticks with me and maybe it’ll help you and some of your listeners, but she said, “All of us right now are detoxing from this myth of certainty. We always believe that everything we had was certain.” My husband’s job, my teaching job that I had. The ability to see my friends and family and Christmas. All of those things I just assumed were certain, and they were always going to happen. When you are sitting back and you’re thinking of the impact, sure, my anxiety might be lower compared to other situations of people who lost loved ones or had to recover from COVID themselves, but the one thing I’ll share before, obviously I’d love to hear Mary’s answer, is one thing that really helped me was Brené Brown’s podcast because I love her as a person. [chuckles] She’s amazing. She talks a lot about comparative suffering. This idea that you cannot rank yourself right and against other people, and what is heavy to you is heavy to you. You really need to just sit in that feeling and figure out what you can do to move forward with empathy for yourself and those around you. It’s really acknowledging that my situation and view of what happened could be different than Mary’s but I don’t have to compete with her. We both have a valid experience. Chris: Thank you for sharing that. Mary: I think for me, it’s really been the mental exhaustion through all of this. As you said it so well Ashley, I love the detoxing from certainty, because that is exactly what it has been, all of a sudden, in mid-March, everything changes. From whether it’s a budgeting standpoint and revenues and dealing with that, dealing with staff, and myself who the uncertainty is unfathomable. It just brings another level of anxiety. To me, dealing with all of those things, and all of the webinars and all of that from a business standpoint, how are we, as a bureau going to help our fellow partners in the industry? It just all came down at once. For me, the mental exhaustion and having to really work through those things, and at the same time, being positive for those I encountered, my staff, and others and trying to set that calming way of saying, “This is going to be okay,” and, “This is what we’re going to do.” The beauty about all of that, while difficult to go through, is that it really makes us, one, stronger, it makes us, two, more tighter as a team, just here at work and as a family as well. Three, it just allows us to really think outside the box. Instead of doing what we do and even though we’re creative in that this really forced us to be even more creative because there were certain dynamics from a tourism standpoint that we could do or not do. Our cultural and museums were closed or the recreational boomed. How do we take those to be creative and invite people to our community while being safe and working with our partners so that they are here for when this continues to rebound? I have a firm– I’m an eternal optimist, for those who know me would agree with that. I just believe that we are certainly on the upside of this and that 2021, there is a great light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still going to have some setbacks. I think for me, that mental part of just being mentally exhausted, not physically, unfortunately, I should go out and do more walking and all of that, but that’s been really more difficult to deal with. Then trying to just keep everyone in a positive mode and encouraging and those kinds of things. Chris: Thank you for sharing that. It’s powerful to hear from both of you and a good reminder that, everyone has experienced this time, differently. Even if you don’t have a story to tell, in the sense of a particular battle with an illness or COVID, everyone is wrestling with something, has been affected by this and that was true before the pandemic, too. Anyone who has had a family member who’s dealt with any kind of disability and some of the ways that those can feel invisible in the world, but be very present to us, when what’s happening inside or in our lives privately know that, all of us are dealing with something. I think for me, the pandemic has really brought out that tendency that I found for myself to start judging or to start evaluating or comparing, levels of pain or ways in which we’re affected. That just becomes so toxic so quickly. When I’ve been able to just appreciate that everyone’s having a different experience, and that I may never know their full story, but that I have to trust, that if they’re asking me to wear a mask for their health or safety, that’s the very least I could do to help them in their journey. As a community, all of us can appreciate that each of us is living out a story. We may not know each other’s story, but we can do things to help each other be safe and as healthy or happy as possible along the way. Thank you for those reminders and for helping us think about that. Mary: Chris, and Ashley, I think one of the other bright spots that may come from this devastating time that we’ve all been through, is that this may allow the opportunity to even more so takeaway stigmas from, say, the mental health area, and how can we– because more people have experienced that and are speaking out more so about the mental health, just using that as an example. My hope is that through this bad experience, that will help release those stigmas and provide more assistance for those areas that we so desperately need. As we all know, just talking about mental health, it truly is a chemical imbalance, it’s not anything that we can or cannot take care of ourselves. My hope is through this pandemic, all of the different feelings that each of us are going through, that we can utilize that to really better when times get better, to use that for vantage and put more dollars where they need to go. Ashley: Absolutely. One reminder on my side as well, Mary, you said, “Bright spot.” I think a lot about the stolen moments of connection that I probably wouldn’t have had if I didn’t slow down. I was definitely the person that overbooked my schedule, I’m a high achiever by nature, I just go, go, go, go, go. When this happened, I paused, and I reflected, and I got more time. I know, in-joke, that it must have been 24/7 with my family in the beginning. How great is it that I was able to spend that much more time with my son that I wouldn’t have had before. How great is that, even though my husband lost his job, now he works from home, and we can both be there to pick him up from school or drop him off. There are silver linings that I do think will bubble up as you start to see those pieces come together. To me, when I’m really struggling, I go back to those. I go back to, what are three things I can be grateful for right now, what is the silver lining that I need to really bubble up because I’m not able to see it in the midst of chaos or being overwhelmed? To Mary’s point, I am always pretty vocal about myself and my life. Even through work, I would try to cover it up. I would just try to act like, “Oh, I got it, I got it. No, I’ll take on more. It’s fine.” Today, I had a call with my boss, and I was like, “I’m burnt out. I’m exhausted, I’m burnout. Six hours of meetings in a day is not sustainable for me.” I wouldn’t have said that a year ago, I can 100% guarantee I would have just covered it up and tried to keep going. If you’re listening, maybe now’s a good time to just write down what are three things that you think are your silver linings? That you know, “I can always go back to those when I start to feel really stressed out.” Mary: Great point. Chris: Absolutely. It’s clear that this storytelling will have value for all of us, well beyond even the current public health situation. I just want to thank you both for your work and the whole group that’s been a part of creating this. If someone is listening today, and they want to get involved and help share these stories, help amplify them, help our community have these conversations, what do you want them to do? Mary: They could certainly contact me or Ashley, my email is mwalker at visitrichmond.org. They can also go to our website, and get involved, and look at the different ways that we’re utilizing the Share Your Story communication things, but certainly, just letting us know that they have an interest. They can also share their own story by posting a selfie and loading it up to our website so that others can see that and feel connected, that they don’t feel all alone. I think there’s a variety of ways. If anyone wants to join our team, again, let me know, email me, that would be awesome. We will absolutely get you involved. Chris: That’s great. That website, again, is covid19waynecounty.com. You’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and there’s lots of ways for people to find you and get involved. We’ll link to those in the notes for this podcast episode so folks can follow those as well. Mary: May I add one thing? Chris: Absolutely. Mary: This is time-sensitive, so this is a fun thing. Through our group, there is a design a mask contest that anyone can participate in, whether they’re young or old or older that think young. The deadline is Friday, the 29th. We ask everyone to go on our website, again, covid19waynecounty.com, and create your own design. From that, there’ll be a winner, that we will have Black Dog Printing, our local printing shop will do the printing of those designs, and we’ll be getting those out to the public. It’s a fun way to get involved, to have fun with wearing a mask and be proud of it. Ashley: Absolutely. If anybody’s listening and they’re like, “Wow, I missed the deadline.” It might even be a month from now. You should go to the website and see what design we made because we’ll be able to show you what we actually did. Mary, that’s one final point just to really reinforce this to the campaign. We wanted to support local artists and local companies through any efforts that we did, so we use Mandy Ford Designs for the coloring sheets, really thinking of people in the community. If we’re going to invest community dollars and tell community stories, we better be spending the money local and that’s what we’ve done. Chris: That’s awesome. Mary Walker, Ashley Sieb, thank you so much for all that you’re doing. Thanks for your time and the conversation today. We wish all of us as a community I guess the best in taking these stories in, seeing how they affect us, and seeing how they change the way we think about getting through this together. Thank you. Ashley and Mary: Thank you. The post Mary Walker and Ashley Sieb on the power of story-telling to help us navigate COVID-19 together appeared first on Richmond Matters.
46 minutes | Jan 22, 2021
Randy Baker of RP&L on the past, present and future of local electricity
Randy Baker is retiring soon as the General Manager of Richmond Power & Light. In this podcast episode, he reflects on his time there as we speak about how power generation and distribution has happened in our community over the years, the politics of electricity rate changes, and what might be ahead for our municipal utility that was built in 1954 and meant to last fifty years. As he’s also an accomplished musician the music at the beginning and end of this episode is played by Randy, a rendition of Doyle Dykes` Jazz in the Box. I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: The word is you’re going to be retiring soon. How long have you been at Richmond Power and Light in your time there? Randy Baker: I actually started in 1999 as a consultant, as an IT consultant during a time when the state, as well as other states were thinking about going to deregulation in the electric business. Then I came onboard as an employee in 2000. Chris: Wow. You’ve been there through a lot of change. You grew up in Richmond originally, is that right? Randy: Yes. I grew up partly in Cincinnati, Ohio, but I was born here in Richmond. I did graduate from high school here. Then, pretty much except for sometimes I was on the road, pretty much lived here the rest of my life. Chris: You mentioned starting out in kind of a technical role. I think I first encountered you as someone who was working more on the technical and operations side of things. I know our paths had crossed in various local tech and software circles. You’ve done a lot since then. How did you end up starting in that role and then working your way through the role of general manager? What did that path look like? Randy: The joke is that I tell people that I just hung around here long enough till they finally gave me the keys. I did start in that technical role as a consultant and then took over the IT department. I’d been doing consulting for quite a while, did a lot for the government, but some private companies too, like Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble and things like that. It’s funny now. My goal in the beginning was, “Hey, this could be another great vertical for me to consult in. I’ll stick around here and learn the business really well.” Something happened along the way. [laughter] Chris: You learned it really well. Randy: Yes. My original contract was for one year. It’s probably been the longest year in my life. Chris: Wow. How did you know that it was time to retire? Randy: I’d been thinking about it. I never dreamed I’d be here this long to begin with because I would just get– One of the reasons I was a consultant is because you could do something and then before it got dull, you could move to something else. Things like that. In terms of time itself, I’m just to a point where I think it’s time to pass it along and get some younger folks in there probably, and honestly, do some other things in my life. Chris: We can talk a bit more about your future plans and all of your different interests, but I want to just orient ourselves to what Richmond Power and Light has been and is now in the community. I should probably apologize because I want to ask you a bunch of really basic questions about electricity and how RP&L works. My understanding of how the power plant works before and just the science of it, we had coal coming in by truck or maybe rail. We burned it to make steam. The steam rotated the turbine. The turbine created AC current and that got sent out to our homes via wire to provide what we know as electricity. Is that a fair description of what RP&L was doing for a long time? Randy: That’s a pretty complicated process you put in a very short time frame. Yes. The steam, you generate the steam, whether it’s by coal or it’s by natural gas or whatever it is. Yes, that turns the turbines. Chris: For listeners outside Richmond, obviously, that’s power in town. How far outside of Richmond did that transmission go and where did it start to be taken over by other agencies? Randy: It was always kind of a local thing here. Now, since the grid came about all those decades ago, because there was a time when Richmond just kind of sat out here on its own, and all the towns did, so if your power plant went down, your town went down. Even when we were generating, we sold that on the grid. We’ve been in a contract with the Indiana Municipal Power Agency, IMPA, since 1982. We buy 100% of our power. There’s some advantages to doing that. Any of these questions you ask, you are going to have to keep me on track because it is its own conversation within itself almost. Chris: Right, right. Yes. We’ll come back around to IMPA. The version of electricity generation that you mentioned where we were kind of on our own before maybe the grid was developing. I mean, that version of electricity had lots of implications right? You had transporting coal. I think I read something like 150,000 tons of coal per year at one point that RP&L was burning, so it’s getting it here. You’re managing a stockpile of surplus in case the incoming load doesn’t make it on time or something like that. You have air pollution– Randy: It’s always been kind of the opposite. We kind of generated here and then for what we couldn’t generate– We, for decades, have not been able to generate as much as the town needed so then we bought from the outside. Chris: Okay, got it. Randy: That’s all changed now, but that’s the background. Chris: Then you had to think about air pollution and the rules sort of evolving over the years around that. That decision about when burning coal on any given day or week might be more profitable than buying it from the grid. It seems like there was a time when that was a kind of a regular decision being made. It seems like a really complicated and strange endeavor and it’s all happening at this place out of the town. It all sounds kind of scary, I guess, or it sounds really complicated. Is that how you experienced it when you first arrived there? Randy: You’re talking about the wholesale market when you’re selling on that. Yes, that has changed a lot. That started changing after deregulation. The best analogy I can make is it’s kind of like the stock market. Generators bid into the market at a price, an amount of electricity that they can produce at what price, and people buy it, and so dispatchers do that and call for that. Where we see a stable price or sell at a stable price here in town, in that wholesale market, that price can vary. It can go from anywhere- and if I get into too many acronyms here, you tell me. Chris: Sure, yes. Randy: We measure power on the wholesale market by the megawatt. That megawatt, I’ve seen it go from almost zero and sometimes negative, where there’ll be so much power out there that you’re selling at a loss. It can average around $60, $70, $75 a meg. I’ve seen that market go to $900 before and then it’ll go back down. Chris: What are the things that drive that, because in my mind it might be the price of coal or the kind of source material that someone paid when they bought it. Does it get into global events? Does it get into the payroll cost of the person who’s on duty on a given day? What are the factors that figure in to that? Randy: The price of coal and things like that factor in some, and it’s the same in the gas market. Really what drives that market is who is online and who is generating and what is the load out there. If you have a huge generator– Richmond was always pretty small, so we didn’t have enough power in that market to move the needle too much, but you get a big one that all of a sudden goes offline during a time when usage is really high, in a super-hot day or a super-cold day as well. That’s what drives the price up. Chris: I think what I heard you say then is that all of the electricity we use now is coming from outside the community. None of it’s being generated locally. Is that correct? Randy: Yes, and every answer I gave you is simplified so keep that in mind, because we’ve got what? Coming this spring, we’ve got almost 36 megawatt of solar on our distribution system here. We buy directly from IMPA. IMPA’s portfolio, and they have 61 cities in their group. They buy, market, and build, like they’re building the solar here in town. They still got a couple of coal plants that are due to be retired at some point in the future. We’re also entering into that deal with them. Their portfolio is– When I started, it was more or less 100% coal. At this point, it’s about 65%, 68% coal and the rest is either gas, nuclear, wind, solar, a little bit of bio in there, I think, everything except for hydro, I think. We’ve really been able to diversify our power supply as we’re moving away from the coal here by being in that group. That’s the advantage. Chris: Is that group constrained to generators in the state of Indiana as the name might imply, or is what you’re saying is we’re getting power from all over the place? Randy: We’re getting power from all over the place. I can’t remember where everything is at to tell you the truth. There’s even a little bit of nuclear in there. No, it’s not just in Indiana. Chris: Then what happens at the Richmond Power and Light plant now that is a part of that process? What are some of the things that go on day to day there now? Just so people can imagine the contrast between the days of burning coal versus what’s happening today. Randy: That coal plant is now what we call a peaker plant, so it is still operational, but it’s only run maybe 20 days a year. 20 to 30 days depending on the market. If the market is high enough for it and the load is needed out there, then they will generate. What they try to do now is just to hit the peaks in the market. We know kind of when the peaks are going to be and when the market’s going to be up, despite weather and all those things, and so it just generates at that point. Chris: Is it worth it to have all that infrastructure in place for those 20 days a year, because I can imagine that sounds like a lot for only 20 days. That may be a naive question but I’m curious about that? Randy: Back to my statement, every question you ask has tentacles on it. There is in the industry what’s called capacity market. Everybody that generates in the market pays into this capacity market. The purpose behind that capacity market is to have enough excess generation ready to go in case they need it. There have been years, I’m not sure where it’s at right now since IMPA is actually operating that, but there were years when we would get enough money paid to us from that capacity market to pay all the salaries back there. That is a market to bid into every three years. Generators come on and say, “We’re planning on generating this much, here’s how much we can put in that capacity market.” Chris: Is some of it a backup option if what can be delivered by IMPA is reduced suddenly, somehow, we can then make up for some of that, or is that not how it works? Randy: No, not exactly, if you talk about losing on there. The capacity market is for when you don’t have enough basically, not so much the other way, because the other way the prices just go down. Chris: Then of course, there’s all the folks who, when there’s a problem with the power lines somewhere in the community or new lines need to be installed or new meters, there’s that operation. How many people in total does RP& L employ right now? Randy: Well, when I started in 2000 we had 151 employees. Their peak of employment which was I think about a decade before that, so about 1990, was 161. Right now, we’re down to about 96. About 25 of those 151 from when I started were in the generating plant, so that other 25 or 30 is just been, over the years we’ve automated things. Chris: RP&L received an award, I think I saw even in the Municipal Power News that hits our mailboxes, the American Public Power Associations’ certificate of excellence in reliability for 2019. It’s got to be a weird industry where when you get more efficient, when the infrastructure is more robust, then there’s less and less human intervention needed. Is that a general trend in power generation right now, is like working toward reliability and automation? Is it something you see a lot of? Randy: Yes, technology is starting to be- I shouldn’t say starting. Technology is a big driver in our business now. A lot of things that we used to do by hand, even on the distribution system in terms of maintenance out there on the sub-station, there’s transformers, things like that, a lot of that has been automated. Yes. I don’t know if I answered your question. Chris: Yes, that’s great. Even turning towards paperless billing and things like that, which I know you all launched recently a new version of changes the way that people interact with paying power bills and that kind of thing too. I want to ask you too about rate changes and how they work. I realize that’s a complicated topic. I know RP&L announced I think March of last year, that you were working on a rate increase. I think you had said for an article in the Palladium-Item that most of that was related to clean up efforts for the coal ash leftover from power generation by coal. I think the number cited there was something anywhere between $18 million, $55 million to do that project, two to four years. Obviously, that’s something that a lot of communities across the country are facing and I expect it’s gotten more confusing in recent years with different shifts in policy at the federal level confusing things. Randy: That’s been the tough part for us because the rules around that regulation, they keep changing so we’ve been kind of chasing that. That CCR rule was implemented late in 2015, like November or so. At that point, we wanted all this coal ash cleaned up. You’re right, it’s not only us, it’s Duke and everybody else too. I think, in fact we’re just talking about that today, they extended that out to 2028 right now to get that done. We’ve got like 400,000 tons of coal ash sitting out there behind the plant. It has to be remediated. Chris: What does remediation look like in this case? Is it moving it or doing something else with it? Randy: Well, there’s a number of things you can do depending on where you are at and what kind of money you have to spend and everything else. We work really closely with IDEM on the whole project. IDEM is the Indiana branch of the EPA. All our permits, everything we do for that, has to be approved by them. The two options we’re looking at right now and we’ll have a decision very soon from our board, one is cap in place which is basically– I should back up and say we haven’t put anything in an impoundment area since probably 1970, ’71. The plant started in 1954. From that time till ’70, that’s where the coal ash was put, and everybody else did the same way too. That was stopped at that point, so it’s been sitting out there that long. In fact one of our big issues we had was trees started growing and things like that, so we had trees we had to cut down out there as much as three foot in diameter that had to be all taken down and things like that. Yes, we’ve got up to 2028 to finish that project. One option is to cap it with a dirt cap. There’s a lot of things you have to do in terms of how the rainwater flows off there, and things like that. The other option is called clean close, where you actually remove it and put it in a lined landfill someplace. That’s the most expensive option. When I start talking about, well it was 18 at first now it’s $26 million to cap it and probably $50 million, $52 million to clean close. In the meantime we’ve put, I think we’re up to 14 wells around there that monitor anything that possibly could be coming out of that. Chris: I assume the concern is basically groundwater contamination or general pollution at that point. Randy: The idea of the dirt cap is to keep any groundwater from getting back down in there. Chris: When you talk to someone in the community and they say, “Don’t raise my rates” or “How could you?” Is there like a 30-second pitch that you’ve refined of how to say like, “Hey. It’s actually worth it because—” or is it just such a complicated conversation? Randy: I have no pitch, but even without all this. This is the most expensive project that I’ve seen since we’ve been there, but it has to be done. Most people in town think that we get tax money, but we do not. We exist solely on our rates. We run more like a business than a government institute. In fact, we pay back a PILOT payment, which is an acronym for payment in lieu of taxes. We pay that back to the city every year. Chris: You’re not technically required or legally required to pay those taxes, but do so voluntarily. Randy: Yes, that’s right. That goes right back in directly into our city budget. Interviewee: You’ve probably studied the implications for an individual rate payer, residential rate payer, with this proposed rate increase. Do you have a sense of what it would mean on a typical power bill? Randy: Yes, in fact, this is pretty timely on this call because we just got the okay from the IURC, which is the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission that regulates us, to go ahead with that rate increase. We’re not going to implement it until probably quarter two of this year. It’ll be about 3% for a residential user. For some of the industries, it’ll be less than that the first year. The only ones higher than that I think are some of the real low projects we’ve got that don’t cost much like a dusk to dawn light. I think that’s going up 4.5% but that’s on an $8.58 charge. Chris: It sounds like folks could feel good, in a sense, knowing that that increase is going to help resolve this issue, which if we don’t address, sounds like we go on in environmental implications for that. Randy: You get people on each end of the spectrum, because you get people that are really green, want the environment at any cost taken care of. Then you get the other people that just care about saving a buck. We got an email the other day that said, “If the solar is not saving us any money, why are we doing it?” In my position, I have to answer all of those questions from each end of the spectrum. Chris: Obviously there are people in the community where saving a buck can make a big difference in their day to day if they’re struggling in some form or on a budget, so I don’t want to downplay that, but to say that something like groundwater contamination. If that were to become a community-wide issue, obviously the cost for that could be much bigger both in terms of finances and personal health. I’m sure it’s hard in your position to help people zoom out to that big picture and to see all those different points of view, when from their perspective, it’s like this month, it’s a hardship or something like that. Randy: I will say to the financial end of it, we are a nonprofit and we’re regulated by the state. They know everything. They’re right now regulating our charges and things like that. We’re a little different than a business, we don’t have shareholders and things like that, so whatever it costs us to get electricity to your home or business, that’s what we charge. Chris: It’s not lining everyone’s pockets for a life of luxury because you figured out a business plan to bilk the residents of Richmond out of their money. [laughter] Randy: No. If you look on the OUCC or the IURC site, Richmond in particular right now is the lowest cost in the state, even after a rate increase. These things move around because rates change all the time around the state with all the various cities and companies, but it looks like we’ll still be in the median on that. Chris: Let’s talk about that. There used to be a lot of conversation about RP&L and the idea of having a municipally owned utility as being a really huge asset for the community when it comes to cost of living and economic development and other factors. Now that we have solar parks going up and were a part of IMPA, and there’s talk of- what would you say, more like federated grid approach, kind of like what IMPA is coordinating. Solar power’s getting cheaper and battery technology is coming along. The landscape is just changing so much. Randy: It is. That’s true. Chris: What does that mean for the future of any kind of power generation in Richmond? Will RP&L even exist as a traditional utility in a number of years or will it mostly be about local line maintenance and repair? Can you help us see the future a little bit? Randy: Yes. Right now we’re just distribution only. What happens in the future is yet to be seen. There are several different scenarios out there. I guess in any of those scenarios, what I would like to see is a little more– I hope some of these technologies come down a little bit so users have a little more control over the power source and things like that. We’ll see. I’m hesitating because there are just a lot of things happening at the federal level right now that we don’t know how they’re going to affect us. We don’t how they’re going to affect cost. Chris: I’ve heard there’s been some change at the federal level recently. [laughs] Do we even have the control, like if we set a goal? I don’t know if this would be a good goal, but if we set a goal and we wanted to say we want to be the lowest price point for industrial power in the region. Is that something we can even work toward or do, or is it just controlled by so many other factors that it’s not? Randy: Well, you could make that goal. Here would be and is the issue with making a goal like that. We buy power directly from IMPA. We get one bill a month. It’s our job to distribute that cost evenly among the different rate classifications across the city. You get into a discussion on, “Hey, if we’re going to be the lowest industrial cost but we still have to pay this wholesale bill, should a little more of that weight towards that bill come from the residents?” Does that make sense? Chris: Yes, sure. Randy: From the commercial class that would aid the industries a little bit or the other way. Should you charge the industrial classes a little more and have less for the residentials? Chris: I guess it speaks to, we’ve talked, even in this conversation, just as you mentioned the number of acronyms. Your work is overseen by a lot of different bodies, regulated by a lot of different bodies. In particular, you report to a body of elected officials, the Richmond Power and Light board, which is the same group of people who make up Richmond Common Council. I know in that arrangement, you have to balance prudent decision making that serves the community, serves businesses, serves future generations, while also being mindful that any given issue, like a rate increase, for example, could make it into the local news or the public conversation, even be a matter of controversy. Knowing that you have that background in business and consulting, what’s it been like to do business that way? Reporting to that kind of entity and balancing all those considerations? Randy: Well, even before I came to Richmond, I did a lot of IT work. As you know, people might not know, but a lot of programming, things like that, for the government. Somehow along the way, I’m not sure exactly how it went down, but I kind of became this, when I was doing work for the feds and the state over there in Indianapolis, at some level I became a little bit of a liaison between the IT folks and some of the elected officials. I didn’t realize that was going to be a lot more of that in the future. That’s how that happened. Chris: Do you enjoy navigating the balance of management and the political bureaucratic side of things? Is there a part you prefer to stay away from or go toward? Randy: Well, like any job, you have things you really like to do and things you would rather not do. It just depends too. I don’t have any problem getting along with the board or anything like that. I just kind of handle like that. I try to treat people how I like to be treated. Chris: You mentioned already that people have misperceptions about RP&L, such as it’s taxpayer-funded. If you could tell people in the community one thing about how power generation or distribution in our community works that you think most people have a misunderstanding about, what would that be? Randy: Most people do not understand that wholesale market, even at the level that we’ve just talked. That’s going to be news to some of your listeners and things like that. Chris: Does it feel important for people to be educated about that or does it mostly just come up around the occasional rate increase, things like that? Randy: I think it’s important because– It’s probably more important now than it used to be, especially moving forward and you see all this technology coming on and the effect that’s going to have on the utility and the markets and everything else. I thought when I first started this job, 21 years ago now, I thought, “Well, this idea of a big central power plant someplace will fade as technology changes and it’ll be a lot more distributed energy.” The guy that hired me, Dave Osbourne, who was the GM at the time, we’d have discussions about, well maybe someday Richmond Power and Light won’t be so much into generation as they are into selling and maintaining distributed energy products. Maybe that’ll be a bigger part of our business going forward. Chris: What would be an example of a product like that? Randy: A gas generator or even something solar in your house. At the time there were some experiments going on with some small scale natural gas generators that would even drive a small business and things like that. Now that solar has really started to come pretty strong now, solar and the wind. It’s a much bigger job to get to those technologies than I imagined when I first started. I think as time goes on and no matter what you think about the environment and things like that, people just don’t want the coal anymore, so it’s going to go away, so I try not to get into those arguments. I think the education piece on it is more important than it’s ever been. Chris: If someone were building a new home today and had the option to invest in a solar panel array on their roof maybe with a battery, is that still something to aim for when it comes to power generation at the hyper-local level, or is it better for us to be thinking about how can we support the construction of the solar parks like we’ve seen around town now, and have those be providing energy at some level for the community? Randy: Well, some of that’s going to depend on your personal outlook on that. Right now we’ve got, I think, four solar customers residential and one commercial. Chris: Four households in the city that have solar on the roof? Randy: Right. Chris: Not quite a trend. Randy: [laughs] No. The reason for that, and we get lots of calls, and we do have one customer now that has bought some kind of, I’m not familiar with it, but it’s some kind of battery storage as well. You see a lot more of that out West where there’s a lot more sun, frankly. The barrier to entry on some of that home stuff, it’s just been the cost. The costs for the infrastructure itself. Even on the commercial level, industrial level where we’re at, the price to build a solar plant or a natural gas plant, or a coal plant are all the same. It cost about the same amount of money to build one of them. The problem being with the wind and the solar is obviously the sun goes down at night. Some of the trends, if you want to call it a trend, or at least the idea conceptually has been to, if we can get enough solar during the day, enough of the wind at night where it works better there and some kind of storage coming on, that could be where we’re going in the future. Chris: I assume with better battery technology, some of those concerns start to go away as well. Randy: That could be a game-changer. Chris: I think that the notion of cost, it probably starts to get into the political arena, but in terms of cost today versus cost to future generations versus costs to the environment and different kinds of factors go into that. I can see your point that it’s a matter of outlook at some level, but it’s interesting to grapple with that as a community. Randy: It’s a matter of cost too. Think about it, if you’re building solar that costs the same as everything else, which is about $2 million a meg now. So our load in Richmond is between 155 and 160 meg at its peak, and you have to build out generation for your peak, to be able to handle that. At those kinds of prices, you’re talking about a $300 million investment to get 8,10 hours worth of sun. Then you have to turn around and get something for the other half of the day. I’m just not saying it’s wrong or right or anything else. I’m saying that is the scope of the problem. Chris: Well, and it’s engagement with those facts that are so important in helping people understand why they pay what they do, or why a given manufacturer might choose to locate here or somewhere else, so it’s really good to be thinking about that. There’s one other weird bit of infrastructure history I want to ask you about. When I first visited the Richmond Power and Light offices, I was surprised to see a stage set with a full kitchen setup and cameras and the lighting to go with it. What was that all about? Randy: That was started way back. Oh my gosh. It must’ve been in the ’70s, probably. Maybe even before that. Well, had to have been the ’70s because I don’t think that auditorium was built till sometime in the ’70s. The generation plant out there, by the way, was built in 1954. It was designed to be a 50-year plant. Chris: Wow, here we are. Randy: Yes, we hit that in 2004 because the maintenance that was put into it along the way, it still runs. At that period of time, Huffman was the general manager and his goal was to sell electricity and as much of it as we could. He started the program to facilitate and if you notice all the appliances are electric. Chris: Funny how that works. [laughs] Randy: That was the start of it. It was to encourage people to use more electricity and it was revived again. It kind of went away and was revived again in the 2000s period. What we did with it was make a touch point for the community. We would bring local chefs in to cook meals and things like that. The cable WCTV would come in and tape the broadcast and re-air it. One of our most popular places on the site back in that day was the recipe page. We got more visits on there then we did the other stuff. [laughs] Chris: That’s amazing. All the recipes called for an oven self-clean after each cooking session. Randy: Well, the purpose changed. We weren’t so much trying to sell electric as to be a good touchpoint in the community. Chris: It was just so funny to walk into a utility building and see a stage look like something you’d see on any given home cooking channel. It was pretty cool. Randy: For what it’s worth, we never knew of any other utility that ever did that. Chris: Is that still there now or has it been dismantled? Randy: The kitchen and everything is still there. Everything is still there. Chris: We’ll look for that on the tour. Randy: Due to budget and things like that, we finally closed and so many of our restaurants now. This was an interesting side note. All your chain restaurants, they would not let their chefs come in there. Chris: Interesting. Randy: We had to find all local people from local restaurants to do that show. Chris: The chain restaurant recipes were super protected, or they just didn’t see the connection? Randy: Whatever it was, I’m not sure but we were never able to get any of those folks in there. Chris: You’re also a musician, and I think any local live music aficionado has probably heard you play around town or maybe lately online. How did you get into that? What originally influenced your interest in music? Randy: Well, even with my 21 years here, I’ve played music a lot longer than I’ve been in the electric business. I started playing at 13 and I started playing professionally at 15. Pretty much that’s what I did up until I was 30 or so. 32. I really didn’t even go back to college until I was in my 30s then. Chris: Wow. Does that mean touring and bands and everything else you can imagine? Randy: Yes, I had the– As the song goes, wore a younger man’s clothes. I had a contract at Nashville for songwriting and some different things back long ago and far away, in a galaxy far away from here. That is still a big part of my life and what I do. Chris: Should we expect to see you on stage more or less often after you retire? Randy: I don’t know if it’d be more or less often. Right before the pandemic hit, I did look at a job that was going to be a tour with a Western Swing group touring. Of course, that’s not a big genre so don’t think multimillion-dollar tour buses and things like that. I was just a sideman anyway, but it looked like fun. I was going to do it for a month. They had 15 gigs in 30 days. I was going to do that and then the pandemic hit. If the opportunity comes up, and it looks good again, going forward, yes, I’d do some more of that stuff. Chris: I bet you’ve got a good following here in town that would love to follow your adventures in that realm too. Randy: I’ve been fortunate enough to keep busy all these years and doing it, and playing with other people. I don’t book too much myself anymore, a little bit, not much. I like doing the sideman gig and things like that. Chris: Do you have a favorite local venue to play? Randy: Well, about the only one left around here to play a lot in terms of full bands is– besides The Legions and things like that is New Boswell. I play down there quite often with Sean Lamb and do some solo or duo gigs every once in a while. Got some feelers, whenever this stuff starts to go away. Chris: Good. Well, Randy Baker, thanks so much for letting me ask you lots of questions about how all this works and what it means, and thanks for your service to the community in RP&L and otherwise. Randy: No problem. When I took this gig it was like coming home a little bit because most of the work I did before that was out of here, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Dayton in the area, and then further out for some of the big corporations. I do have some roots here. When I do things it means something to me too. Chris: Well, we wish you the best in your last bit of time in RP&L and, of course, the very best in your retirement. Good luck. Randy: I appreciate that, Chris. The post Randy Baker of RP&L on the past, present and future of local electricity appeared first on Richmond Matters.
46 minutes | Jan 14, 2021
Jason Truitt on the changing landscape of local news, life at the Palladium-Item
One of my favorite subjects, and a question that I think continues to be critical in shaping the future of our community, is that of where and how people get their news and information. Over the years I’ve had a lot of different relationships to that question, from being a casual media critic blogger to creating and curating various information sources myself to, more recently, working on it a bit from within the field of journalism. Throughout that time I’ve been watching and appreciating the work of my guest in this podcast episode, Jason Truitt, who recently wrapped up his long stint at the Palladium-Item newspaper where he was most recently the Team Leader and Senior Reporter. Jason and I have talked about the work of news reporting in our area before, and I’m excited to have a chance for him to reflect on it further at this milestone. (Full disclosure: I’ve recently worked with the Western Wayne News, a competitor to the Palladium-Item.) I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: You recently made a big change away from your time at the Palladium-Item and wanted to ask you about that. How long were you at the paper in your time there? Jason Truitt: It was 22 years. This is what it ended up being, yes. Chris: Wow, that’s amazing. How did you get into journalism and news originally for starting out? Jason: I always knew I wanted to write. When I was in middle school, even I would write little fictional stories. I was really into sports back then. Well, I still am today, but I would write little short fictional stories about sports or whatever, and then when I got to Richmond High School, I decided to join the newspaper, The Register and just really loved it and knew immediately that that’s really what I wanted to do. Started making plans for what I wanted to go to college to study journalism and go from there. It was something I knew that I wanted to do from fairly early on. Chris: What was it like at The Register at that time? I know papers change over time. What was it like at the school then? Jason: We were putting out the paper on computers, but it was pasted up and everything, and the production of it as far as that aspect goes wasn’t done at the school or anything. We didn’t have a whole lot to do with the production other than being on old school Macs and writing our stories and that kind of thing and doing the layout from there. It was funny. It’s been 22 years, but I can’t tell you how much putting out a paper changed from my time at– Well, once I got to college, I started working for the Daily News at Ball State and was much more into the production process there. Just how much putting out a paper changed in those 22 years, it’s just crazy. Going from printing out articles and pasting them up and then shooting those onto negatives, and then the negatives being burned on the plates and the plates being put up on the printing press too at the end. Basically, all of that being eliminated. In the end, pages would be printed directly to plate to go up on presses. Of course, none of that was happening here in Richmond anymore. All that was happening in other places. It was a lot that changed in that time period. Chris: If you can think back some to what the Palladium-Item was like when you first joined, just everything from the building, the people, the role that it had in the community. What do you remember about your first time walking into that and figuring out what was going on? Jason: I actually started working for the Palladium in my junior year or the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I did an internship at the Palladium. It was a requirement to get my degree at Ball State that we do an internship. That internship was a harbinger for my time to come at the Palladium because I spent a few weeks. It was longer than eight weeks, maybe a 12-week internship. I spent some time doing news. I spent some time doing features, sometime doing sports, and then some time on the copy desk editing stories and doing page layout. Like I said, that’s my career at the Palladium ended up covering pretty much all of that stuff in some way or another once I got hired full time. That building was full of people. Everywhere you looked, the newsroom had I think close to 30 people entered at the time. That was full-time employees that didn’t count, interns like myself or stringers that went out and covered high school sports on the weekends and that kind of thing. It was just completely different than where we are today. Chris: Just so we can kind of preserve what 30 people did at that point. Can you remember some of the kinds of beats that were being covered then that belonged to a person that might have been combined later on? Jason: Yes, just kind of rolling through what the newsroom looked like back then. We had a managing editor, we had an assistant managing editor. You had two different people at the top. You had a features department that was an editor and two reporters if I remember correctly. Sports was an editor and two reporters. I worked on the copy desk when I first started, there was six of us there, a news editor who was in charge of the copy desk and five copy editors. We had a graphics editor, we had two photographers, a news editor, a city desk editor, which basically was over the new side of things, and assistant city editor, and five or six different reporters on that side, and those guys covered– see the various beats were city governments, cops, and courts, education, health. We had a health reporter and a business reporter. We had a Preble County reporter. At one point after I’d been there for a little while, we added a Western Wayne reporter and those were just full-time people. We actually had correspondents that covered Union County, Cambridge City, Hagerstown, Centerville, and even a correspondent when I very first started that was doing just Northeastern school board stories. Basically, you name it, we had somebody covering it. Chris: When I talked to your former colleague Bill Engle a few years ago on this site, I think he described a paper that employed over 200 people. I assume that once you start to figure in distribution and all of the newspaper delivery and everything that goes with that, does that sound right to you hundreds of people working to get the paper out? Jason: Oh yes. I remember coming in. I’d work on the copy desk when I first started and at that time, the paper was an afternoon paper Monday through Friday, and then a morning paper on Saturday and Sunday. During the week, that meant getting started depending on what shift you were doing on the copy desk, whether you were laying out the front page or you’re doing sports, you would come in three, four o’clock in the morning to start your day. I remember even at those times coming in and the back parking lot being full for that building there and the side parking lot was, of course, part of it was saved for customers, part of it was saved for the higher up folks. We’d get done with the paper that morning, you’d go home for lunch. We typically on the copy desk had advanced pages we needed to do, or in the early afternoon, before we were done for the day and you’d come back from lunch and good luck finding a parking place. That lot was full. We had several other lots in the blocks around the building that was owned by the Palladium at the time, and you wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed to find a spot in any of those lots either. There were a lot of folks there. Chris: That’s amazing. As I recall, that’s also a time when the Sunday circulation, for example, I believe was in the multiple tens of thousands, maybe 20,000, 25,000. Just to think about the level of production that went into that from the reporting, editing, printing, and distribution, it was just quite an operation. You’re an award-winning reporter and you’ve covered quite a range of stories about this area. When you think back on some of those that you were a part of covering and publishing, do you have any that stand out to you as favorites that you were really glad to be a part of? Jason: Well, there was some big things before I ended up being a reporter again. When I was on the copy desk, there are days that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget 9/11 and that morning and what that was like. I was on the copy desk working that morning. There were big events like that. One of the shuttle explosions, I was working that particular day too, and I think I was even doing the front-page layout that day. There’s some bigger events like that and then some bigger local events. I remember when Dennis Andrews resigned as mayor, that’s one that sticks in my head for whatever reason. When I moved over to reporting a few years ago, when I very first got in, of course, we were going through the whole process of getting to the point to take down the old hospital. I spent a lot of time reporting on that, and I’ll never forget being able to go in when they did the walkthrough for the companies that were interested in doing that job during that demolition job. I got to go with them and walk through the buildings. That was just a surreal experience and one I’ll never forget too. Chris: Really pieces of history that live on in lots of people’s memories. You mentioned 9/11 and the shuttle explosion. It’s a good reminder too, that there was a time where people’s consumption of national news would often happen through their subscription to a local paper like the Palladium-Item. Now it’s just so easy to think how the news we take in all the time through the internet, or phones, or whatever device. If you can just remind us, what was it like in terms of the mix of stories and what a typical front page might be covering in a given day when it comes to the national and local dynamic? Jason: The front page, it changed through the years, the physical size of the front page changed and shrunk over the years. I remember probably when I first started or sometime around that time, the rule was, I think we had five stories out front was what we were shot for or what we were shooting for every day. Out of that mix, I think at least three of them were supposed to be local every day. That was part of the process every morning when we came in before we started laying out the pages was just to figure out what stories were going to go on the front page. You had that. Then page three of the A section, the front section was also with a local page, and that was entirely local. That page went through a few different redesigns. The point there was a rail of briefs that went down the left side, and then three or four stories that made up the rest of the page. I think at one point, we got rid of that briefs rail as the size of the page shrunk. I think we’re still looking for three, four, at most five stories on that page, but especially when I first started, that page was always local. There was no wire content on it whatsoever. As times changed, we did get to a point where we split some state stories on there from time to time, but the goal was to always have that page be nothing but local. Then in those early days, then we had other local stories that were spread out throughout the A section as we had space, and then the rest of it was filled with state and then national and then world news was how you progressed through the A section. Of course, the A sections also had the opinion page in it. Of course, we had our local editorial on that page, a lot more letters to the editor back then, and actually, a decent number of local columnists back then too that was mixed in with the national folks. Chris: You’ve mentioned a couple of national events that were tough ones. I wonder if there are other stories you remember where it was a difficult thing to cover or to be a part of reporting either in deciding whether to cover it or not or how you covered it. What’s a challenge that comes to mind about your time at the paper? Jason: Oh, when you do the job of local journalism and you dig into topics that people would rather you not dig into or not talk about, or might not like the way you’re reporting a story. What I’m getting at is, Bill Engle and I worked together on some of the stories that he reported. One of the ones, a few years back, there was an overtime problem within the Fire Department and the Police Department. Bill put together this really nice package looking at the runaway over time, and why that was happening, and how did that compare to other cities our size and the state. I worked with him to try to present some of that information in a little bit different way and develop what the different sidebars were going to be for that main piece. There were people, the police chief at the time was not a happy camper with us at all, did not agree with some of the points we were trying to make in the stories about why things were the way they were. Another one I remember was after Richmond High School that was labeled a dropout factory. If you remember then, within a short period of time, they very quickly turned around their graduation rate. I worked with Brian Zimmerman who was the education reporter at the time to do a package looking at how exactly they managed to turn that rate around so quickly. One of the things we found was that they had done a very good job of raising the graduation rate, but part of the reason why the graduation rate had risen was because they still had kids dropping out. They just weren’t being counted as dropouts because they were transferring to be homeschooled instead, and that didn’t count against the dropout rate. The superintendent at the time, Allen Bourff was not happy that we were doing that story, was not happy with us whatsoever. It so happened that we were working on that story at the same time– if you remember former Senator Dick Lugar was in town to present them with an award for turning around the graduation rates so quickly. The timing of it was not appreciated from RCS’s end. Anytime you do a story like that, you’re going to catch blowback and it’s awkward, and it can lead to uncomfortable conversations. I remember in that story, in particular, I was in the editor’s office with Brian Zimmerman and I believe the assistant managing editor at the time. We were all on the phone with Allen Bourff talking through that story, and why we were asking the questions we were asking, and he was very upset. In the end, even when you had those disagreements, more often than not, the sources for those stories are the people we’re reporting on. A little bit of time would pass, they would understand they’ve got a job to do, we’ve got a job to do. We’re not always going to see eye to eye, but we can still have a respectful working relationship and we can go from there. It may be awkward in the moment, but usually, as time passed, things got better. Chris: I just have to ask, had anyone come up to you and said, “Thank you for covering this hard topic or diving into this problem area, even though it was uncomfortable or difficult?” Have you had folks maybe after some time has passed coming to you or is that just unheard of in the business? Jason: No, I don’t know. I’ve ever had anybody say thank you for something like that, no. Chris: Well, that’s too bad. You’ve lived through this shift from social media platforms being a place where people talked about the news that was in the paper to those platforms being places where people got their news and often complained about having to pay for a newspaper subscription. Some of this I think has been driven by companies like Facebook that enticed publishers to put articles and lots of reader engagement on their platform and then eventually, hit it away again, unless publishers were paying for ads. Some of that’s been driven by the cultural devaluing of journalism and maybe some of it was just missteps by publishers and how they value their own content. I’m sure there were other forces at work, but I’m curious what trends you observed or how you experienced those shifts and maybe when you really started to notice some of those big changes taking hold in how people got their information. Jason: The Great Recession really accelerated some trends that were already in place before that economic collapse happened. We were already starting to see the beginning of the downward spiral, but when the economy tanked, it really took off at that point in terms of the downward trajectory and all the other forces that were involved at the same time. It was around that time that we really started getting serious about what does our digital future look like, and what does that mean for us, and how can we shift resources from a print focus to a digital focus? I remember correctly, I think I was already the online editor for the paper at the time. I was at the forefront of trying to figure out what that looked like for us. We were getting a lot of guidance, of course, from the parent company Gannett. We were trying to figure out what we were getting from them, how do we make that work for a small newspaper like us? A lot of times those plans were more focused on your Indy Stars of the world, or maybe the mid-tier of papers below them, but they necessarily weren’t exactly feasible maybe for a small paper like us to try to pull off. Then we had to try to pick and choose out of all the different things they were wanting us to do, what could we actually do and how could we move resources around? We were constantly chasing that then from that point on. The industry as a whole is still dealing with those questions and still trying to figure out how to make it all work and where the emphasis should be on print versus digital and all those kinds of things. You have all that going on. Then the last few years, everything became so political and so polarized that some of the things that had been seen as an asset for the paper for a long time like the national reporting and that world reporting suddenly became a thing that we were constantly being beat over the head for. People would see bias within reporting that from my opinion, obviously, was not there and certainly, we at the Palladium didn’t have anything to do with it. These were stories coming from the Associated Press or from other Gannett newspapers, but they were being used to hammer why the Palladium-Item wasn’t worth subscribing to. When you’re getting it from this digital transition and then this polarizing effect that was going on in the country in the last few years, it’s not been something, like I said, that really anybody in the industry has figured out, maybe other than The New York Times or The Washington Post. These bigger national brands have survived this a lot better than anybody else. For small papers like us, it has been just very difficult to try to chart those waters and figure out how to survive over the next few years. Chris: There are experts and analysts who suggest that once newspapers as a whole had put some of their content, some of their articles online for free in the early days, the heyday of yay, the internet, we can get these articles out there, and people read them. Then once they were out there for free, walking that back in any subscription or revenue model was always going to be a tough thing. Still today, we have people in the community who just insist that their access to news reporting should be free. That there’s no way to justify the cost of a newspaper subscription even at the rock bottom prices that the publishers in our area charge. Do you even try to have that conversation anymore with folks about paying for access to news reporting? If you do, how do you persuade people to invest in local news? Jason: I would have those conversations with folks before I left the Palladium when the opportunity presented itself, to try to talk about– Just to be honest with people that if I get into a conversation with somebody and maybe talk about what they appreciate about paper, or even what more often than not, it was about how they wish the paper would get back to the things it used to do. My point to them was, “Well, if you don’t subscribe, there is zero chance we’re ever going to get back to doing those things that you missed that you wish we would bring back because we just don’t have the resources to do that anymore. The few things that we still do, that you still enjoy, those will disappear as well,” and just try to get people to make that connection. I don’t know how successful I ever was with that. Sometimes we would even get to just a personal level and be like, “Look, I really like my job, I’d really like to keep my job. I’d really like, if you subscribe, I get to keep my job. If you don’t, I don’t.” Try to get people to make that connection, even if beyond the corporate Gannett and beyond even the brand that is the Palladium-Item or whatever. Just try to make it more personal and try to dig in and see what people either, whether you care about me or if you care about specific things that we do every day, you have to pay to keep those things around or they’re going to disappear at some point. It’s just a matter of time if folks aren’t willing to pay. You talked about some folks within the industry and analysts that thought that newspapers should never have given their stuff away for free, it’s called the original sin sometimes within the industry. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that thought process. I just think when you look at the way the internet works today, sure, there are things that we pay for. There are some subscription services and things like that, that we’re willing to pay for today. I think people see value in things like TV shows and streaming services and music and things like that, that they just don’t see news is adding value in the same way. I think they’ve become conditioned that the internet is full of information, and the vast, vast majority of that information is free. If I want to know something, I should just be able to look it up and see it for free. Why should I have to pay to know something on the internet? That’s just the way it’s been for decades. I don’t think people see news any differently than any other piece of information that they can Google and lookup. I don’t think anybody has figured out a good way to break through that. Chris: I suppose there’s some irony that some of the local reporting that might be the most important for people to consume, whether it’s a summary of a common council meeting or an update about the city budget, those are items that probably affect them directly in some way more than a lot of that free information does. Yet, it’s like asking people to eat broccoli. [chuckles] It’s the healthy part of the news diet that maybe people don’t want but when I go to the grocery store, I still pay for the broccoli and the cake or the sweets or whatever it might be. Jason: Right. It’s unfortunate, we can obviously use technology being what it is, we could see in real-time every day what stories people are reading, what stories people weren’t. There would be days we would sit in the newsroom and look at those charts and just shake our heads when you see the stories that people wanted to read, people are willing to read, and then the stories that they weren’t. Often it was your gossipy salacious kind of stuff, the crime stories. Who is being sentenced? Who is being arrested? The reality is those stories just weren’t going to affect most people in their daily lives. Then we would do this other story that was going to actually have an impact on them and they just didn’t care to read it. Now, they may go and Speak Out Richmond and complain about it, but they wouldn’t actually open up the article and read the article and understand what’s being done and why it’s being done. All that is explained right there for you so that you can have a real conversation. If you can still have complaints, that’s fine, but at least you would have knowledgeable complaints about what’s going on and why the decisions are being made. People just would not read those stories, certainly not to any of the levels that they would read the other stuff. Chris: The emotional distress and time that could have been saved by just reading the article… Jason: Exactly. Chris: It’s true in general. I guess the community has watched then in recent years as the Palladium-Item staff, size, and infrastructure was reduced even further. As you mentioned, functions being moved to other locations, positions consolidated, eliminated. The printing of the daily paper moved to Indianapolis, the presses shut down and I believe sold off, various editorial functions moved away, layouts, and buy outs. I think the building itself went up for sale. At the same time, the news kept happening and the coverage marched on, and you were one of the last staff members who had held on through those changes. I can only imagine how challenging it was to watch an institution contract around you, saying goodbye to colleagues, what that meant for your work. What was that like for you? Jason: Obviously, it was tough. As the years went on, you, unfortunately, become a little bit numb to it. It just happens over and over and over again. It becomes to the point where it’s just almost a part of life, it’s just a part of the job, that at some point, the next round of layoffs will come along, and somebody that I’m working with today isn’t going to be around when that happens. We generally just tried to not think about that part of it and just come into work every single day with the thought process that we’re going to put out the best paper that we can put out that day, with the resources that we have. We’re going to work hard, we’re going to do everything we can do to inform the community and do our part. What comes tomorrow is out of our hands, especially in the last few years, once all of the management level positions were gone. These last couple of years, it was two or three of us in the newsroom and we were just running things on our own. Some direction, now don’t get me wrong, we weren’t making all decisions ourselves, but the day-to-day, who’s going to cover what, and how are we going to approach this story or whatever was up to just those of us here in the newsroom in Richmond. We just tried not to think about it, try not to think about what was going to come next, and just keep our noses to the grindstone and like I said, do the best job that we can do on any given day and get done that night. Hope that nothing popped up that we needed to jump right back at it that night. You could get a little bit of sleep and then come back at it the next day and go for it again. When the weekend comes around, the same thing, hope that nothing breaks over the weekend that we have to go run to or there’s not a tornado on the East side of town or, what was that? The father’s day weekend. I guess it was one of the other things I had to cover and like I said, you just did the best that you could without trying to think too much about the bigger implications of things. Chris: Yes, and very different to be sharing coverage with a team of 30 people in a newsroom versus a team of two or three and what that meant for your personal lives. Jason: Yes, for sure. Chris: What do you think is ahead for the community when it comes to how and where people get their information? I don’t know if you want to speculate about the future of the Pal-Item in particular, but do you feel hopeful for any kind of renaissance in local news reporting or other events that might change the trajectory that we’ve been on? Interviewee: I don’t know. I thought about that a lot in the last couple of years, where this is all going to go and what’s going to happen. If the day comes at the Palladium-Item is not here anymore, there’s the Western Wayne News and the expansion they’ve had there. I wonder too though, how much of the growth in subscribers are there are just coming at the Palladium-Item’s expense, or are they actually being able to reach out to a new audience and bringing in? That’s my concern is that there’s a generation, an older generation that is still locked into what goes on in the community in a way that my generation and younger, certainly my kids– I don’t know how much that generation is going to truly be civic-minded and really care about what goes on in their community, beyond what pops up in their Facebook feed, and what they might immediately react to that they see in a Facebook group. As we talked about before with people not being interested in those city council stories or those county commissioner stories that are actually going to have a real impact on their lives. Like I said, they may see a headline and they may react to that headline, but they are unmotivated to click through and read the article itself, and truly understand how their community works. I’m just concerned about what that’s going to mean for Richmond and Wayne County moving forward in the future, and how we operate as a community, and everything else. I guess I just don’t see those trends reversing themselves at this point. I just don’t see any signs that people or things are going to turn around and people are suddenly going to care about the news again, about local news again. I hope that’s not the case. I hope things do change, but it just seems like things are accelerating in the bad way versus signs of that things are going to turn around and go back to the way they were. Chris: Yes, it feels like short of a national or maybe even a global effort to bring a focus on media literacy back into maybe the earliest stages of education and every part of civic life. Those trends don’t bode well. We can’t have this conversation without referencing recent events. It feels like the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol last week couldn’t be a better example of the way in which devaluing journalistic standards of reporting can result in real consequences. Whether it’s violence or disrupting democracy or just mobs of people thinking that they’re confronting some fabricated enemies of a demagogue while actual bad things are happening, bad actors are operating unchecked, and there are real crises that are unfolding around us. I wonder, you had left the Palladium-Item at that point, but what did you think about in a journalism context as you watched those events unfold last week? Jason: You’re watching those people, from a journalist’s perspective, watching the way the media has been denigrated in recent years and the way people buy this notion of the media as the enemy of the people and everything else, and you’re like the concepts that people have in their head for how they think journalism works or how they think stories come to be– I know how it actually works. The editors at The New York Times are not sitting around trying to figure out how they can make Donald Trump look bad today. That’s not the way journalism works. I don’t know how we fix that. Then what has concerned me too then on the local level is that you see some of that coming through here, and I think back of just things like the bike paths, right? The bike paths downtown and how the conversations around that went and everything else, and how there was all this disinformation going around about what they were, what they were meant to be, how they came to be and all that stuff. I tried to do stories specifically to address those things and specifically to call them out and to provide people with the proper context for what was going on, and people just didn’t care. They had their preconceived notions for how things were, and that was all they wanted to listen to, and the only one to listen to people who were willing to or who were saying things that reinforced that already held gold view, and they completely dismissed anything that went contrary to it. That concerns me for our community here and much larger across the state and across the country. What does that mean for us moving forward, and what’s the consequences of that going to be? This idea that we’re going to reunite and there’s going to be some unity again in Washington DC or across the country. I’m not sure how we get there when people seem to want to live in their own bubbles, and they don’t want to move beyond that, or even see the other side as being real people who have their own strongly held convictions and their own beliefs about how the country should work and everything else. Instead of having a dialogue about, well, you believe this, and I believe this, and why is that, why do we believe these two things and how can we understand each other’s position so we can figure out the best way to make this work. Instead, the conversation is all about how terrible one side is versus the other, and we don’t even talk about ourselves as humans anymore. That the language is being used, it’s really scary. I’m still not sure how we turn things around. Chris: Well, and it feels connected to something you mentioned earlier about people being frustrated or upset if there was a narrative that was in conflict with their narrative about the dropout factory, reconciliation, or whatever. I certainly worry about the decline of investigative journalism, just the watchdog role of media. It’s tempting to think that at a local level, we don’t have lots of waste fraud or abuse going on, but we know that elected officials and governments they’re not incentivized to be transparent about things that go wrong or money that maybe could have been used more wisely. You hear people in the community calling for wanting to hold elected officials accountable. It’s just strange to me that at the same time, they’re okay watching media disappear that would have played that role and done that with a skeptical eye. People’s willingness to have a story that’s a little bit uncomfortable in front of them and really grapple with that, understand what it means, and be open to changing their mind about something, it feels like if we can’t do that as a community, then we’re in real trouble. Does that make sense? Jason: Yes, definitely. Yes, for sure. Like I said, if we can’t have conversations around the issues that we face and how do we move forward and everything else, because everybody has dug into my side good, your side bad, and I’m not even going to listen to you, instead, I’m just going to call you names. Then what are we doing here? How does any of this work moving forward? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how we break through any of that given the way media is structured in this day and age where if if you have a particular worldview, you can certainly consume all the media that you want from that particular worldview. You don’t have to bother yourself with the other side whatsoever, and you can just live in that bubble. Then that makes it very tough then to break through that and to have those real conversations that we need to have about the issues that face us. Chris: After 22 years of living that life, what’s ahead for you? What are you excited about now? Jason: Moving to Reid Health and being the media relations specialist there now, it’s very interesting to see things on the other side of things and to see things from a PR perspective, and that kind of thing. One of the things that attracted me to going to Reid and making the switch was, it would allow me to one, stay here in the community. Obviously, I’m born and raised here. My wife is born and raised here. Our families are here for the most part and we didn’t want to ever be in a situation where we’d have to potentially leave the community, but it allows me to continue to be involved in the community in a way too. That’s what excites me is that I get to continue to be here and try to find new ways that I can be involved that maybe I couldn’t be before because of the nature of being a journalist. You have to be careful about your relationships with sources and things like that. Now I don’t have those restraints on me, so I can look for opportunities that I can be involved in the community in ways that I just couldn’t be before. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Chris: I can only imagine as much as health pandemic means really hard things for a lot of people, it’s got to be a really interesting time to be working in communications and healthcare. How has that been? Jason: It’s funny because, in a lot of ways, my job hasn’t changed that much. In that, I was reporting about COVID before I left the Palladium and I’m still writing about COVID. That’s pretty much all we or I shouldn’t say that’s all we talk about. Most of the releases that I’ve put out in my first few weeks at Reid have been about COVID, so that much, that really hasn’t changed as far as that goes, which is just weird. It’s seeing things from the other side of, like I said, to know what’s going on in a way that obviously I never knew before. Anytime you’re coming in at a story as a journalist, you’re trying to think of all the questions that need to be asked, and you’re trying to think of all the information that needs to be shared with the public, that you can think of, but you never know things as well as the sources that you’re talking to. You never know the subject matter as well as they do. I would always as a journalist have this concern that what were the questions that I should have asked? Sometimes you put out a story, and you see people start to react to it on social media or whatever, and somebody will ask a very good question. It’s like, “Oh, yes, I should have asked that question,” and make a note so that next time I do a story, I try to get that question answered. It’s interesting from this side of it than to have more of that institutional knowledge, which I have to see, I’m still building up at this point. To come at it from that angle and just figure out, okay, so what information does need to be shared with the public? What information can we share with the public at this point? What are we still working on? Try to make sure that we’re getting all the information out that needs to be out, instead of from a journalism perspective, I’m trying to guess at what information might be available. Now, I have it all at my fingertips and it’s trying to figure out what’s the best way to share that? What’s the best way to communicate that with folks, so that they can understand what’s going on and what they need to do and, and those kinds of things. Chris: The stakes have never been higher in lots of ways. Jason: Exactly. Chris: Jason, I think I join a lot of people and thanking you for your service to the community as a member of the news media, and as someone who clearly worked really hard to get the stories right for the benefit of readers, so thank you for that. I wish you all the best in the next phases of your career. Jason: Thanks so much, Chris. The post Jason Truitt on the changing landscape of local news, life at the Palladium-Item appeared first on Richmond Matters.
44 minutes | Jan 5, 2021
Valerie Shaffer on developing quality of place, talent for economic health
I first interviewed Valerie Shaffer on this site back in 2017 about what the Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County does, how they measure success, and the rollercoaster of wins and losses in helping our community find its path forward. Recently her team at the EDC went through a strategic planning process that has shifted their focus not only to include recruiting new employers and supporting existing businesses, but also to focus on important related goals like improving quality of place and developing talent within our workforce. In this episode I talk with Valerie about those updates, what the pandemic has meant for her work, and what opportunities are ahead in 2021 for helping Wayne County shine. I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris: I think you and I last talked in a conversation for this website back in 2017, back in April 2017. Obviously, a lot has happened since then. Before we talk about some of the exciting things that are happening within the EDC, I did want to ask, and maybe people are tired of talking pandemic. I know we’re in 2021 now. When that was starting to unfold, I wanted to ask what that meant for you and the EDC staff, in your offices generally, what’s the last 10 months or so been like just related to the situation we’re in with public health? Valerie Shaffer: As you can imagine, it’s been very hectic because we certainly did not want to falter in what our primary responsibilities are for the community. We certainly had to shift gears at the start of the pandemic. First and foremost, the health and wellness of our businesses, and checking in with them, was our first priority. The staff, as we were working from home, we split up a list of our major businesses, and just started making phone calls checking in, trying to get a sense of who was shut down, who had issued layoffs, what the status of those layoffs were, and how the company was impacted. Since we’ve been checking in on those businesses to find out how they’re operating today, and I will say, for the most part, the majority of businesses are back open. They’re still trying to ramp back up to post-pandemic production or services, because it’s a challenge to get people to come back. There’s still a lot of uncertainty within our citizens and the safety of the workplace and just their safety in general. Certainly, workforce has been a challenge. In addition to checking in on our local businesses, we spent a lot of time reading and trying to keep up with all of the programs that were being released, both from the federal state and local governments trying to understand how we can get information out to the businesses that need the support. We quickly created a COVID-19 resource page that we were updating almost daily. Sending that information out by email to companies, making phone calls, making sure that they are aware so that they can take advantage of any opportunities that were there for them. Chris: That’s great. Yes, it feels like there was such a flood of information about programs or support that was coming. Then when it came, what it actually meant, and how to apply for it, and what that meant. I can imagine staying on top of that as a business that’s also struggling, just run day-to-day operations would have been tough. Did you find that people were learning about new programs through that communication and able to take advantage of it because of the resources you were sending their way? Valerie: Yes. We received a tremendous amount of positive feedback thanking us for the information, having it cataloged in one area, easy to find, but then also the fact that we were sending it out on a regular basis, notifying them of updates. Chris: That’s great. That’s great. What kinds of conversations have you had with site selectors, business owners, other people who think about how to make our economy thrive? When they’re thinking about the impact of the last 10 months or so on that work, are there themes that are emerging for you, and what’s ahead? Valerie: Yes. I really think that rural America is going to have a bigger spotlight on it in terms of being open for business, because we do have more wide-open spaces from a talent perspective. Some are moving out of large, highly condensed metropolitan areas. The site selectors that I’ve talked to have said that, “As talent moves, business might move along with it.” It really will bring an opportunity for us to maybe have more opportunities to compete when we didn’t before. Chris: That’s great. Yes, it does feel like the landscape is really changing. The shifts to remote work that were necessitated by the pandemic. For a lot of people, it’s altered our notions of what work looks like, and at least in any kind of knowledge worker space, people might be less attached to a particular place because it’s a hub for a certain industry, and they might be more willing to think about choosing where they live based on other things. I assume at the same time, traditional manufacturing may still be subject to a lot of the same concerns or constraints around supply chain proximity or just transportation routes and other factors. Do you see a divergence there in how work is understood for more brick and mortar operations versus a knowledge worker space? Or how are you thinking about that? Valerie: We did dive in to look at that knowledge worker space over the summer to see what kind of incentives or how we would position ourselves as a community for those knowledge workers who are working remotely to consider relocating here. Ultimately, we feel a stronger need at this time to focus more on our existing businesses and ensure that they have the workforce that they need. Coupled with the fact that we have housing challenges in the community, which does not make it easy to attract that knowledge worker when we don’t necessarily have the types or the volume of housing that would be needed to embark on a big endeavor like that. Chris: I know you’re working with a housing study, so we can talk more about that. Let’s talk about the recent announcement of a new strategic plan and a shift in the goals that the EDC is working toward, and how you measure the impact of your work. Can you talk us through that planning process and how you arrived at those new goals and what they are? Valerie: Sure. I think it’s important to mention that the EDC, we have been in operation since 1993. When I was hired in as the president back in 2013, we embarked on our first-ever strategic plan as an organization. At that time, we made the decision that we should focus on a plan strictly for the EDC, what is the EDC’s primary role in this huge scope of economic development within Wayne County. Over the last six years, we have been implementing that plan, and that was a very traditional economic development plan focused on upgrading the skills of our workforce, focused on business development, and then also aligning our stakeholders and making sure everyone was engaged and informed of our activities. Moving into 2020, as we embarked on a new five-year plan, we decided to make this more of an all-inclusive strategic plan for Wayne County, not just the role of the EDC. As we looked at the needs of the county, we went through a process of engaging many, many stakeholders seeking input on what each of our communities feel that they need in order to be successful, what our citizens need to feel proud of the place in which they live, and then what our businesses need to be successful. We had many, many work sessions and opportunities for input. Ultimately, that quality of place element rose to the top of the needs. We didn’t want to ignore that, we wanted to include that in the direction that we’re going for Wayne County. As we have diversified the focus of economic development for the EDC, a big part of that will be engaging other partners in order to help us move this work forward. While it seems like a tall task for us to expand into so many new areas, it’s really a way for us to help coordinate all of these efforts as well, if not everything will be led by the EDC. Chris: I think it has been reported elsewhere, the four new goals or alignment targeted growth, quality, place, and talent. It seems like alignment and targeted growth are more in line with the work you’ve been doing or the focus areas you’ve had in the past, whereas, as you just said, the quality of place and talent are a bit newer or just a shift in focus. Is that right? Valerie: Yes, absolutely. Chris: Let’s dive into that a little bit because quality of places, it’s one of those phrases that’s been used in a lot of different ways. Sometimes people use it to talk about creating a distinctive character for a city or region. Sometimes they talk about it as amenities or services. Sometimes it’s about what young professionals can do after work. Can you talk more about what it means when the EDC talks about quality of place, at least in this planning context? Valerie: Sure. In traditional economic development, the three legs of the economic development stool that we tended to focus on were business development– well, it was all business development. It was entrepreneurship, it was business retention and expansion, and then it was attracting new businesses. We know that in order to be successful in business development, that we have to be able to attract people to this area. In order to do so, we have to have a viable quality of place that people want to live in. Because it’s not as common for people to relocate for a specific job. They tend to relocate to an area in which they want to live and then find a job there. When we think about quality of place, we think about those elements that are important to people as they are considering where they want to live and thrive. That’s really in our eyes, that’s housing. So diversified housing options, old, new, multifamily, single family, townhomes. We think about broadband. High-speed broadband connection is incredibly important today. I think that has certainly been emphasized by the pandemic, and everyone shifts to either working from home or attending school from home. Childcare is another one of those issues. We need to have affordable high quality childcare. Those two things combined are difficult. However, we do already have a task force in Wayne County, the early childhood coalition that’s been working on that. We want to support their efforts to ensure that we have those opportunities for people who are deciding to go into the workplace, childcare is a really big factor for them. Then I would just add the transportation is kind of that other element, having good public transportation within our community to ensure that people can get back and forth to work and school. Chris: There may not be a good way to quantify the importance of those things, but if we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone who maybe has gotten a job offer, is doing an interview for a job in town, is driving through town looking for housing, or they’re asking about childcare. Do you have a sense of how important it is? Like when do we lose someone? Do people say like, “Okay, well, I really like this job, but I haven’t quite found the house that I’m going to live in yet. I’ll just hope for the best.”? Or is that so important that if we can’t present good options on that first impression or that first visit where we’re likely to lose someone or maybe more importantly an employer who’s thinking about setting up a business here, do you have any examples or just a way to help us think about how important these quality of place things are? Valerie: In speaking with employers, I can just say that many will find qualified candidates that go through the process of applying for the job, but when it comes to the point where they’re offered the opportunity and the candidate starts to dive in more into the community, there are many factors in which people decide not to make that relocation decision. We do hear time and time again that childcare is certainly a factor. Outside of the why, we don’t have any big names that would give a person confidence that they trust the facility that’s taking care of their child. Having some of those. Chris: It sounds like it’s a pretty important thing, and I guess it’s also an area where we never quite know who we might lose because of that, because the impression can be developed in their brain as they’re wandering through, and they might not say out loud, “Sorry, there just wasn’t enough childcare. Sorry, I didn’t find that find housing that I liked,” but that could still happen and behind the scenes. It seems like there have been times in our past where as a community, quality of place felt like kind of a nice to have, but if it came down to a decision between, say, like preserving green space or supporting the expansion of the business, then the interests of a business would win out. I know you can see those tensions play out with something like preserving older buildings for housing if a developer’s receiving some kind of assistance or grant or subsidy for doing that. Existing landlords might say, “Well, hey, why are they getting that and we’re not.” We see these tensions arise when we talk about quality of place. How do you help people in the community think about the notion of quality of place when it might seem to be in conflict with other economic development goals, or just what seems fair to people when they think about where the money is going? Valerie: In incentivizing any initiative or business relocation or expansion, is always tough for some people. We want to be fair and equitable in how we spend our tax dollars and making sure that it’s of benefit to the majority of our citizens. I feel like we have sat back for too long, and I’ll just give an example in the area of housing, and we just wait for builders or developers to come our way and find a site and decide to build. That is no longer working if we want to be proactive in economic development and ensure that we have the right opportunities for individuals who want to move to this community, or even just relocate within Wayne County to a new home. We have to be going after those opportunities. We have to be making calls. We have to put together sites, inventory, similar to what we do for industrial development so that when a housing developer does call us, or if we reach out and there’s interest, we have areas in which we can point them to. For that reason, there’s always going to be winners and losers. There are many private land areas that we could be looking into, but we have to look at what has the best or the closest infrastructure in place, what’s in close proximity to amenities, is it in any type of development district that might provide us more opportunities to be able to incentivize the project, which is always more enticing to investors. There’s a lot of different things that we must consider when we’re looking at subsidizing a project. We would love to subsidize all opportunities, but that just isn’t feasible. Chris: It seems like maybe that like the Elder building acquisition was a good example of a project where the EDC along with other community partners saw a real opportunity there to be proactive about what was going to happen to that space, and there’s plenty of counterexamples of times where we haven’t been and bad things have happened or things have taken a long time. Did that project feel like one of the first ones where that slightly different way of thinking or that new way of thinking and proactive came into play with that building? Valerie: Absolutely. We took a risk by moving forward and acquiring it, and we’re still sitting on an empty– Well, not empty, it’s being used for COVID testing, which is a great opportunity for us to utilize the space at this time. We’re being patient and trying to find the right developer and the right fit. That is an example of being proactive and saying we are going to take control of the state of that building rather than sitting back and waiting for an investor to come along and hoping that their intentions are a good fit for downtown. Chris: You used the phrase winners and losers. I guess my hope would be that the people could see where there are targeted investments that benefit the whole community, even if a landlord across the street from an EDC project says, “Well, I’m not getting any funds, so I’m not benefiting from this.” It seems like there are plenty of ways in which this kind of work or this kind of thinking rising tide lifts all boats, and we can move ahead with those successes together. Do you think we have work to do as a community to think through investing in each other’s success, even if it’s not directly benefiting our own businesses or our own neighborhood at that moment? What are those conversations like when you have them out in the community? Valerie: Yes, we certainly have work to do, but the hope is, when we take these risks and when we have these new opportunities, like the acquisition of the Elder-Beerman building, the hope is that we are successful in that endeavor and create a process that we can duplicate and invest in more properties. It’s not just a one and done effort. It’s a strategy to try to find success that we can replicate all across the County. As part of this strategic plan, I’ll just add that when we think about quality of place, we’re also focused on downtown development and helping to revitalize other buildings like Elder-Beerman. That will certainly be a focus moving forward as well, because there really isn’t one in an entity that’s focused on downtown development. We know it’s so critically important because many outsiders and even local citizens, they will judge the health and wellness of the community based on their downtown, and we want to make sure that we are focused on making it vibrant. Chris: Yes. Let’s talk a little bit more about that. You’ve talked about the small business loan program that the EDC facilitates, which I think you said recently has around $130,000 available to help with operating costs. Can you give some examples of where you think that program might make some impact? Valerie: Sure. Going back to the start of the pandemic, I was able to help coordinate pulling $900,000 in funding for small business loans. This was for any business up to a hundred employees, they could apply for up to $25,000, have a 0% interest loan to help them through this pandemic. We have $130,000 remaining, and so right now, I am working directly with Best Fields with the City of Richmond, and we are putting together the program scope for a new subsidy program for restaurants specifically. Restaurants have really been hard hit due to the pandemic. Moving into these winter months, outdoor seating is eliminated. Many people are still not eating out and probably not carrying out as frequently as we’d like them to. We know that our local restaurants are really the lifeblood of our communities. They are what sets us apart and makes us unique, in addition to local retailers. We want to make sure that they can be sustainable throughout these winter months. We’re looking at providing funding of up to $1,000 a month to help them pay mortgage payments, risk payments and or utility payments. Chris: Great. If anyone listening is interested in that, is that a call or an email to you or to Beth to find out more and figure out where they would fit into it? Valerie: We are hoping, I keep saying this, next week we’re hoping to launch, but we are really, really close. I’m hoping within the next 7 to 10 days that the application will be live on the city’s website. Even though it’s housed and will be administered by the city, it is a county-wide program with locally owned and operated restaurants. Chris: I think beyond that loan program, people might be curious to know what your involvement in downtown might be. There’s so many entities, as you said, no one who’s always thinking just about downtown, but so many entities involved in thinking about it. The business owners themselves, residents, property owners, the center city organization, city government. I could understand if someone was wary of [chuckles] adding another entity to the mix of thinking about helping downtown. Where do you think the EDC’s involvement could really add value in a way that hasn’t already been happening? Valerie: It’s interesting, because our mission really did not encourage us to focus on restaurants and retail. That historically has not been an area that we played a role, but this year, it’s like all the rules are out the door. We had to shift our focus to provide aid where it was needed most. That’s the beauty of economic development, is that our needs are continually evolving and changing. The EDC were an organization that is focused on the success of our local economy, and so we had to make that shift to make sure that support was provided where it was needed most. Through this new strategic plan and the quality of placed efforts that we will be playing a more intentional role in, I will see us maybe being a little more engaged, continuing to move forward with retail and restaurants, but I’m not entirely sure exactly what that looks like at this point. Chris: Let’s talk about the talent piece too, because there are a lot of layers there. As a community, we’ve had conversations for several years now about making our workforce more ready for the modern jobs that are available. We’ve talked about even things like addressing the opioid crisis and the effects that substance abuse has on workforce readiness. We thought about availability of childcare, as you said, there’s a lot more to that. Where does the EDC see itself working on building and expanding that base of talent that’s available in our area? Valerie: Historically, over the last two years, we’ve been more focused in that career awareness piece where we have created a program called Find a Job Friday. We have employers in all five of our high school lunch rooms, two Fridays a month, setting up tables and talking to students about what their company does, who they are and what they have to offer, and what skills are needed. That was a good way to get our major employers more engaged in the educational process, as well as building awareness of themselves. We’ve also tried to work really hard of connecting our residents to local job opportunities. We know it’s a challenge to look for a job. There are so many different ways in which to look for a job, so many different websites that we created. Hoosier Opportunity is an effort to try to condense the way that employers have to market their job opportunities, but also trying to provide one portal for job seekers to look at when they’re trying to find a job locally within the region. Home in Wayne is another talent campaign that we’ve created. It started off as an initiative to build pride within ourselves, within Wayne County, and promote all the positive happenings that are going on, sharing photos using our hashtag on social media. It evolved into a full website that we engaged our major employers and creating that tackles all of the elements that an individual would want to research in order to consider a relocation. We were finding that there were so many different websites or pieces of literature that employers were having to send out piecemeal, that we wanted to condense that into one website that would make it easier for someone to understand who Wayne County is, what we have to offer and how they would fit into the community. Chris: How have those efforts gone in terms of– I don’t know, if you have any metrics on Hoosier Opportunity or Home in Wayne in terms of engagement, but do you feel like they’re going right now? Valerie: Hoosier Opportunity, honestly, I don’t feel like has caught on as much as we’d like it to. It’s just one more website that employers have to post on. They’re not willing to give up the larger career builders and the national brands that they’re using. I wish it was utilized more, but we’re looking at building out a section on the website this year that is more focused on that career awareness. Looking at the high wage, high demand jobs in Wayne County, and building out career pathways so that individuals understand if they want to obtain a certain career or a certain position, how they can gain the skills in order to do so. I think that could be an attractive element, especially for our students. Chris: It does seem like professional development is an area where people aren’t always aware of the options available to them, either through local workforce development agencies or local college or universities, even online access to courses or programs that might be held elsewhere. Right now, if someone’s out there thinking about they want to level up their skills or learn a new trade or just generally improve their appeal to an employer, how do you think we’re doing on those kinds of offerings as a community? Valerie: I think the Next Level Jobs program developed by Governor Holcomb and his career and talent cabinet, I don’t know the formal name, I’m sorry, I totally messed that up, but it offers free job training through Ivy Tech or Vincennes University, and it’s really easy to go on the website Nexleveljobs.org, identify that you’re a job seeker. Then there are a number of different industry sectors that you can choose from, and training programs within them, where you can sign up and be trained for free here locally at Ivy Tech and obtain a certificate that would then help you have the skills needed in order to embark on a new career. Chris: That’s great. In terms of the Home in Wayne campaign, have you heard any stories? I know that, especially younger people can be skeptical naturally of any kind of organized campaign for increasing awareness about a particular thing. As much as it seems like a campaign that’s centered around social media or just telling stories, I think it’s a great way to go. Has it worked? Has it gained traction in terms of raising awareness and engagement for people who are thinking about where to locate and where to have a job? Valerie: We think we raised a lot of awareness here locally at home. We’ve seen a great use of the hashtag. We had a photo contest in the fall, where we’ve actually used photos from our citizens to put together a new marketing piece. That will be a new element to Home in Wayne, it will be digital and in print. It’s just a fun way to highlight a lot of the aspects of our communities through the eyes of our citizens. Chris: It’s great. Valerie: We just received positive feedback from employers. I can’t state a situation where an employer came to me and said that Home in Wayne was the reason why someone decided to locate here, but we do get a lot of positive feedback especially in regards to the cost of living calculator, which will show someone if they’re moving from a large metropolitan area in relocating to Richmond, that the cost of living is typically significantly lower. When the wages that are offered might be lower than what they’re making in bigger cities, it will help them understand that the cost of living is also lower. Chris: So many smaller Midwestern cities are making that pitch now, especially in pandemic times, about cost of living or, hey, you don’t have to live in a big city. Do you think we have a good shot at distinguishing ourselves there, or is that just a starting place to say, yes, cost of living is low, and dot, dot, dot, here’s all the other things that you might care about? Valerie: I think we do have a great shot. I have spoken to several realtors this year, who have seen people moving here from all across the country, from California to New York, as close as Illinois and Kentucky, but people are starting to relocate to smaller communities. I’m sure there’s a large number of factors that play into that, but they are choosing to be here. In my role, I’m always trying to meet new people. When I meet them, I want to know their story, I want to know why they moved here, did they have any challenges with relocation? Could they find a home? I’ve been pleased to hear so much positive feedback about people who have relocated to Wayne County, and just love the community, they love the people, they feel that they fit in, they can make a difference, and they can be engaged. Chris: It seems like that’s a place where that community pride that you referenced earlier that really comes into play. It’s one thing for someone to be talking to an economic development professional who is in your job, and you spend a lot of time thinking about that. It’s another thing for them to have a conversation with a server at a local restaurant or someone they pass on the street about what’s it like to live here. I know we’ve talked about ways to help people who already live here, see the importance of reflecting back to visitors, people passing through tourists, the things that they love about their community. I know the Home in Wayne may not be the particular vehicle for doing that, but how do you think we’re doing on that community pride angle and helping people who are here feel excited about what we have, excited about what’s coming? It seems like it’s been a year where we struggled with that just for many reasons, but where do you think we’re headed there? Valerie: That’s a good question. Just as I feel like we’re making some headway, all it takes is to get on Facebook and read some comments on an issue, and it feels like it sets us back. I don’t really know, it’s really hard to tell. I think it depends on individuals’ circumstances and how happy they are in their own life, how much they’re working towards creating their own happiness, rather than relying on others to do so for them. There’s just so much that plays into how people feel about the place in which they live. I think that’s a hard question to answer. Chris: Let’s talk about the housing study real quick too, which we’ve mentioned a couple of times now. You’ve mentioned that that is a piece that people look at when they come to town, it’s a piece where there are some gaps right now. What will this study cover? What do you think we’ll be able to do with the results that come from it? Valerie: Well, what we learned from the process of sending out a request for proposals for the redevelopment of the Elder-Beerman building, is that the major developers that we were reaching out to trying to seek their interest, they just didn’t know enough about our market. We had that time and time again. We feel like we need a more in-depth analysis on our local housing and our local economy to give investors the confidence to invest multi-millions of dollars into our community. We were fortunate enough to find a company called Tracy Cross & Associates. They are housing economists. They have vast experience in doing these types of analyses for either individual building projects, to see if an investor can receive a return on investment, or for communities who are trying to determine what the opportunities are. Tracy Cross & Associates, they’re already underway and collecting data about Wayne County. The point of this study is going to be, really we’re going to be able to know what types of housing units, how many of those housing units, the cost of those units that our community can support, and it will be broken down by community. We will know what Richmond can handle, Cambridge City, Centerville, Hagerstown, Fountain City, so that we can be really focused on development opportunities within all of our communities. Then try to match those opportunities with the right size developers who will have greater competence in our market, and be willing to, hopefully, find a project that fit. Chris: Again, maybe using the Elder-Beerman building as an example, if you’re talking to a developer who is considering investing millions of dollars in second storey housing units, do they care most about what kind of rent they’ll be able to charge? Do they care most about how many people are looking for housing, what the square footage price per square foot is? What’s the thing that they might look at where they can say, “Oh, okay, now I see the opportunity here, and I’m going to invest in it.”? Valerie: Yes, it would be all of the above. All of that information will help them determine the size of the apartment units, the amenities that are in the building that would then, of course, add to the rental rate or the lease rate, how many of those units can be built, what’s the interest level. They want to know, what period of time will they potentially be at full rental rate. They don’t want to be holding on to empty units for five years from now after the project is complete. Chris: Right. Okay. I’m curious, too, is access to groceries or food and food security in general, a piece of that puzzle, because I know a lot of people have talked about, if you’re going to live in like a downtown area or in a particular neighborhood, a lot of people think about like, “What’s my travel time to a grocery store for a more kind of urban experience, walk out my friend door and walk down the street to a deli or a smaller grocery?” Is that a piece of the puzzle at all that you think about it at your level, or is that something that tends to come after the housing is more figured out? Valerie: I think it can definitely occur both ways. We’ve not done any in-depth analysis on food deserts, and where and which we would need new groceries in order to support more households. I do think from a quality of life perspective, certainly, when you’re talking about living downtown, you want to have walkable amenities where we know that is desirable by people. That’s not anything that I’ve really spent a great deal of time thinking about. Chris: Well, as we wrap up here, I wanted to ask you, you’ve been in this job, as you said, since I think late 2012, early 2013, and obviously your experience goes back well before that. What are some things that have surprised you the most or stood out to you the most about the role and the work that the EDC does now that you’ve been in it for a while? Valerie: I grew up in the industry, so to speak. The EDC was my first job out of college. I started out as the administrative assistant. I would just say, I’m continually surprised about how important the work we are doing. When you’re in it every day, and you’re just ingrained in it, it’s just it comes natural, that these conversations and the planning, and all of our efforts are so highly important to the overall economic success of Wayne County. Sometimes when your head is down, and you’re working within the project, you lose sight of that because it’s just what we do every day. I have been so blessed to work with so many great people in this community. I feel like now, more than any other time in my career here, that we have a high level of collaboration. I can’t think of a time where we had any more people that were willing to take on roles and responsibilities that are willing to be at the table when we have an issue that arises. I’ve had so much support from my colleagues at tourism, and the chamber, and SBDC, and it’s at the city and county government, it’s just been really great to work with a group of people who care as much about this community as I do. Chris: That’s really great to hear. It’s probably worth just emphasizing how important that collaboration is because we’ve certainly had periods in the past as a community where there were a lot of people working on making the community a better place, but they might have been doing it in their own way or their own silo. The result of that isn’t always pretty because you have people competing for resources or people just getting far enough along on a project and then realizing that there’s some overlap or conflict with another project. To see that collaboration, and especially in the last year when there have been just these real daily challenges with public health situations, to see people coming together and saying, how can we work together on this, it’s impressive. I’m sure there’s room for more of that, but it’s been neat to see. Valerie: Yes, it makes me have a lot of comfort knowing that moving into this big strategic plan that requires a high level of support from many different entities across the county that I think we will be able to accomplish the goals that we’ve set, as long as this collaboration continues. Chris: Yes. If someone is listening to this and thinking to themselves, okay, this is great that these projects are happening, but I want to be a part of supporting economic development in our area, or I want to be a part of getting the word out about job boards or housing study, what do you need more of when it comes to everyday resident engagement with the work you do? What’s something that the people could help with? Valerie: I think, as we talked about earlier, spreading more positivity, being one of those people that is always looking to help elevate our community, focus on the good and not the bad. Certainly on social media, having those champions that are sharing the good news that we put out, or congratulating people who are making a difference and just trying to lift everyone up, I think that is extremely helpful, and then just educating people. One of the roles of our board members is to be an advocate of the EDC, to talk about the work that we’re doing within their networks. I’m an open door, if anyone ever wants to talk about the work that we’re doing, provide us ideas, I’m always open to that. Since we’ve had articles about the plan in the local newspapers, I’ve received calls and emails from citizens, and that hasn’t happened in a while, and they’re excited about the work, and they want to provide input. We’re open to that, so feel free to give me a call or shoot me an email. Chris: That’s great. Valerie Shaffer, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today and for the work you’re doing, and I certainly wish you the best in seeing results and moving us forward in all these different ways. Thanks. Valerie: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been a lot of fun. The post Valerie Shaffer on developing quality of place, talent for economic health appeared first on Richmond Matters.
59 minutes | Nov 12, 2020
Lauralee Hites on developing strategy, having hard conversations and finding our place
One of my favorite kinds of community conversations to have is with someone who is making great things happen, but who isn’t necessarily high profile in their work. They lead, guide, advise, nudge and help in powerful ways, but their names don’t always make the traditional “community leader” lists. That’s why I wanted to talk with Lauralee Hites, the Senior Organization Consultant and Principal Owner of Stratavize Consulting. I kept seeing her name go by as someone leading, advising and guiding a number of organizations in our area as they try to figure out their own roles in making Richmond and Wayne County a better place. (You may also recognize her from guest hosting IN Focus on WCTV, leading a workshop or input session you attended, or guest writing on a local blog.) We covered a lot, including what a strategy consultant actually does, how it works to name the real reasons a business or organization might be stuck even if it’s hard for them to hear it, and what it can look like to finally find “our place” in the world. I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: I have the sense that you are involved in lots of different, good things happening in our community right now. And I know that you probably tend to work behind the scenes a bit and we’re going to get into what those things might be and how you do your work. But first in case someone doesn’t know you, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your background with living and working in Wayne County and what that journey has been for you. Lauralee Hites: Sure. So I do have a funny story to tell, just how I got into the position, and then I can share a little bit about living in Wayne County and moving all over the place. But, years and years ago, it was 2002 and I was a mortgage loan officer for a big bank. This realtor came in and they had a referral for me. I said, “What did you do before you were a realtor?” He said, “I was a consultant.” And I said, “Well, what’s a consultant?” And he said, “I have a go in. I fixed companies. I turn them around and I travel all over the country, helping manufacturing predominantly, make their organization better.” And I’m in my early 20s at this time, Chris. Chris: Okay. Lauralee: “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, tell me all about that.” And for 45 minutes, he shared all of the stories of working at a consulting firm. I remember he got up and he left and I stood up and told the two people that I worked with that I was going to be a consultant. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get there, but by God I wanted that job. I wanted to help companies turn around and I wanted to fly all over the place. That really became my journey, my career journey. And it really stuck with me for years. I didn’t know when he left exactly what it meant. Right? I just knew that I wanted to travel and I wanted to turn around companies. And so it took me about 18 months, to get into a consulting role. Lauralee: I feel so lucky because it’s taken me to the East Coast and to the West Coast and back a couple of times and down to Nashville. It’s been a wonderful experience and I feel called to do this work. What’s really interesting is that I had a chance to tell the realtor that started me on this journey- Chris: Oh neat. Lauralee: Yeah. A couple of years ago, about three or four months before he passed away. And so I just thought, you don’t always get to tell people who inspire you to do the work that you do. I wanted to make sure that I had a chance to tell him that. And so yeah, that’s how I ended up becoming a consultant. Chris: That’s a really neat, full circle. Yeah. As you say, you don’t often get to tell people who’ve had some parts. To know that that was a moment that was pivotal and then to be able to thank someone for it. Wow. That’s great. Lauralee: Yeah. And I think it’s important, right? That we do tell people. Because we may have no idea the impact we make on people every day, we really don’t good or bad. And so I think it’s important that when somebody has made an impression or really moved you in a certain way, that they get to hear about that at some point. It didn’t play out for years. Right? I mean, I couldn’t have gone to him and month 15 when I didn’t even have the job and say, “Hey, you really inspired me.” It was a look back on my career over 15, almost 20 years of seeing my progression and realizing where it started. And so yeah, that job took me. I did a lot of different things in corporate America. And I moved away from Wayne County where I was born and raised and I was bound and determined to move as far away as I could get. Lauralee: I moved to Washington D.C. where I got a whole lot of traffic, sitting on the beltway and I’m watching or looking around at six lanes of traffic thinking, “Oh my gosh, there is so much traffic here.” And so, I moved back. I had some family things and I had to move back. And so I was just equally as determined. Several years later, I took another consulting gig and I moved to the West Coast and I ended up having to move back. The third time I decided, “Nope, I’m moving again. I am going to leave Wayne County.” And so I packed up in 2014 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. A year later I came back and I came to this point, Chris, that I said, “I think that the universe or God wants me to be in Wayne County. And so if that’s where I’m going to be ongoing to make an impact. I’m going to be what I expect to see in other communities. I want to participate in my community. I want to love my community, because this is where I am.” Lauralee: I expected to see that in other places. When I went to D.C., I wanted to be in this big city. Then I went to Seattle and to be in this big city and down to Nashville where there was tons of people moving. At the end of the day, I wasn’t part of anything where here I’m actually part of something because it’s smaller and I’ve learned to embrace that. And that took time. Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean, you mentioned traffic and you mentioned kind of being anonymous in a bigger place. I mean, do you think living in other places was important to help you get to a healthier perspective on what it means to be sort of fully engaged in Wayne County? Do you think people can get, if someone’s feeling that way right now and they lived here all their lives, do you think they can get that perspective without going to another city to live for a while? Or was that a really key part of it for you? Lauralee: That’s a great question. Would I have come to appreciate it without moving? And I think the answer is possibly no, and not that I want people listening to feel that they have to leave. Lauralee: It was my experience. And given my age at the time and my desire to climb the corporate ladder and my desire to feel like I’ve accomplished something by not living here. That gave me the perspective to look back and see the value of being here. And so maybe as a listener, you can begin to change your perspective through someone else’s story, not necessarily having to move and experience it. Because the reality is when I left, I found out how big a city really is and how hard it is to make an impact. I found out how expensive it is. I found out that it’s hard to participate in a meaningful way and see the impact, right? And living in a smaller community. You can do that. Lauralee: I don’t know if you would’ve asked me this 15 years ago, I would have been determined to leave. There was no way that you’re going to convince me that Wayne County is the place to be. Until I left and then realized, that this is a great community and we have many assets and amenities that bigger cities have that we’re lucky to have here, like RSO, like the Civic Theatre, both of those things are a really big deal for a community of this size. I wouldn’t have appreciated that before. And so I feel now with that experience, I look at Wayne County in a different light. Does that make sense? Chris: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s true for a lot of people, as you said, Wayne County, it has this strange gravity that can bring people back to it. As much as I’ve talked to people who want to get away, I’ve talked to just as many, or if not more people who come back and have found a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of understanding themselves better because the landscapes are more accessible, the way that things change over time. Maybe we can just wrap our heads around it a little bit more than if we’re living in a place that is so fast-moving, so complicated, so massive that we can’t really figure out where we sit in it. Chris: So, just understanding that sense of who we are and the difference we can make in the world does seem easier, more accessible, in a place like Wayne County. And as you named, I think there are some things that are pretty special about this place that make that even more possible. I want to come back to what consulting is. Because now you’ve been doing it and want to ask if your understanding of it has evolved. I mean, you now lead a firm that you’ve founded to do this kind of work. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Lauralee: Sure. So, I’ll tell you a quick story. I remember I was 30 years old and I lived South of Centerville and I called my mother and I had a complete meltdown on September 21st at about 9:00 AM in the morning, because that was my 30th birthday. I had not opened my own consulting firm. Chris: Wow. Lauralee: I was a failure. How could I have not started my own firm? What was wrong with me? I remember my mother saying, “If you think 30 is old, you have no idea.” And so she said, “Your father didn’t start his own business until he was 46 years old.” And that gave me a lot of perspective and I kind of calmed down. I’m so glad that I did not start my firm at 30 years old. I did not have the experience. I did not have the knowledge I had not really worked on some difficult projects, to really bring the experience that I have to my clients today. Lauralee: So I think it was a godsend that I did not. That I “failed” which I didn’t really, but in my mind, the story I was telling myself is, “How could you not have done this? This is all you wanted for the last…” Whatever that would have been, five or six years. And, “How could you have not done this?” And so I stayed in corporate America until a few years ago, and I finally went out on my own. I had met somebody, we clicked and had several clients and I was enjoying the work. And ultimately I felt like it was time to give this a try. I get up every day. I’m so glad that I did that. I decided as they say, put my own shingle out. Lauralee: I did it at the right time with the right amount of experience that I can provide the best service to my clients. I would not have been able to do that, had I not gone through, almost 20 years of being in corporate America. Well, it was almost exactly 20 years. Wow. Starting my career in a mortgage origination through the time that I left and was working in compliance projects and strategy. I had just done so many things in my corporate career that it was like, imagine if you have a tool belt on, right? And you just keep collecting tools and you keep going through, as you make these transitions, you keep adding one more tool. Now I have a saw, now I have a hammer. Now I have a screwdriver. Now I have this and that. Lauralee: That was basically what I was doing. And I was very thoughtful and very intentional about every career move I made in my corporate life. I wanted to ensure that I was becoming as well-rounded as I possibly could. Then I didn’t just seek, say a management role because it paid more money, but instead, maybe I was looking for a communication role so that I could figure out how you manage strategic communication. Maybe instead of going for a management role, I would move over and work in project management, so I can figure out how to move the technology project along. And so I was really thoughtful, to ensure that I had as much and as diverse of experience that I could get, before I opened up my firm. I always knew in the back of my mind that I would, I just didn’t know when it was. It happened very organically. Yeah, and I don’t regret it and I love what I do, and I feel very lucky to get to do it. Chris: It sounds so wonderful to come into that clarity at the right time, in the right place for the right people and to get to do what you love. That’s really great. So the firm is Stratavize Consulting and you are the Senior Organization Consultant and Principal Owner. People can obviously go to stratavize.com to learn more about it, and I’ll link to it on the website. But if you could give us the so-called elevator speech about what it is that you do, what kinds of services you offer and maybe also tell us a little bit about the profile of a typical kind of organization that might benefit from your services. What do they look like? Lauralee: So I guess if I had to summarize, we just help companies re-imagine their culture, their strategy, their leadership team and how their team members engage with one another. So I think of it like a three-legged stool. You have to have a strategic direction and a strategy is not a strategic plan with all these tactics in it. A true strategy is positioning and how am I positioned against my competitors? So if I’ve seen one strategic plan that comes to me and a client says, “This is my strategy.” And it’s just a bunch of tactics. It’s not a real strategy. It’s not a value proposition and positioning, and I can have the strategy, which is really the direction of my organization and how I will decisions going forward. But if I don’t have high quality leaders or I have a dysfunctional team, I can have the best strategy in the world, we’re never going to execute. Lauralee: I can have great leadership, but dysfunctional team members that aren’t clear on the direction, because I lack strategy, we’re never going to get anywhere. If we have great leaders and great strategy, but our team members are not engaged, they don’t know their role, it’s still not going to get anywhere. And so to me, I looked at it like, I enjoy strategic positioning the most, but in order to be successful, we have to work on the people side. The reality is the most of my clients that come to me, the challenge typically is team members. It’s the people side, it’s people working together, people communicating people, getting through a difficult time with each other. The people understanding their role, creating a toxic culture. Lauralee: I mean, at the end of the day, that’s what the majority of the work that I do is, is the people aspect. But they come to me thinking that they have a marketing problem, or they have a strategy problem, or they have a process problem or they have technology… They haven’t digitized their process, but once you scratch below the surface and all of those things might be possible, right? They may need a new strategy. They may need to realign their customer experience. Lauralee: They may need a culture transformation, but once you get in there, nine times out of 10, we have a people problem at the root of it. And then you have to work at the root level and really bring that out. Chris: And so that’s what I would say predominantly do. I can imagine that in some scenarios that, that could lead to what might be very awkward conversations. I wonder, I mean, if someone’s come to you thinking they just have a marketing problem and you’re sitting in front of them saying, “Hey, you have a challenge with leadership.” Or, “You have a challenge with culture or toxic personalities.” How do people take that? How do those conversations tend to go? Lauralee: You would be surprised most of the time they know it, the senior leader… I tend to work at the C-suite level. So I really work either with nonprofits, collective impact coalitions with community development work or on the profit, the for-profit side. The ideal organizations tend to have at least 50 employees up to a 10 to 15,000. And then once they get bigger than that, they’re too big for me. They often know it. Leadership will recognize or come to terms. The challenge is, are they willing to make the change? And it’s difficult. If change was easy, Chris, I would be very thin and would never eat the Brookside chocolates that are sitting on my desk right now. Right? And so, the hard part is the transformation and not going back to doing what we’ve always done. Right? And recognizing what we’ve always done is not going to get us where we need to go or want to go. Lauralee: That takes repetition. That takes methodology to say, “You know what? This is the direction that we’re headed. How do we change every part of our organization?” And that’s starting with, how do we host our, or how do we connect with our employees? Do we coach one-on-one? Are we meeting them weekly? Are we meeting them monthly? What does their performance plan look like? That’s at the very beginning, right? So if we are trying to move in a different direction, we have to go all the way down to the employee level, to the very first line employee and have a conversation with them. It’s got to be on a regular basis. Just that change alone is difficult to make. Lauralee: If you’ve not been meeting with their employees or managers have not connected one-on-one, that it seems very small. It’s got a huge impact. It completely changes the culture of the organization, just by the manager, interacting in a meaningful coaching way with an employee. It’s that level of change that organizations have to move through. Not including all the really big, the difficult change, right? Going digital is a very difficult change. If we’ve been paper-based for a long time, that’s huge. I’m talking about just the manager one-on-one connection, just changing. That’s hard. Change is hard and so it’s not easy work. It’s really not. And then when you move from just for-profit, let’s hop over to the community development side. Now, you’re engaging with people that don’t work in your organization. So talk about difficult change. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: It’s hard when you’re at for-profit and we’re all working for the same company and there’s 250 of us. Well, now you’ve got, if you’re in a collective impact and you’re working with 30 different organizations, none of which work for you. You’ve got to move them through the change process and it takes patience and intentionality and purposeful conversation and very thoughtful tactics that are better rooted in change management and rooted in systems change methodology. And you have to be conscious and aware of it. It’s not easy work. Chris: Yeah. Well, and I know that you are not a personal life coach, but what you’re talking about, I mean, it sounds like it really touches people at a personal level, right? Because if they come to work and they are someone who struggles with conflict, or if their communication style doesn’t match the communication style of their manager. I mean, you’re starting to get into some things that can really touch all aspects of their life, not just their life at work or for an organization. And I wonder, as you work with some of these models and methodologies, I mean, do you find that people are experiencing improvements or shifts at just that really personal level that can make a difference in the rest of their lives too? Lauralee: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it does make a difference. We started this conversation saying, when somebody impacts your life, we should go and tell them. It matters. Well, if you think about every day, whoever you work with and whoever I work with, we’re making an impact on them every single day, good or bad. And so they carry that home, whether we acknowledge that or not, they do. I often share because I can share it’s a personal story. It’s not a client story. I often share my husband as a great example. So my husband has worked in manufacturing most of his career and I worked in corporate America. And so if you think about, we went two separate paths in life, right? In corporate America, I received a lot of support, I had mentors along the way. I had cheerleaders. I had individual development plans. I had performance improvement plans. Every year we received money for professional development, whether it was going to conferences, attending a class, going to a workshop. There was money stacked against us to improve and make us better. And we constantly got great feedback. Lauralee: I was so lucky in my corporate career to work for wonderful managers. I can only think of one, in all the years that I worked there, that I had just one that was not great to work for. I was very, very young when I worked with her. My husband, on the other hand, though, as I’m going one direction, he’s going another. He didn’t have a coach. He never had a mentor. He didn’t get positive feedback. He never felt that he mattered. Nobody invested him. He did not get any training. And so years ago, he goes to this other company that he works for now and he brings in this individual development plan and he throws it on my desk. And he’s like, “What is this?” I looked down, I’m like, “This is an individual development plan. They care about you. They want you to get better.” Lauralee: I promise you Chris, that in the time that my husband has worked at that other company where he got a better manager who genuinely cared about him, would send him text messages saying, “Hey, I appreciate that. You’re on my team. You matter to me. Thank you.” It changed not just his professional life, but his life at home. I think that’s the message or at least what I take with me in the work that I do, is that we are touching people’s lives at work. And they carry that home in their heart and in their mind, they carry it home. That’s a big responsibility. Though I say, “Yeah. I work in strategy and I work in leadership and I work in team.” But the individual, it’s this underscoring message that we’ve got to be good to people. And we have to know that we are impacting them in the way that we interact with them. And that should matter to all of us. And that’s how we do better work together. Chris: Yeah. I can imagine that some organizations take longer than others to come around to that understanding. I wonder, if an organization does come to you and like you said, they’re all ready to dive into the tactics of a marketing plan and you’re starting to see that they need something at the bigger picture, whether you’re working on core values or mission or long-term goals or culture. In my experience, people can get pretty uncomfortable when you start talking about the patients that will be required to go through that process. When you start to talk about the budget, that might be required for that to figure out that true strategy. So if people are getting impatient or worrying about budget, what do you tell them about how to think about that? If they’re kind of chomping at the bit to get going with their marketing tactics. Lauralee: Well, actually, I just had this conversation relatively recently. I talked to a client about the investment that they’ve made in our work. I said, “I’ve been doing this a long time, both internally and externally. And I can tell you that you spent a lot of money and having me and my team here, but if these changes do not occur, you have wasted that money. And when I leave long after I’m gone, you will sit back and reflect and say, wow, I wrote them a check and nothing changed. And that’s because you didn’t make those, the difficult changes that, that need to happen in order for you to grow the way that you want to.” Lauralee: We can produce the best positioning. And it was great positioning, right? It was something they could take to market and really set themselves apart from their competitors. But if we don’t fix the dysfunction that happens behind the scenes, it’s not going to matter. And so we have to break that down, especially if I have clients that it’s just not in their budget to spend long periods of time with me or my team in their office, working with their managers, with their direct reports. So one-on-one, sitting in on one-on-ones. Working with the managers on how to better coach and how to better communicate and then working with employees and all of the things that you have to do to really increase engagement. If they don’t have the budget, I feel obligated to sit them down and walk them through the things that they can do on their own. I give them just simple plans. Like maybe here’s an employee engagement plan. That’s got five different things that you can do to improve the conversation you’re having with your employees. Lauralee: So maybe we communicate more, maybe you have a team meeting, maybe you’re observing your managers with their direct reports. Maybe you sit in and just observe. I can leave them with some takeaways. I try to make it fit for every budget, but the clients that have the budget, and we can begin with the root of the problem, which could be, team this function, the teams are not aligned to the strategy. Employees are not happy. I would prefer that we begin the work there and that we fix the team problem before we work into the strategy problem or the strategy. Because again, if we pick great positioning and you can’t execute it if you have dysfunction within the organization. I’ll give you a great example. So part of strategic positioning, you only have a couple of different ways. You can go price. That’d be like the Walmart. I will be no matter what price. None of my clients are going to go with the price. That’s not how we lead. Right? Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: You can lead through innovation or product design. You can lead through customer experience. So let’s use the customer experience, for example, if that’s my way to go to market. Let’s look at Chick-fil-A, okay. Chick-fil-A sells deep fried chicken, Chris, little chicken bits. That’s it. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: There’s nothing special, right? Tell me the last time that you drove by a Chick-fil-A, unless it was on a Sunday, or they were closed in the evening when there wasn’t a line, right. They’re always [inaudible 00:28:09] for deep fried chicken and French fries or waffle fries. Right? But they went to market saying, we’re going to have a very limited menu, and we’re going to give the best service we can. They created the split line that we see a lot of McDonald’s has now. They created the, where we will put people out at the front. We will have this. It’s my pleasure. Right? Okay. So, if your positioning is we’re going to have the best customer experience possible, then you have a dysfunctional team behind the scenes where customer experience is not at the center of the work that they do. And they can’t really execute on it. Then you’ve spent all this money going to market with this great strategy that you can’t implement behind the scenes, because your people aren’t ready. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: And so that’s the work that we just keep going back and having the conversation over and over and working at the people level and why it’s so important. Does that make sense? Chris: Absolutely. And maybe as a way of transitioning to talking about the work you do in our area, I know your services are not limited to our geographical area, but you do a lot of work in Wayne County. Sometimes I worry or I wonder about the Midwest aesthetic when it comes to politeness and how that affects our ability to tackle hard problems. And a lot of what you’ve been describing is you in a room across from someone having a hard, potentially a hard conversation, telling them things that might be hard to hear about their organization or about where they’re at, even if they know it internally, somewhere in the back of their heads. You are someone who can can say those things directly and clearly and professionally. But I imagine that the Midwest politeness sometimes doesn’t allow for that or maybe a barrier to people hearing that message or encountering it in a way that they can run with it. Chris: So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it’s like, if any of that is true, that’s just my theory. But what it’s like to do that kind of consulting in our area to work with an organization, to tell them something that might be uncomfortable and how they respond when everyone’s trying to keep everything sort of forward-looking and positive, maybe to a fault. Lauralee: I like how you started it with the Midwest, being just nice. And I actually get a lot of compliments that we are nice people and that’s great and having worked on both coasts. At one time I was assigned to New York city in the five boroughs. I was often told, “You’re like the nicest Midwestern girl.” I always took that as a compliment. And so I’m happy, I’m glad that we are nice. We can be nice and polite and still be candid. Here’s the thing. There’s a great book, I think it’s actually called Candid Conversations, and I’m looking at my bookshelf while I’m saying this. But in it, it gives a great example of this person that could not bring themselves to tell this under-performer that he was underperforming. Lauralee: They kept beating around the bush. They kept trying to be nice about it. And eventually, they just couldn’t take it anymore. He continued to underperform, but they really couldn’t say what they really wanted to say. And basically, “Chris, you’re letting me down. You are late. I can’t accept it. I can’t have you being late.” Whatever the issues were. And so she sits him down to basically let him go. They go to lunch and she said, “I’m sorry. I just have to let you go.” And his response was, “Why did you wait until now to tell me I wasn’t doing a good job?” So, being nice and avoiding the conversation who does it really help? Because we just get more and more and more frustrated by not having that conversation and not being transparent. Lauralee: I have done it. I am guilty too. I have had people that I just absolutely wanted to avoid the confrontation to say, “You’re really letting me down. The work is subpar.” Whatever it is. But if we don’t, we’ve done them a disservice and we’ve done ourselves a disservice. I just had a conversation with a person earlier this week about something similar to this. And I said, “The times that I’ve grown the most in my life is when somebody told me something very difficult that I didn’t want to hear in the beginning, but I’m so glad that I did.” I’ll give you a really quick story. In that years ago, I was up in Chicago. I remember it was like yesterday. I was at the very beginning of my training and facilitation career, my manager sitting in the back observing. We finish and I’m thinking, I’m the best trainer in the world, Chris? “I’m a rockstar. There’s no way you are not impressed with my training abilities.” I’m still really new in my career. Right? Lauralee: We called it the blue card for years because… And I adored this person. He pulled out two blue cards out of his pocket and he sits down and he said, “Okay, let’s talk about… Tell me what you think.” And of course, I’m very, I would say arrogant and overconfident. I’m like, “Oh, I think I was great. I love how I engage with this person.” Whatever, whatever. And then he looks down at the blue cards and he said, “Here are the things that I observed and what I want you to do better.” I remember thinking, “What? Are we even in the same room? Wait a minute. You can’t do that to me. You have to give me one compliment. It’s one compliment, one area of opportunity, one compliment, one area of opportunity.” Lauralee: He just started laughing. Because, it was a difficult conversation. He’s like, “I’m not saying you’re bad. I’m saying, here are the things that you’ve got to do better. If you want to get where you want to go, these are the things that I expect. This is what great facilitators do. And you’re not just a trainer. You want to be a facilitator.” Right? And those, it was hard. It was hard to hear. But I grew because of that conversation. Lauralee: For years, he would say, “I’m going to blue card you, Lauralee.” This internal joke. But it was really my opportunity to force myself to be better. The best coaches in the world for the very best athletes, they tell them when they’re not doing something right. And they tell them with love and caring and not at a meanness because they genuinely want them to get better. I think as leaders, that’s the way we’ve got to look at it. Chris: Yeah. I think if there are people in leadership roles that are worried about maintaining a culture of respect, which I think often goes hand-in-hand with that Midwestern politeness, that we value respect and we value respectful behavior. If someone’s worried that I’m making a comment or offering an idea for improvement might be seen as disrespectful, maybe we can flip that on its head and say that by challenging the status quo, by saying, “Here’s an idea that might be hard to hear, but I think it’s going to help us in the long run.” That actually could be seen as a sign of respect as well. It’s, “I’m going to tell you something you might not want to hear, but I care about you enough and I care about your work and the end result enough to respect you enough to say this out loud.” I think that could maybe help folks who are wrestling with that, that dynamic. Lauralee: I love how you phrase that. This idea that’s hard to hear, but I think will help us in the long run. I just love that phrasing. Just in itself, it’s not feedback or criticism, but it’s this idea that may be hard to hear. I really like that. So as a listener that might be, write that quote down. I think it’s a great way to start the conversation. Chris, not to hang on this particular topic. Chris: Oh, yeah. Lauralee: Because if we talk about just community development and positioning, but I think today where we are as a country and a nation, I’ve been working with clients more this year about the conflict in their teams. Because they’re bringing things to work from a political standpoint and from social media, and they’re carrying more in their hearts on top of navigating COVID and maybe having to work from home and then having their children. And there’s so much happening outside of our professional lives, but that are coming to work. Right? Imagine having this backpack and when I walk into work, that backpack might’ve been really light before COVID, but now, my husband has been sick and that rock gets added, and then my children can’t go to school. So now I have two more rocks in my backpack. And now I’m conflicted or I’m hurt by what I see on social media. I put that in my backpack and there’s one more rock. And so by the time I get to work, my backpack is very heavy and it can’t help, but come out. Lauralee: I think this is a time and I don’t want to say more than ever because, we often as human beings only think about history within our own context. But if we look over true history, right? This is just a blip in the radar, when we think of all the other things that have come before us that were really difficult times. All the way back to the Roman times. There’s always been difficult times and always had conflict and disease and other things. It just happens to be happening for all of us right now with social media on top of it. Right? And so I think that that as leaders, whether it’s at a community level or at a nonprofit level or within our organization, or even if we’re individual contributors, I think we have to be aware of what is happening around us and how more empathy and more understanding and more tolerance than what we may have had in the years before. Lauralee: This conflict is occurring. I have people saying, “I don’t want to work for this manager because their values don’t align with mine politically.” I think as a country, we have got to work through that and we have to figure out how we’re going to have conversations where it’s okay, that we disagree and that I’m not going to ask for a transfer to go work for somebody else because our political beliefs don’t align. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: It’s very interesting the conversations I’m having this year. Chris: Yeah. I can imagine that. Another piece that I heard as you’re talking is, sometimes people get really impatient with talk and with conversation and maybe, again, coupled with our Midwestern culture, I think sometimes there’s an impatience for action. And it’s like, if we’re just sitting around talking, nothing’s really happening, right? I want action. I want to see results. You can see that attitude sometimes, in how an organization has set up or even in how people react to the idea of working on strategy. I know if we see in the local paper, such and such organization is engaging in a strategic planning process or a government entity is going to be engaging in a plan process. Chris: You see people kind of roll their eyes at that, or they get impatient about it. They worry about the money that’s being spent on it. I wanted to ask you about that tension between giving people a sense of progress, both in the kind of organizational level work that you do, and also more collective impact, community-wide work. How do we think about that tension between the desire to see change, to see progress, to see something happening that we can feel like we’re a part of. And then also on the other side, allowing enough time and enough space for those really crucial conversations and that really important planning and that really, kind of a central big picture cultural, long-term thinking. How do you think about that when you’re, when you’re doing that kind of work? Lauralee: That is a great question. And there is definitely a balance. It is different for collective impact or a city government than say for an organization. So where conflict will occur is often when for-profit business leaders are participating, which they should in collective impact, sitting on boards, working with community development. The conflict comes from the lens in which they look through, right? And so if I’m with an organization and I’m the CEO and I’m running a 5,000 people organization, and I want to see something happen, I can make that happen, right? I am where the buck stops with me. And if I want to see change, I want to see investment, I can motivate that team to do that. Right? I can make the investment, I can buy the technology. I can do reorg and move people around. I can do a lot of things to influence the speed of change. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: Because it falls on me when you go to the collective impact and community development side, and you bring that lens, it’s often very frustrating because it doesn’t happen that way in community development, right? So you have a whole layer of relationship building that has to occur, understanding the role responsibility of different organizations, how the funding is going to happen, how you decide which project you move forward with. And if I’m again, a for-profit senior leader, a CEO, and I’m sitting on this committee, they often get very frustrated, “Well, why isn’t this happening? We’ve talked about this? Why isn’t it happening?” Lauralee: Well, they don’t face, often don’t face the same constraints that an organization that’s trying to make this happen, this change, whatever it is. We don’t face the same constraints, right? Resource constraint, starting. That’s usually the first thing, right? As a for-profit CEO, I can move my resources around to free up and get new resources. When I’m sitting on a committee it’s very difficult to realign resources. You have a lot of conflicting or competing priorities. So when you say that frustration, I think the first thing that whoever is frustrated can take time to self-reflect and say, “What’s the lens in which I bring?” If they come from a for-profit background, I think they’ve got to have some awareness to say, “The way that I see it and the way it operates within my world may not work in the community development side.” I think that’s what we see with the strategic plan or the conflict, why is the city… I’m not picking on any one particular city, there’s many complaints that have happened over the last couple of years, both in our County and surrounding the County. Chris: Yeah. So any city plan. Lauralee: It’s frustrating to say, well, why isn’t those things moving along? And they take time, they take investment, they take approval from council members and other members of the community. You have competing priorities and funds get moved around. And so it is frustrating. I think we have to look at, from a community side, the strategic plan is a roadmap, right? It’s the roadmap of where we’re going. If I’m a community leader, and I want to want to show progress, we have to talk about the progress in connection with the strategic plan. What happens is they disconnect those two things. They say, “We did, I’m going to make something up. We have just completed the pocket park and renovated a beautiful bridge and walkway to get to the pocket park, giving this pocket park, giving this community, this neighborhood more access.” Lauralee: They say it out of context or out of alignment to the strategic plan. Instead of saying, “In our strategic plan, we talked about the importance of giving access to our community members, to places in which that they can exercise and be in nature. And blah, blah, blah. And out of that, we invested in the pocket park, that’s located on blah, blah, blah. And now that community, we are fulfilling our strategic plan by doing that. And this community now has access.” Right? And so the communication then connects these two ideas that we did the strategic plan. This is our roadmap, and we fulfilled this one small piece, and this is why it’s important. Lauralee: I see over and over and over again, that the communications that communities do, do not, and for-profit, they do it too. They do not connect it back. And therefore you don’t remind people, as a leader, you may know that it was on the strategic plan, but as employees, community members, residents, council members, whomever, that’s not in our forefront, right? Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: We’re not thinking about that. You have to tell us, you have to intentionally remind people that the things you’re doing are on the roadmap, whether they’re small or big, link it back to that. Does that make sense to you? Chris: It does. I mean, it really occurs to me that we’re struggling with that as a society sometimes where we have trouble seeing how our day-to-day decisions about what we’re going to do in our personal lives, our neighborhoods or cities, communities. We have trouble sometimes tying those back to what’s good and right for the long-term health of a community or a city or the nation or the world. If you’re in a facilitated workshop and someone’s getting bogged down talking about how many parking spaces there are between this street and that street, and you’re trying to bring them back up to the level of a five-year vision or something like that, then there’s a space for sort of calling that out and helping them through that. But in our day-to-day lives as individuals and sometimes in our work and organizations, we don’t always have those prompts. Chris: So yeah, I wish there were more of that in the world where we had someone kind of sitting on our shoulders saying, “Hey, let’s think about this decision you’re making in the context of some bigger picture that goes beyond just you.” So if you know anything that could help us with that as a society, I think we’re listening. Lauralee: I completely agree. I liked how you kind of, you took it just out of not just the community, but us as individuals and us at the bigger part, right? That we are future thinking and that we see this future vision of whatever that is. And the work that I’m doing today does matter. Right? And that’s everything from recycling to, I’m reading a book with my child, because I can envision later on that they will want to be avid readers. Because, being avid readers means they’re more likely to reach educational attainment. We live so much today in the here and now. I would say even in the 15 seconds as we get more and more technology, we’re very much about the here and now. Lauralee: When you think about it from a leader’s perspective, they have to continue to remind people the direction that we’re going. Right? Think of it like a boat and the strategy is kind of the compass telling us and whatever that vision is. So we want Wayne County to be a vibrant community. That’s the sun, right? That’s the destination. We want to be a vibrant community. And what is the route that we need to take in using our compass, help us navigate there. We have to continue to remind the crew that, “Hey, this is where we’re going. And this is the route we have to take.” And every decision that we make goes back to that original discussion, right? This is the way… Remember we agreed to do it this way because of this. This is our destination. And too many times the communication, it happens out and it’s not from bad intentions. Lauralee: People don’t get up and say, “I’m going to write this. I’m going to announce that we’re doing this second. Look, we’ll just make up this little park. We’re going to announce our pocket park because it was awesome. And they intentionally leave out the connection to the strategy. Because, they’re only thinking of the one thing. And so what we call insistent change there’s parts and a whole. As a consultant, I’m in the business of knowing the parts and the whole. And in community or in any industry, we often think about just our part, right? What is my part, if I’m in the parks department or I’m in the committee, or I’m in the group, whatever, that put together that little park, I’m thinking of the parts. Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: As leaders and as my role, I’ve got to look at the parts, but I have to look at the whole, and if I’m sitting and I’m the mayor of a city, or I’m in the County Council, or whatever leadership role in community development, if I’m an executive director of a nonprofit, I have to tell the story of the parts and how it fits to the whole. That’s how real systems change happens. You have to begin to work at the whole. You have to be able to thread together every piece of social complex problems, everything from income, poverty, racial discourse, all of those things, every piece of that. We have to take, not just the parts, but we have to add them to the whole. Lauralee: That’s how real systems change happens. And it’s long and it’s arduous, and it can be very difficult and very complex, but we have to continue to champion, not just the parts, but the whole. And so as a listener, somebody who’s listened to this, they can think back in their own life and say, “Okay. Where are the parts? And how do I think about it at the whole?” Lauralee: So let’s say for example, we’re thinking of weight loss. Because it’s something easily relatable, right? So a part is I should not be eating this Brookside chocolate. Great. The next part is exercise. The next part is meal planning. I have to look at those, not just in silos, but then as a whole. How do I put those things together in a meaningful way to achieve the weight loss, which my end goal is, I want to weigh whatever. That’s how you combined all those parts to build a larger system, to help me lose weight, which is my end goal. Does that make sense? Chris: Yeah, it does. It does. So in thinking about Wayne County in particular, in the work that you’re doing, is there a unifying theme or question, or kind of idea, that drives your work forward or your passion for community improvement forward, that might be useful to the rest of us, to kind of hold up and look at as something that can help us when we’re bogged down in the details? Lauralee: So, in community development, what we often see is nonprofits with absolute good intention. I want to make change. I want to do whatever I’m going to open up my own separate nonprofit, because I want to make this change within my own control. I think about as individually, how can we leverage other organizations that are already doing this work? So kind of a fun fact, we have a lot of nonprofits in Wayne County. We have, in some cases, what they would say is an imbalance. We have more nonprofits than we actually should have for the size of our community. And so if we look about community development, I would encourage all of us to think about how do we combine, partner, facilitate conversations, where we are aligning with others to do great things, instead of trying to spin off and do our own thing. Lauralee: I see this a lot in… And it’s all again from good intentions. People don’t get up and want to open up another dog rescue because they have bad intentions, right? Chris: Yeah. Lauralee: They get up because they want to open up another dog rescue for good intentions. They see a gap. And so I would encourage all of us to think about our role in the community and say, “The things that I would like to do or see. The change that I would like to see occur, how does that fit into the larger vision of the County and the city? And then what are the organizations that are doing that work? And then how can I contribute in a meaningful way to move them further along, which ultimately will move whatever I’d like to see further along and help it fit into a bigger picture?” Instead of us trying to all do our own thing. Does that make sense? Chris: Absolutely. Lauralee: Do you see that in the community? You’ve lived here forever? Do you see good intentions of opening up or creating another non-profit or we have competing nonprofits trying to accomplish the same thing? Chris: Absolutely. I mean, I think as you say, it’s all from good intentions, but there’s duplication, there’s overlap, there’s fragmentation. People will invest time and energy in a project only to find out someone else has worked on that same project, that same goal. And wouldn’t it have been nice if they had collaborated. And so, I mean, if only to avoid that sense of disappointment, of like, “Oh, we might not have needed to spend that particular amount of money or that particular time. Because someone else, we could build on something someone else has done. But also yeah, from the perspective of, we have a generous community when it comes to philanthropy. We have people who want to be engaged in the life of the community when it comes to everything, from showing up to events, to volunteering, to giving their opinion or giving their perspective. Chris: I think we have to be respectful and careful with that because, if we abuse it, if we tear it apart or spread it across too many different efforts or projects, we can lose some of that. But if we work together, as much as possible, and put aside any concerns about territorialism or who gets credit, then I think, amazing things can be possible with that. So, that really does resonate for me in my experience too. I had one last question to ask you about, which is kayaking. You mentioned that you’re an avid kayaker. So I wanted to ask where’s some of the best kayaking you’ve done. Lauralee: I did get to West Virginia. I did not kayak the Gauley. I’m not that skilled yet. Chris: Okay. Yeah. Lauralee: And so, I went to Ohiopyle in Pennsylvania and that was lovely, but I think we also have some great waterways Flatrock River is great, down South of Brookville. It’s funny how I came about to start this whole kayaking thing. I now have a really nice, a cool kayak that real kayakers use. And so, I kind of want all in and it happened because, I’ve never lived a very adventurous life. Chris, I am an absolute dork. I am an avid reader. I did not party. I’ve never smoked pot. I have literally never smoked pot. There’s like 20 people that can say that, I’m pretty sure. I’m that big of a nerd. Right? And so I never broke the rules. I just always get up and like, “What’s the right thing to do?” Don’t live adventurous, don’t scare your parents, any of that kind of thing. Lauralee: And then my kids graduated and then my kids went off to college and all of a sudden it’s just me and my husband. And I’m like, “You know what, I’m going to do something adventurous. And I don’t think it’s smoking pot. I think it’s going to do something… I’m going to do something else.” And so I kind of picked this kayaking thing and I’ve almost drowned. I’ve had really scary moments, but I would not change it for the world. Now, I have pull practice. Matter of fact, it’s going to start again on Saturdays where, we get to practice flipping over and doing these things. Lauralee: I found a community of people, and I wish we had a kayaking group actually in Central Indiana because I go to Indianapolis, but I found a community, a community of people where we all love this particular thing. It’s hard to make friends when you’re at my age. Right? And it’s really given me an opportunity to make new friends, meet new people, do something exciting and is thrilling at my level, which is pretty… I have a very low tolerance for thrill, but it meets it. So, it’s been wonderful. Chris: Oh, that’s awesome. Lauralee: Yeah. Thank you. Chris: Lauralee Hites. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Thanks for all you do. We’ll hope to have a conversation again down the road. Lauralee: All right. Thank you. The post Lauralee Hites on developing strategy, having hard conversations and finding our place appeared first on Richmond Matters.
47 minutes | Oct 15, 2020
Kelley Cruse-Nicholson on witnessing the vehicle attack on Black Lives Matter marchers
On September 5th 2020, Richmond saw an act of aggression and violence against peaceful marchers who were demonstrating in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, as a local man drove his vehicle through the line of people, striking and injuring some of them. A few people have reduced this event to arguments over traffic laws. But many of us see this as a disturbing manifestation of Richmond’s serious challenges with confronting and working on racism, and an echo of the ongoing national struggle to do the same. The act of violence itself, the response of the community, the fact that hitting pedestrians is even a topic where people can take sides, and now the sensational charges brought against the protestors for obstructing traffic are once again bringing to the surface that we have a lot of work to do if we want to be a community that offers safety, justice and peace for everyone who lives here. In this conversation I talk with Kelley Cruse-Nicholson, a member of Richmond Common Council (among many other roles), who personally witnessed the attack and then actually followed the driver until police could take over. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: So I want to dive right in to the events of September 5th. A demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter was taking place through the streets of Richmond. And as I understand it, you were not a part of that event itself, but you came upon it at a pivotal moment. So just want to ask you to take us through what happened that day and what you saw. Kelley Cruse-Nicholson: Sure. I actually had planned on joining that day, but somehow I had gotten hoodwinked by my nieces to take them to Ikea. So I took my nieces to Ikea and as I was coming home we all know I live right here in the Depot area. So as I was coming home, I came across the railroad tracks right there by Richmond Furniture Gallery. And so the march was going right in front of me, I stopped, I was waving at some of my friends and I let them pass ahead of me. And I thought, well, I’ll just go in behind them to kind of show much support. So I was behind them going up Richmond Avenue or Fort Wayne Avenue, I’m sorry, going up Fort Wayne Avenue. And they were headed towards Jack Elstro Plaza on Seventh Street. Kelley: And they were walking, they were chanting, nothing unusual going on. As we get to where the light is there was a couple that were a little farther back with a couple of other people who were right there on the bike path. And a man had a baby strapped to his chest and they were in front of me. And I saw a red truck who at the time was headed west on a street there. And as they were crossing the street I heard like a rev and then he ran through them. Kelley: Now what I saw is, there was a truck that was sitting there, the people were walking, I will say SUV was, the people walking across the street. He ran through them. I heard screaming, I saw water bottles fly. And I actually yelled at the people who were on the bike path in front of me to get out of the way and I put my car onto the bike path. And then I cut across at Best-One Tire. I cut across their parking lot and pulled them behind him. He continued driving and I immediately called 911, and I told them what I had witnessed. And I told them that I was following the person who had driven through the crowd. Chris: And before we sort of go from there, there’s been a lot of discussion about this and people have made all sorts of speculation. I mean, in your mind, is there any way possible that the driver did not understand that they were driving into the same space that was occupied by people, by human bodies? I mean is that- Kelley: No. Chris: … any way that’s possible? Kelley: No, absolutely not. There’s no way, I bet there was 75 to a hundred people that were walking. There’s no way he didn’t see them. Okay. I told all of this to the 911 operator, as I was driving, I gave her the description of the car, the license plate number. I followed this car all the way to where they stopped, which I assumed was their home. I pulled up behind them and she said do not get out of the car, and I said, I’m not going to and the guy got out of the car and he kind of looked at me and smirked and laughed, and then inside the house and I’m telling all of this to the 911 operator. And she asked me to stay in my car until the police got there which I did. Kelley: I stayed in my car. And then the first policeman actually on the scene was from Centerville. And he came up and he asked me if I was okay. And I told him, yes. And he said, do you know where they went? And I showed him which house they went into. And he said, okay. And then the Richmond police department, they arrived, they talked to me, wanted to know if I was okay, and the 911 operator at that time, I told her the police were there and I hung up because they were talking to me too. The police officer I was talking to asked me to go down to the city building to the police department so that I could meet down there and give a statement. He said there would be some people down there to talk to me. And I said, okay. And I said, are there people hurt? I didn’t know. Chris: Yeah. Kelley: Because when I saw him drive through the people, people were screaming, water bottles were flying and I just took the person. And he said he didn’t know. But they were aware of the situation. And so I then went back down to the city building, I drove by Jack Elstro Plaza to see if there was anybody still there. There was not, they had dispersed at that time. So I went ahead to the police department and gave a statement. And then I called my friends that I knew were at the march. And I was like is anybody hurt? Is everybody okay. And they had told me that there were actually three people would actually get physically hit. Kelley: There were no life-threatening or anything, EMS had not even been called. And I said, okay. So but I came into my house. I was very shaken up. It bothers you when you see it on television and you’re affected by it, but it’s a totally different experience when you see it in real time. It’s an experience. Yeah. Chris: Yeah. And I mean, and I want to ask because I mean, Richmond has had other peaceful marches, mostly without incident this year. Kelley: Yes. Chris: But of course, all of this was happening in the context of national events like you mentioned, where there are incidents of violence against people protesting racism, there are incidents of violence, ongoing concern about violence against Black people. And so, here you are a Black woman following and confronting a man right after what you understood to be an intentional physical act. And it happened in the context of a protest against racism. So when you were following, what were you thinking and feeling in that moment about what you were now unfortunately a part of? Kelley: Honestly, Chris, the only thing that kept going through my head was they can’t get away with this. I cannot let them get away with this. That’s all I was thinking the entire time. Now other thoughts came into my head later after I got home and settled down a little bit some of the things where Kelly, what were you thinking? This person, obviously was not thinking correctly. They could have physically attacked you when you, I mean, all of these things then go through your mind because still thinking about it I get very upset still just because I know how it made me feel. And I didn’t see a vehicle coming at me. Kelley: I wasn’t someone who was standing in the path. I was just someone who followed the person that did it. It makes me emotional sometimes to think about how other people that were involved with this were feeling and not only then was I concerned about their emotional and physical state, but especially now, with the charges that have come up. It’s about a whole new level of insanity to me actually. Chris: And so, I mean, on that day, did you have a sense of how you thought things were going to go? I mean, it seemed multiple witness reports had confirmed the narrative of an intentional act of harm. Was there any question in your mind at that point that this person would be held accountable soon after that through arrest or criminal charges or something like that? Kelley: Absolutely. There was no doubt in my mind that he, in fact, one of the officers said to me, well, he’s not disputing that he did it. It’s just, he’s saying it’s a different reason why he did it. And something I have said every time someone asks me about this situation, I say it every time I said, when was the last time you were going somewhere and thought, I’m just going to drive my car through a crowd of people. That to me is not a thought that has ever, ever entered my mind ever. I use a story that happened just a couple of weeks ago where I was coming across Chester Boulevard and turning off of a street coming North. There was a funeral coming towards me, a funeral procession, but there was enough room. Kelley: There was enough time, it was two blocks away. I could have gotten across the street and went home without problem. But a motorcycle rider pulls up, blocks traffic, gets out and gets off his motorcycle, blocks traffic, the opposite side of the street. The funeral possession goes by, I wait, when the funeral procession gets by, he nods his head at me and I node back at him, he gets on his motorcycle, he drives away. Not at any given point, did I go, forget this guy. I’m just going to drive across the street anyway. He’s blocking the road. He doesn’t have a right to, so I’ll just do it anyway. Chris: Yeah. And I mean, some of the worst conversation I saw happening online shortly after that day was, suggesting that there was some scenario in which a pedestrian deserve to be hit. I agree with you. I have not seen them. Even though Richmond is a town that is not always the friendliest to pedestrians, not always the friendliest to cyclists, to people that are in the way. I mean, I have just not seen anyone escalate that to the point of violence- Kelley: Right. Chris: … using their vehicle. And I think that whether it’s respecting school bus stops or crosswalks, or even people who may be crossing the street at a point where it’s not the best spot. Kelley: Right. Chris: There’s no one running over them and it’s unfortunate that it needs to be said that pedestrians always have the right of way. I mean, there’s just no scenario in which it’s okay to use a… Kelley: Right. Chris: … vehicle to hit someone. So it’s just seems unfortunate that that was even a point of discussion, but apparently that’s something that we need to be reminded about. Kelley: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s kind of where I was, there was no doubt in my mind that he would be arrested or charged at all, there was no doubt in my mind and from what I saw it was intentional what he was doing. Chris: Yeah. So after that day the waiting started, Mayor Snow issued a statement saying in part, “everyone in our city should be free to express their opinion without fear of physical harm.” Over the following weeks, there were calls for witnesses to come in and give reports. There was a lot of online conversation as we talked about, but not much else happening that the public could see. You said elsewhere that you had nightmares about seeing the attack and knowing it could have been worse. Kelley: I did. Chris: I want to ask, what was that waiting time like for you in those weeks after. Kelley: Well, honestly the first week it was okay, the due process, people were emailing me asking me how everybody was doing. I got text messages, phone calls, things like that. And that was fine. Week two, I was like okay, all right. People start asking me, what’s going on? Why hasn’t this person been arrested? And my answer was, every time was, we are fighting for the system to work for us too. So let’s let the system work. Let’s let due process happen, but we need to let the system work for us. And week three, like okay, this is a little ridiculous. I made phone calls, ask questions and it was an active investigation and they were still talking to witnesses and they were still looking for video footage and okay. Kelley: All right week four, it started to be a little unnerving because I was just like okay, what? This is a clear cut to me. It was clear cut. Okay. Apparently once the charges were announced, apparently it wasn’t as clear cut to some people as I saw it. I’ve heard multiple things from people where they have said that the driver felt threatened, that the protestors just surrounded his car and started hitting his car and things like that. No that didn’t, it never happened. And so I was baffled, but the day I got the charges or that day that I heard the charges, my phone all of a sudden just started just going off, text messages, Facebook messages. And I’m just like what is happening? I wasn’t listening to news or anything like that. And I open my phone and I was like you are kidding me. Chris: Wow. Kelley: I was angry. I actually, I mean, I was livid, I cried. I yelled at my husband and I’m just like this is unreal. Who does this. And then honestly, one thing that I thought about Chris is, when I would get upset about things, my mom used to say to me, she’d say, all right, you can’t get anything done when you’re angry. She was like you need to remember whose daughter you are and then get the work done. And my mom was a very strong individual. So after about Saturday, I just wouldn’t talk to anybody at all. I wasn’t on any social media, I wouldn’t answer my phone. I just wouldn’t talk to anyone. On Sunday, I was like okay, now the work needs to be done. So that’s where, and that’s why I’m going now, we are working. I’m sorry. Go ahead. Chris: I guess, well, one thing I should say is for anyone who doesn’t know already so the charges were announced on October 9th and they were misdemeanor charges for the driver for leaving the scene and stunningly misdemeanor charges for five of the marchers for blocking traffic. Kelley: Right. Chris: I mean, we can’t know the thinking or the motivations with the prosecutor’s office, and we don’t know all of the evidence that they’ve gathered, but there’s clearly a feeling that the decision to punish people who cooperated with the police investigation, that goes beyond enforcing the law and into the territory of sending a message about how protestors demonstrating in support of Black Lives Matter should expect to be treated if they get the attention of the legal system. And at the same time, I mean, this is my words, but the decision to only charge the driver with a misdemeanor, I think really risks sending a message to people who might already think that driving into a line of protestors is okay. Kelley: Right. Chris: It risks sending the message that they don’t have to worry about serious consequences for something like that. I mean, if we put all that together, it seems like it could have a real chilling effect on expression of free speech. In just a time- Kelley: Yes. Chris: … when Richmond as a community needs to be having more conversations about racism, not less. And more importantly, for people of color who might already fear for their physical safety and or for the safety of their kids, it clearly makes things worse. It may be easy for folks to talk about this as an incident on the street, but it just has such a bigger implications for our community. Kelley: I agree. One of the things that I have said is that we are walking a very fine line right now as a community, fine line, because a precedent has been set. And some of the comments that came after the protesters were charged, were that’s what they get, they need to be arrested, there was a prominent individual here in Richmond who came out and said, I would run over them. And if they tried to do anything to my car, I would shoot them in the head. And I’m just like geez. Chris: Wow. Kelley: The thing is as someone who is and… I am a city council person, but I am speaking to you about this as a citizen who witnessed an incident. It’s a very fine line that we’re walking right now. And to me, a very clear message has been sent, which is, and people would disagree with me for saying this, but the very clear message has been sent is that, we’re not going to have this in our city. As far as the person driving a car through pedestrians, but the protestors, how they feel, I’ve heard people talking now about, well, I’m not going to get involved in anything like that again. Kelley: I have been asked to be a speaker at the women’s march this weekend. And honestly I said, yes, I will speak, but I’m not going to actually march with the women, because I think that it’s very scary for me to think that something like that could happen again. And yes, I think that there’s always someone out there that is willing to take the worst of a situation and make it even worse. By acting up upon it violently. I don’t want to see anything like that happen. And it terrifies me to think that it’s just going to take that one person that goes, you know what, forget this and boom, violence erupts. That terrifies me. Chris: And certainly in the past, I mean, to varying degrees the message from law enforcement or political leadership has not been one that encouraged violence in any way near what we’ve seen in recent history. And I don’t know if that’s the particular fine line you’re referring to, but it feels like we’re at a point where just the conversation and public dialogue or the lack of it has completely shifted the dynamics of how we figure things out as a community. Kelley: Yes. Chris: I mean, you mentioned being a member of council. I mean, you are a prominent person in Richmond yourself, you represent the community, you are a face of the community. You’re entrusted with the future of the community in many ways. So I know that doesn’t put you above the law, but presumably your word and your perspective have a level of credibility here. I guess I need to ask, do you feel like you were taken seriously through this process so far? Kelley: No. No, I don’t feel like that at all. That’s one of the things that I’m working on right now is that I don’t feel as if I was heard. I don’t feel as if I was seen. Yeah, that’s a tough one for me, Chris, because honestly I was just like if they’re not listening to what I said about this incident why would they listen to me about anything? And this happened in my district, a lot of those people are my district constituents. And yeah, no, I don’t feel like I was heard. I feel that, how could I have seen what I saw when I was behind the protesters at the, this is how I feel. Kelley: My story has not wavered at all. I know what I saw. You have to understand that, this is nothing new for African-American people. Not being seen, not being heard, not being believed, not being trusted, not being understood. This is nothing new for us. This is 400 years in the making, and I hate to say it like that, but I feel that’s exactly how it’s been. During this time of unrest after George Floyd was killed by the police officers, anyone who has been protesting the Black Lives Matter. We have been seen as being unruly, monsters, violent. I had one shop owner who said, what is this going to mean for my business? Kelley: And I said, what do you mean? And he said, well, they start tearing stuff up. That’s the first thought that everyone goes to is that we’re going to tear things up even though it’s been shown that at a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests, that there have been people who have infiltrated in order to cause disruption, cause violence and it’s been proven and it’s been shown, but still here we are. It’s hard for me. Kelley: This is something that I actually said to the Mayor and he was like well, I understand you’re upset. And I said, no. I said, I don’t think that you can truly understand because the fact is, yes, I saw this happen. It affects me. It hits me just a little bit differently as a minority woman, it really does. As a minority, this hits me a little bit differently. And understanding that or thinking to myself, had that been an African-American or Hispanic man who had driven their car into pedestrians, what do you think would have happened? Chris: I mean, I looked up a case from several years back where an African-American man hit a young person with his car, was arrested the next day, charged with a felony. And obviously we can’t compare cases and say they were exactly the same and should have same outcome. But the connection that you’ve made to broader systems of racism at work is really worth noting. And I think some people if they can’t see an overt act of racism, then they can’t see racism. And the risk that we run as a community is to say, well, if there’s not overt act of racism happening out on the streets, then we don’t have that problem. Well, here we have a case that could very well be called an overt act of racism in the sense that, if you look at the context and here we are still mincing words over the details of whether it was a misdemeanor or not. Kelley: Right. Chris: The community just clearly has so much work to do when it comes to being allies to people of color who have experienced what you’ve described and are listening, hearing, understanding, believing, and then being willing to take action. I guess I want to tell you what I understand the Black Lives Matter marches to mean, and you can tell me your view. But as for me, it’s a way of saying that the systems that we’ve had in place, the way we’ve been doing things is not working for everyone in our community. It is not working, there is not justice for everyone. There is not peace for everyone. And so as a community, until we can get to that point where we’re all moving forward together, we’re all being treated equally. Something needs to change. Kelley: Yes. Chris: And the concern of, work through the system, follow the process that that is not enough anymore in a time where, as you said, 400 years of Black lives not mattering. And so for me, Black Lives Matter is the call to say, it’s past time for something different. And if we need to disrupt things a little bit, if traffic needs to wait a little bit longer sometimes, maybe that’s okay if we’re calling attention to that need. What do you see and I mean, I know you weren’t a part of the march, but in marches like that and in events like that, what do you see the call being in those kinds of conversations and events? Kelley: That’s absolutely it. The truth is what you were saying is that this has been, when is it enough, when are we going to say, this is enough, this has to stop. I was looking back on some of the things that my mom did, my mom actually had done some civil rights marches, and she was involved with Mary Jo Clark here in Richmond. And they did the equal rights for women’s act. They registered women to vote, things like right here in Indiana. My mom did a lot of wonderful things. And when my mother was doing that, and I’m thinking about this, I’m two years old, three years old and even at that time, there was the Tivoli movie theater where African-Americans still had to sit in the balcony…and I was alive at this time. Kelley: So, people think about the Civil Rights Movement and the things that happened at that time as being a long time ago. It wasn’t as long ago, as you may think. I think those are the discussions that we need to have is that, I feel that we are at a point right now in our nation where racism is not only been brought to the forefront, but it’s been glorified if that makes sense. What I’m saying, that it’s been glorified. So people feel it’s okay now to do and say things that are disrespectful, hurtful. I really struggled with it because it’s not just, the oppression that’s going on is not just black people. You know what I’m saying? Kelley: It’s not just black people, it’s wide. It’s just wide. And I get very frustrated when I think about it, because the thing is we are saying at this point enough. Chris: Yeah. Kelley: Enough, this is enough. We need to have these conversations because this can’t happen. And right now I’m working with a small group right now of individuals who we had a Zoom meeting the other night. And our focus was, how are we going to talk about racism in this community? How are we going to get those conversations started when there are people who still don’t believe that there’s racism in our community? It’s got to start somewhere. It’s got to start somewhere and ignoring it as you see, doesn’t work. Saying, well, this doesn’t happen in our town. It doesn’t work. These things are happening everywhere. Kelley: And I think that we are calling for a time of change, plain and simple. Time of change. I think that people get confused when they hear about, they say defund the police, I think people get confused as basically as to what that means. And a lot of people, what are you going to do without the police force? That’s not what we’re talking about. I’m not sure how I want to say this, Chris. It’s time, it’s time. It truly is. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and everything happens at a time that it is supposed to happen. Kelley: We are in the middle of a significant shift in our country, but the conversations have to start in order and it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough for people, but the conversations have to start. We have to start these conversations. I would have never thought that in Richmond and I’m been here my entire life, but I never thought I would have actually seen somebody, a young person drive a car through a group of people. I never thought I would have to sit down and have a conversation about that. Chris: I mean, maybe that’s a possible good outcome from some of this is if it starts conversations, but I applaud what you’re starting and thinking about. I would also hope the rest of the community joins in, in that. And I would especially hope that anyone who thinks of themselves as a community leader, as someone who is trying to make Richmond and Wayne County a better place, whether you’re a small business owner or you’re in municipal government, or you are involved in economic development, whatever it is that you don’t think of your job as done if a significant portion of our community sees daily systemic oppression and discrimination. That we can’t think of our community as moving forward, if we’re not all moving forward together. So I hope people hear that and hear that call for conversation, not as a disruption for disruption’s sake, but something that needs to happen so that we can take care of each other as a community. Chris: I wanted to ask, stepping back a bit. Can you tell us how you ended up in public service and what led you to decide to be a part of city council? Kelley: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of things in my life that have made my life take a dramatic turn in a direction I never thought it would go. So 14 years I’ve been on City Council, Chris. Chris: Wow. Kelley: 14 years. And it started with a conversation that I had with Sally Hutton, who said, Etta is going to be leaving City Council. I think that you will be a good person to replace her. And I was like yeah, no. That was my first. I was like no, I was like I’m not interested in being in politics. I wasn’t interested at that time. That was probably a year before the election started. I had told my mom and I kind of laughed about it. Kelley: I told my mother, I said, you believed that, it was like she thought I’d be a good person to be a politician. And my mom’s like why not? And I said, why would I want to be a politician? And my mom said, you have always been in the forefront of controversies speaking for the underdog. She said, always your whole life. And I was just like what, honestly, I never thought about myself that way. I never did. But then I started thinking about it and some of the things I’ve always done, involved in government at school, when I was in college, when I was in high school, well, all these things and getting involved in activist groups and things like that, I’ve always done that. Kelley: I thought, okay, let me give this some serious thought. And I sat down with Sally and we had a long talk and sat down with the Democratic chair at the time and we had a really long talk and I said, okay, well we’ll give it a shot. And I said, how long is the term? And she said four years. And I was okay but I thought, all right, let’s give it a shot. And I got excited. At that point I kind of got excited. I was like I need to be able to make some real changes for our community. And I wasn’t even thinking about the changes that we’re thinking about now, but I was like I may be able to make changes in our community. Kelley: Now a lot of people are, and it’s funny because what I found out from being on City Council is that people want change. But only if it’s the change they want, if it’s not the change that they actually want that you’re pushing for, then you’re wrong. So. I have found that through the years and I guess that’s really where I was just talking with my mom and my dad and thinking about my mom was like your grandfather was a good friend of Evan Bayh. We’ve always done things and I thought about it. I was like wow you have, so that’s where it came from, just talking with my mom and my dad and Sally kind of encouraged me. And at first I turned it down. Just like nah, I don’t think I want to do that. Chris: Well. From what I can tell in the years since, I mean, you bring that same spirit of leadership that is derived from, emerges from the sense of community building and community spirit. And you bring that to Council. You bring that to the work that you do and you bring a lot of heart to it and you don’t let yourself get bulldozed by process or by the mechanics of it. I mean, I’m sure there are times where it can be very frustrating to see change move so slowly or not happen at all. And you know it, but you bring that to Council and it seems you’ve been able to maintain the spirit in which you initially resisted and then agree to Council all those years. Kelley: Yeah. I do my best and it is tough because when you’re in the public eye, you take a lot, a lot of criticism. Like I said, when things don’t go one way that people think that it’s going to go, you can be under a lot of fire. Change is hard but it’s also necessary. I think that’s been my biggest challenge. One of the things I said about city council was we can’t stay with it’s the way we’ve always done it and it works. So don’t change it. I was like we can’t stay with that. That’s no good. We have to push ourselves to move forward and challenge ourselves and the community to make it a better place. We really do. Chris: And I know you’re not here to speak on behalf of Council, but is there something that you see or hope for when it comes to council’s role in helping Richmond confront racism and discrimination in our communities? Is there anything clear there? Kelley: My hope is that we can involve administration and council with the public, to have these conversations. Going to have to start in small groups. It’s like they say the ripples turn into waves. So it’s going to have to start in small groups, but I’m not really happy with the way some of the things have been handled lately. And one thing about me that I don’t know if you know about Chris, but I’m pretty vocal when I’m unhappy. You know so. Chris: That’s one of your best qualities I think! Kelley: Yeah. So a lot of people know that I’m unhappy right now. But I think that’s part of it. I think that would be part of it. Yeah. Chris: I mean, there’s pressure being placed on the prosecutor’s office to reconsider whether these charges are what’s in the public best interest, and there’s a legal defense fund that’s being collected on GoFundMe. And I think that’s up to, over 6,000, almost close to $7,000 as of today. There’s talk of involving the ACLU to help make sure that the justice is found here. Kelley: Yes. Chris: Is there anything else? I mean, beyond those small groups and those conversations that we need to be having, which are so important, is there anything else that you think the community as a whole should be doing or anyone listening to this conversation to be doing and talking about as we go forward for this particular case and the situation? Kelley: Well, I will tell you now that yes, the ACLU has been contacted. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s going to be positive for those people who right now are facing charges that I think are ridiculous and I really do. I just think they’re absolutely ridiculous, but I think as a community, we need to start in our mind, start that role reversal change. Look at what we’re doing affects your neighbor. I think it sounds kind of strange to say that, but we need to start one, having compassion and empathy and start to recognize and appreciate the differences in others that are in our community. Kelley: Like I said that’s all going to start with conversation. Richmond has done some things that are very progressive, I think Rainbow Richmond is wonderful moving things forward and the way people have joined in with Black Lives Matter is amazing. I’ll be honest with you Chris, two years ago. I don’t think we would have had as many people show up or support as we are now. But we still have such a long way to go a long way to go. I’m not sure. I really answered your question. Chris: No, I mean, you do a great job of highlighting the tension between the need for kind of immediate action and change and coming to the defense of, or to be allies of, people who are vulnerable, who are in pain. And then also just the long-term processes that we have to go through that it’s not that we have to be complacent or overly patient, but you’re right. I mean, things that take probably generations to change. Right. Through families, through neighborhoods, through workplaces, that those are conversations to be having. Kelley: Absolutely. Chris: That tension is always there and I don’t ever know how to reconcile it, but it’s good to recognize that there’s a place for both kinds of actions too. Kelley: Yeah. Yeah. Agreed. Chris: Kelly, thanks so much for taking the time to share about your experience and to talk with me. I certainly wish you some peace and justice in the weeks and months ahead. So. Kelley: Thank you. We are working, Chris, and I will say that we are working. I don’t plan on making the work stop anytime soon. The post Kelley Cruse-Nicholson on witnessing the vehicle attack on Black Lives Matter marchers appeared first on Richmond Matters.
59 minutes | Sep 10, 2020
IN Focus with…me
As a follow up to the hosting of WCTV’s IN Focus public affairs program that I did in July of this year, where I focused on topics of systemic racism and concern about police violence against people of color, Eric Marsh and I sat down to debrief how those conversations went. We ended up having a wide-ranging conversation about a lot of things, including: where and how people in our community get their informationhow I came to Richmond to go to Earlham College and ended up stayingour identity as a “college town”what we can learn from this pandemic about our work-from-home infrastructurehow Richmond could be more appealing to remote workersthe importance of distinguishing between journalistic reporting and opinionwhite privilege and Black Lives Matterthe changing landscape of community mediathe importance of voting in the upcoming election The resulting hour of back and forth with Eric means a lot to me. We touched on many of the projects and personal experiences that have defined my time living and working in this area so far, and topics that I think are important for our community to be wrestling with. I’m so grateful and honored to have had the opportunity. I hope you enjoy it. You can watch the video below, on WCTV’s YouTube channel, on Facebook or as the episode is replayed on WGTV Channel 11. The audio of the show is also available via the Richmond Matters podcast feed, which you can find in your favorite podcast listening app. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Eric Marsh: Hi, and welcome to this edition of IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television’s WGTV Channel 11. I’m Eric Marsh, Executive Director of Whitewater Community Television, and thank you very much for joining me for this conversation of IN Focus. Before we get there, couple of things to remind you about. The most important one is that there is still time for you to register to vote, and we urge you to do that. There are races locally, coroner, as well as clerk. There’s also six congressional district race going on and obviously, the governor’s race will go, and there is, of course, I don’t know, reelecting some guy who lives in the big White House some place. So be registered. That’s what we say. Please do it. If you don’t know whether you’re registered, you can go to indianavoters.com and check your status. If you aren’t registered, want to get registered, you can go to indianavoters.com and get registered. If you want to find out where your polling places are, you can go to indianavoters.com and do that. So, from the comfort of your living room couch, using your tablet, your phone, whatever, go to indianavoters.com, check your status, register to vote, find out where you can vote, all of that. We do ask you to do that. It is incredibly important for all of us to get that done. Also want to thank our sponsors for this week’s program, Reid Health, First Bank Richmond, and Morrisson-Reeves Library. We appreciate greatly their support. Very happy to have with me Chris Hardie, who, a little bit earlier this summer, gave me some relief by sitting in as a guest host, but Chris also has a number of things that he has been doing. We’ve been hearing his voice on his podcast, also he’s been helping out with Hometown Media. I talked to Brenda McLane a few months ago. She was talking about Chris helping out with their website and making that work. So, wanted to have Chris in kind of to debrief as it were and figure out what he’s doing. So, Chris, thanks for spending some time with us. Greatly appreciate it. Chris Hardie: Thanks so much for having me, Eric. It’s great to be talking with you. Eric: For those who don’t know you and don’t know your background, you’re not native to Richmond, are you? You found this through your college experience, is that correct? Chris: That’s right. I grew up in Cincinnati and hadn’t really heard of Richmond until I showed up to go to Earlham College in 1995. And honestly, had no intention of staying in Richmond after that college experience, but in the four years that I was an Earlham student and on campus and in the community, I really planted some roots here and started to call it home. And now, when people ask me where I’m from, I say Richmond. So, it’s the longest place I’ve ever lived and it’s the place I think of as home. But you’re right, I am a transplant, for all practical purposes. Yeah. Eric: Talk about, because Earlham College is a place that has brought a number of people to town, maybe more than some of us truly realize, and it’s not quite Bloomington, and that impact the people that go to Bloomington supposedly are just going to school and never leave. But Earlham has brought some people to town for the experience of going to college and a number of them has stayed. What are some of the attractions, some of the things that attracted you to make this home? And as we think about some of those people who maybe can work remotely, as you have done a lot, what are some of the things that maybe some of our leaders need to be thinking about to make this a place where people can live, work remotely, that type of thing? Chris: Yeah. I mean, for me, the size of Earlham and the size of Richmond were very appealing. I toured some colleges and universities where I knew that I would be a very small fish in a very big pond, with thousands and thousands of people just at the school alone. And so when I came to Earlham and they knew my name and they were interested in getting to know me and I found that my incoming class was small enough to really get to know people and be known, that was really wonderful. And the same thing sort of translated into Richmond. When I started… honestly, I was in the campus bubble for the first couple of years, but when I started spending time out in Richmond and seeing the people here, the businesses here, small business community, how you could walk down the street and know a lot of people and have conversations and catch up but you could also meet new people, it was just this great size where small enough that you could feel like you were making a difference, but big enough that you could have new experiences on a regular basis. And I think that has continued to be appealing for me and why my wife and I call it home. And I think, someone pointed out a number of years ago, in many ways, Richmond is a college town, right? We have Earlham, we have IU East, we have Purdue, we have the seminaries, and when you put all of the staff and students for all those institutions together, I mean, there’s a big part of our local sort of day-to-day life that centers around higher education. And that’s something I think we can embrace and be proud of and celebrate and build on as a community. So, that’s something that I’ve always been excited about. You’re right. And I mean, in this kind of pandemic time, we’re hearing stories of people fleeing these traditional hubs of knowledge workers and tech workers, you hear about kind of San Francisco and maybe New York City as people are like, “Well, if I can work from home, why am I going to pay so much money for an apartment or a house?” And you’re right, that’s something that places like Richmond need to think about and seize on when you think about the implications of some of those larger salaries, tech salaries, knowledge worker salaries and what they could mean for disposable income, what they mean for the local tax base. That’s something we should be thinking about. And it’s clear, we’re never going to be able to compete with some of those bigger cities when it comes to just the features of the services or restaurants, or that kind of thing, but what we can offer I think is a real focus on quality of life, the amount of green space we have, the small town feel, the affordability, availability of housing, that kind of thing. So when tech workers now are looking at where to live, they’re not saying, okay, I need to be in San Francisco. They’re saying where can I go that I can have great quality of life, that’s affordable, maybe raise a family, maybe start my own small business? So for me, that’s things like green space, it’s making sure we’re a walkable, bikeable community, making sure we’re a diverse community, a progressive community. Yeah, just really inclusive and welcoming and affordable for people who might be interested in making that kind of change. Eric: We’re not going to go down a long political path here, but in that list of things, one of the things you said was a progressive community. When you make that statement, some people immediately go political. I don’t necessarily. So I’m going to ask, when you say progressive, talk about what that means to you. Chris: Yeah. It is a term that has a lot of political connotations, and I don’t mean it to… or I don’t use it in that sense. I use it I guess to mean a community that is thinking about the future, that’s making decisions that will create a life and an environment where people from all different backgrounds, people from all different experiences can thrive, where small businesses can thrive and large businesses can thrive, and it’s kind of forward-looking. And I guess the opposite of progressive might be regressive. So if you were a regressive community, you would be trying to keep everything the same. You would be trying to go back to the way things were at some point in time. And I think we’ve shown that communities that kind of hold on to the past and don’t think about the future often don’t thrive. So if anything, I use it in that context to mean a place that’s thinking about the future, planning for the future, building for the future, and trying to include as many people as possible in that process along the way. So, yeah. Eric: Talk a little about Earlham College, the impact that it had on you. And as an alum who continues to remain here, the impact that it has on this community as people may not completely know and understand. Chris: Yeah, yeah. For anyone that doesn’t know, Earlham as an institution has a background that’s tied to the Quaker tradition. And one of the things, I didn’t know about this coming to Earlham, I wasn’t raised Quaker, one of the things I came to really appreciate about it is that a lot of decision-making there was done by the process of consensus. So instead of saying there’s one person at the top who makes all the decisions and everyone else just kind of has to live with it, instead you can say, what’s a decision-making process that allows everyone who’s going to be affected by a decision to be a part of the conversation. And if you think about the underlying assumption there, that everyone’s voice matters, everyone has an opinion or a perspective that should be considered. Maybe it’s going to turn out that their opinion or perspective isn’t a helpful one, but there’s still a place for that to be a part of the conversation. And then we take all that into the mix and move forward. That really changed a lot of things for me at a fundamental level about the way I work, about the way that my relationships work, about friendships, about small business leadership, about community engagement. Because if you start to think that everyone has an opinion or a voice or a perspective that’s worth considering, that really changes how you do leadership, how you do community building. And so from the time that I was a student and then on to running a business in town, running for office, when I did that, being involved in a local not-for-profit community, those roots and that consensus approach to decision-making and conversations really has informed a lot of that and changed my life for the better, and I think has changed a lot of people’s lives for the better and when they’re able to bring that out into the world. Eric: You just talked about some of the things that you’ve done here and particularly, in starting a business. One of the things that is always a concern for people in a community not just this size, but in all size communities, are we a friendly community for entrepreneurs, with people who want to start a business? You’ve had a chance to do that from the ground up, talk about what you see in this community in that aspect. Are we business friendly? Chris: Well, it depends on what kind of business you are, right? If you can make something, produce something that you can show, a product you can sell, something that is a retail product people are a lot more easily able to see the value in that and support that as a small business, when my co-founder and I, Mark, were starting our business, we were in the knowledge space and the technology space, 1997, websites were kind of a new thing. And so when we’d be around town, telling people we’re building a website development company, they didn’t know what to do with that. And we were also very young. I was 19 at the time. And so two young guys saying they’re starting a business using the internet didn’t get lot of traction around town at first because people just didn’t know what to make of it. I think, obviously, we’ve come a long way. Since then, people are a lot more familiar with what’s possible, online businesses, tech businesses, knowledge businesses, but in terms of the infrastructure when we think about economic development, resources and talent, when we think about resources that are out there to support the startup business world, I think we’re still probably pretty geared toward people that make things and sell things and have retail storefronts as opposed to some of those knowledge workers. So I think that’s an area for growth. I did find… we found along the way that there were lots of things we had to figure out on our own, just legal wrangling when it comes to starting a business, finances, leadership structure, benefits, things like that. And so in each step along the way, we kind of had to go out and figure that out and understand it. And I think when a place like the Uptown Innovation Center was created, part of the hope there was that you would have kind of a hub for resources for startup businesses to have all the answers to those questions in one place. I’m not sure that ever really materialized in the way that we hoped it would, and again, there’s still an area for growth there, that if someone today coming out of IU East or Earlham or just from the community and said, hey, I have an idea for a business and I want to get it going, I think right now, they’d still have a pretty tough uphill battle to figure out where to go and who to work with. There are people out there, there are great resources out there, but they’d still have a lot to figure out on their own. So I think we can do more there to help folks get launched when they have an idea, get up and running. Eric: You’re watching IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television’s WGTV Channel 11. We’re having a chance to speak with Chris Hardie, transplant, entrepreneur, student, a lot of different hats that you’ve worn in your time here. Before we kind of walk away from the tech part of this, one of the things that the pandemic really I think has done is shown us that the conversation around connectivity and our broadband speeds and needing better broadband all the way around really has been a lot of talk, I mean, when people started trying to work from home, and not just here in Richmond, Wayne County, or East Central, Indiana, but you’ve seen it even nationally, as people in California, news anchors in Indianapolis have tried to do what we’re doing from home, pixelation, you get dropout, even in the large communities, that’s happening. As somebody who is in the tech world, talk about where you think we need to go, what kind of conversation we need to be having with our legislators, or the business community, or whatever, because we may get back to something that we remember as normal, but I think there will be more people working from home, obviously, more people streaming, more broadband being used. How do we make that stronger, more robust, and move us to the 21st century? Because we’re obviously not there yet. Chris: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny if you think even just 10 years ago, I think having a high speed internet connection at home was kind of seen as a luxury item. I mean, it was nice to have, but by no means could we have imagined then what we’re experiencing now that having a connection at home and a quiet space to work could make all the difference in your quality of life for your work, if you’re someone who is in an industry or working for a job where that possibility exists. I think it’s really brought to light the digital divide. Not everyone has reliable access to the internet. Not everyone has devices at home that are their own to use. Sometimes, multiple kids, a family sharing one computer, one device, and that’s something that’s now just very real in terms of its impact on someone’s ability to have a great education when something like a pandemic hits. I think people are still figuring out the difference between the kind of frantic working from home during a pandemic mode and then the actual remote work that is planned out, that is thoughtfully done where you feel supported and collaborative with your employer, your colleagues in that environment. I mean, a lot of people are still working in the kind of reacting to a crisis mode, and so I think we have some work to do there to help organizations figure out how to do that well and what leadership and accountability and transparency and performance reviews and all those things look like in a distributed environment. Yeah. And, I mean, a distraction-free home office is a rarity. I don’t think we should take that for granted, shouldn’t assume everyone has one. So, as you said, I mean, internet connectivity is more important than ever. Having more choices and speed options I think is important. I think we’ll come to see internet access as more of a utility than a extra or a luxury item. And I think we need to make sure that the companies that are providing those services realize the role that they’re playing now. And I think for the most part, things have been smooth when it comes to local connectivity, but you think about it, if one of those providers had, had a major outage or if hadn’t been ready in terms of infrastructure, that in itself could put a place like Richmond way behind other cities, other communities. So I think there’s still room there for better tools, communication tools, collaboration tools. I’ve talked some about the value of having a coworking space where people who are knowledge workers or work from home primarily could go to have a temporary desk or a temporary office space to kind of get out of their home office environment, and I think that’s still something that would be a benefit in Richmond. The Innovation Center has offered a version of that at times, but in terms of a sort of real coworking space, I think that’s something we could still pursue. Yeah, and I think there’s more incentives we could be offering to companies in the area that want to transition their workforce to a distributed setup, resources we could be offering, incentives we could be offering to help them do that so that if the choice is to have to scale back business or go out of business or to make that transition, I think we could be doing a lot to help our local businesses work on that. So there’s a ton there to do and to think about. But yeah, certainly getting everyone access and devices at home is a good first step so that we have that kind of even landscape for everybody. Eric: I know you’re not a lawyer or a tax advisor, but one of the things you talked about was incentives for businesses to do things, are we at a point, in your mind, and again, as someone who has worked remotely, where we need to re-look at our tax code? Because we’re having individuals have to leave an office, create a space in their home, and you talked about it, a quiet workspace in their home that maybe wasn’t originally there. Do we need to have our legislators re-look at our tax code so that not all of that benefit goes to business? And this is not an anti-business statement, but understand that there people who are assuming some of that responsibility on their own and maybe not needing to do that. The same way things have been done in state code for teachers, because we know that teachers have had to put out their own money for things that they need. Chris: Right, right. Yeah. And, I mean, it’s one of those things, my best understanding is that at the IRS level or the national level, you can say, I use this part of my house for my work, but there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through to kind of prove and show that you are using that space exclusively for business purposes and it’s not a mixed use of sometimes, you’re watching Netflix and sometimes, you’re doing work. And I think for a lot of people, that’s just not a level of detail that they’re able to document or prove or they don’t want to take the time to go into that. So I think there are things that could be done there to make that an easier distinction, an easier box to check on your annual federal filing. I know a lot of businesses now are relying on people’s home internet connections and their personal cellphones to stay in touch, but a lot of businesses don’t have a way to pay for that as a benefit, an employment benefit to all of a sudden take on cable and phone bills for all of their employees. So there’s probably something there that could either make that a tax benefit or a tax credit of some kind, or either support the business for the individual. There’s just lots of little things like that, that over time, really add up because that can be hundreds of dollars a month, depending on your home setup. So when we’re coming to rely on those things, we should look at them as more essential services that could be baked in more to the tax code as possible credits or reductions. Yeah. Eric: You’re watching IN Focus on WGTV Channel 11. We’re spending some time with Chris Hardie, who has been doing some work for a number of months with Hometown Media, which kind of falls into some other things that you’ve been doing. You’ve had your own podcast, you’ve had your own space, Richmond Matters, 47374, talk a little bit about, first, what kind of got you into the idea of needing to share information with people on your own? And you’ve done it to the point where you believe people should be connected so you even kind of created this space where you were pulling news reports and information from various people so that they could even get that information in one place. Chris: Yeah. I can talk a lot about the different projects I’ve tackled. I guess I’ve always been fascinated with where people get their information and how people get their information, just what the tools are that people use, what systems are out there, what channels they follow. That’s kind of been my professional life, I mean, as a software engineer, as a web developer, someone who’s worked on marketing, consulting, just thinking about what tools and sites and online presence are going to help everyone do what they’re trying to do in the world, whether that’s in a professional setting or a personal setting. I think in the last decade, I mean, I’ve come, and I think a lot of us, have come to see access to information as much more critical at the level of civic engagement and the health of democracy, the health of communities where the habits and patterns of information consumption can really determine how well a given neighborhood or a community or a city is going to thrive. I certainly saw it while I was running for office, I ran for city council back in 2011. I saw while building a business and trying to grow that business, market that business in the community. I saw it while I’ve been a part of local not-for-profit organizations that are trying to get the word out about their programs, their activities, their need for fundraising, the kind of day-to-day decisions about where do people get their info, where do they find out about community events, it really matters and it can make or break a certain concept or a certain vision for community building. So I guess I’ve always tried to figure out where I can make a difference in that and bring my skills to bear for the benefit of the communities I care about, whether it’s locally here in Richmond or otherwise. And that’s kind of led me to experimenting I guess with different tools over the years. I mean, I’ve always been a blogger. I’ve always been commenting, writing, observing online and sharing what I see in the world and in the community. You mentioned the 47374.info. I mean, some of that came out of some Facebook curmudgeon in me where I didn’t like the feeling I had after spending time on Facebook of having to wade through cat photos, political opinions, really serious, personal updates and trying to understand what’s happening in the world in that sort of chaos. And so I deactivated my Facebook account a long time ago and… Eric: Jealous. Chris: Hey, you should try it. But still wanting to be engaged and involved with what’s happening in the community. So I built 47374.info to pull together the publicly available information out there, whether it’s from local newspapers, press releases, publicly available Facebook pages, news sites, blogs, and kind of put it all in one place. And so I can go there throughout the day and see what’s being published about the community. There’s also a daily email you can sign up for. It’s not a commercial venture. I don’t make any money on it. I want to be clear about that because it’s built on top of the work that other people are doing to write about and report on what’s happening in the community. But it’s been a helpful resource. There’s about 120 people who get that daily email and read about what’s going in the community through that channel. So I feel good that I created something that was useful for people who want to stay involved without waiting through what’s on Facebook sometimes. Yeah, I have a blog, RichmondMatters.com. I’ve tried various other projects in the community, some of them are… I think one time I was like, okay, I’m going to create a live chat for Richmond, Indiana where people can go online and chat with each other, and it was kind of pre-Facebook days. It didn’t really take off. There was I think the Primex Plastics fire was the one time where all of a sudden, 200 people were on it and were sharing information about what streets were closed and what the fire department was doing. And then after that, it just kind of quiet again. So, different experiments. I’m happy to have things succeed or fail, and it’s good information to learn about, again, where people get their news and what’s happening. Eric: You’ve decided to kind of wade in and provide some assistance with Hometown Media. What was your interest there in helping build that? Chris: Yeah. So, I’m working… I should say I’m volunteering as a consulting digital editor for Hometown Media Group. And I saw them, when I became aware of them and I saw the ways in which they were continuing to try to provide local news, local journalism that was grounded in the community where the editorial decisions were being made locally, and as we’ve seen other larger publications struggle with coverage or with budget cuts, local news and local journalism I think just remains really essential. And so I reached out to them and said how can I help? And at first, they were like, “Who is this guy and what does he want from us?” But I think once they realized that I was genuinely offering to help build on what they had already done, we had some really great conversations. And so over the last six months or so, I’ve been able to help them update their online presence, think about their digital strategy, think about their subscription model, think about how they engage with their readers, and yeah, just really focus on modernizing their online strategy and tools. For me, I think one thing we may or may not have mentioned yet is I’m also a graduate student at Ball State studying journalism, and so it’s been a really neat opportunity to put some of what I’ve been learning there and apply it to a real world situation, and it’s been great to see how some of the… where the ideals of journalism meet the realities of small town print newspaper. But it’s been great. I’ve been able to bring just sort of a mix of my small business and local and online publishing and media experience to bear, and we’ve been able to do some neat things together. And they, as an organization, they’re growing, they’re looking for new ways to serve the community and make sure that, again, people who want to get the word out about important things happening here can do that and people who want to read about it can do that. So, it’s been really rewarding to be a part of that. Eric: Talked about being a journalism student, we had to mention, I was too, so, good lead, yeah. As a person who is now studying journalism and as a person who has put your opinion out there and knowing that those two things are not the same, how do you find yourself in that space? Because in my mind, that’s a space that has really kind of been muddied over the last decade or more, where we think people are journalists but they’re really not, they’re just opinion people. And there’s a different ethic when it comes to being an opinion person and being a journalist. Chris: Yeah. And I think we can never do too much community education about that distinction. With the writing I’ve done, the blogging I’ve done, I mean, I’ve always been careful. I’ve never tried to represent myself as a journalist or as someone who is providing a objective coverage of a topic. I’ve always shown that what I’m offering is my opinion or my observations. And I think because people still get those things confused, we just have to say, we have to make those distinctions really carefully… there’s a national organization called The Trust Project that is trying to help people, when they go read something online and they go read an article that’s trying to show some of the signals or the indicators that help you make those distinctions. So, is this something that has multiple sources or is it just one person’s opinion? Is this something that’s been fact-checked? Is this something where the reporter or the publication involved is receiving sponsorship dollars from an entity that’s being reported on? Things like that, that might be conflicts of interest. So, asking people to care about those details and pay attention to them when they’re reading something online, I think in the past, it’s been kind of taken as a given, but I don’t think we can anymore. And when something is shared on Facebook and becomes viral and becomes a widely read piece about politics or healthcare, or whatever it is, I hope that people are taking the time to say, okay, is what I’m reading propaganda? Is it an opinion piece, or is it something that’s been reported in a journalistic context? If we can’t make that distinction, we’re in real trouble because the kind of foundations of figuring out what’s true, what’s based on science, what’s based on fact is something we’re struggling with as a country. And I try to be really careful about that in everything I do, but I think it’s off and also up to the reader and up to anyone out there who’s sharing something or publicizing something that we have to try to help make those distinctions. And I think there’s more work to be done, even just in Richmond, about educating people along those lines because there are times where we’ve had people who are seen as journalistic sources of information who then cross over into the opinion area or have conflicts of interest, and that’s not always been disclosed, and I think that can be really confusing. So we just have to be really careful about it. Eric: And I know exactly what you’re talking about. We’ve had conversations, I’ve had conversations with other community members who have suggested that Whitewater Community Television should have a newscast in the evenings. And my pushback has been we’re not a journalistic organization. I’ve kind of taken on the role of being the question person, but I don’t have a degree in journalism. I did not study journalism, so I don’t consider myself to be a journalist, and no one on my staff is. So we try to be very careful with how those things are presented. So it is important that I think people look at where that information is coming from and what it really is. Chris: Yeah. And, I mean, because I started as a blogger, I mean, I don’t want to devalue, if there’s someone out there who’s able to show up at a city council meeting and say, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s what happened. Here’s what was said,” and they put that on their blog, I mean, I don’t think that just because they don’t have a degree in journalism or have been a part of a journalistic organization, I don’t think that means that doesn’t have value. We just have to be careful to draw those lines and say, okay, this is someone who is showing up as a blogger, as a writer, and offering their perspective. That’s still very different from a news report about what unfolded. So I think our community could use more of all of it. I think WCTV plays a great role in that as a public media organization and creating a space for people to have a voice and to share their perspectives, share their observations, and even offer valuable information about what’s happening in the community. Still not the same thing as a newscast, but that’s a valuable service in itself too. So, I’m thankful for that. I’m glad that you all do what you do in the ways that you do it. Eric: Thank you. We enjoy what we do. You’re watching IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television’s WGTV Channel 11. We’re spending some time with Chris Hardie. Thanks to our sponsors for this program, Morrisson-Reeves Library, First Bank Richmond, and Reid Health. I kind of asked you to step into the space over a period of time and have even suggested that you could step into the space a little bit more often, but talk a little bit about the conversations that you had surrounding particularly racial justice, social justice over that three-week period. You talked to a professor, you talked to the police chief, you talked to Bill Engle, a parent Richmond kind of council member, and a journalist with a palladium item who had covered government, talk about how those conversations went for you. Did you learn anything new? Did it change your mind about anything that you were feeling? Chris: Yeah. I mean, they were meaningful conversations, they were hard conversations, and I was glad to have them but I was tired by them. And to say that as privileged white male who got to swoop in, do those conversations and then I could turn off Zoom and move on with my day, it gave me new appreciation for people who are working on the challenges of systemic racism all day, every day, people who are subject to them, people who are affected by it. And it’s everywhere in the landscape of our country, in our community, and to bring it sort of intentionally onto a TV show and have a conversation about it, it was hard and it felt like, literally, the very least I could do to help keep the conversation going forward. So, yeah, I mean, thank you again for that opportunity. I mean, I think what I learned is that we have so much work to do and so many conversations to have as a community, even calling back to earlier in this conversation, taking a word like progressive and you can hear how someone sees it through the lens of politics or someone sees it to mean something. And so even just saying the word like racism or systemic racism or white privilege, or any of those phrases, they can mean so many different things to different people and they can pull up, they can trigger very strong associations. And if we’re going to make progress on these topics, we have to be able to confront those things ourselves. We have to be able to say what is it that this calls up for me, what are my biases, what are the things that I thought I knew were true that I didn’t actually know or that I need to learn more about. And I hope that those conversations contributed to that. I think through all of those interviews and conversations and through my other interviews on my podcast, I mean, I continue to see that Richmond and Wayne County is largely a community full of kind and forward-thinking and generous people. As I said before, we kind of live at a scale where we can care about other people in our community, we can see them, we can hear them, we can listen to them, and we can adapt and adjust our opinions to what we learn. And just that feeling of we can shape and choose what kind of community we want to be, I feel that sense of optimism that even with something as hard and as challenging and as ingrained as racism, we can still work on it, we can still make progress on it if we want to. And some of the people I talk to and others out there, I mean, I’ve learned that people who are getting things done here are people who are looking at where there’s a need, where there’s maybe an area of pain, where there’s an opportunity, and they’re pursuing it with passion and creativity. Whether that’s in the classroom or in municipal government or starting a march, starting a protest, whatever it is, they’re not focused on being right or being popular, they’re focused on figuring out what’s happening in the world and doing what they do at a level of quality and kind of intentionality that really matters. So that meant a lot to see that in action, to see that in those conversations. But yeah, I mean, we have a lot of challenges. We haven’t figured out racism, we haven’t figured out what’s a sustainable economy for our area that lifts everyone up, we haven’t figured out addiction or poverty or abuse or misogyny. I mean, there’s all sorts of challenges facing us. And I think the things that I still see getting in our way, fragmented efforts, when people are working on similar goals but are doing it off kind of on their own. We’re not a big enough community that we can afford to do that, so we need people to work together more and not duplicate each other’s efforts. Historically, I think we’ve been kind of study happy. It’s easy to commission a study about something and wait a couple months and get a report and then say that progress has been made, and I just don’t think we can afford to do that in most areas. I think we wrestle with avoiding conflict. I mean, I think just as humans, it’s not always easy to go toward something that’s hard where it might feel like we’re being attacked or having our personal views criticized and we have to figure out ways around that. So, I think we get hung up on some of those things and we get hung up on people who are always saying negative things on Facebook or otherwise. But I saw on those conversations and in other conversations that there’s progress to be made, there’s opportunities, there are people who care and who are working on it. We just have to keep working on it and not slow down. So. Eric: Couple of questions to kind of follow up. You used the term pretty early, white privilege. For some people, that term is nails on a chalkboard, and they hear it and it’s an immediate turn off. I asked you earlier to talk about the context of the word progressive when you used it. Talk about your definition of white privilege. When you say that, when you acknowledge in your mind that you’re a person of white privilege, what is it that you see? Chris: Yeah. Well, and it came up some in my conversation with Betsy Schlabach, so I would tell people to watch that too because there was a helpful deep dive there. But for me, it’s the idea that throughout my life, because of my whiteness and because of my background and everything that goes with that, there have been opportunities afforded to me, doors opened for me that I didn’t even realize, sometimes, were being opened or offered because of the color of my skin and just how I look in the world. And that those same opportunities, those same doors are not offered or opened for people who have different color skin, people of color and any form, and that, that is something built in to kind of the long history of our culture in our country. And the reason it’s important to talk about it is because if, as a white person, I say, “Well, I’m not racist and so I don’t understand why I have to care too much about this whole Black Lives Matter movement or whatever it is. Yeah, I’m white, but I’m not racist,” I think that misses the point that there are things about our very existence and upbringing and history that are a part of all of the systems of racism that are out there and that we either knowingly or unknowingly have been a part of. It’s not something, I mean, I’m trying to summarize it here, but it’s not something that’s I think easily summarized. And there are lots of books and videos and resources and workshops out there that can kind of help dive into it. But talking about white privilege doesn’t mean that white people are inherently bad or inherently can’t be a part of the solution to racism. It just means that we have to look harder at the role we play and the role we’ve played in the past in perpetuating some of the systems that make racism possible. Eric: As you’ve done some research and talked to different people, I’m going to ask you to do one more of those. When you hear the term Black Lives Matter, what does that say to you in your space? Chris: Yeah. I think to me, it says that in the world we live in, in this moment and time, we have not been a society that has held Black lives to matter as much as white lives. And that, that has resulted in violence, in incarceration, in oppression, in all sorts of problems for Black people and people of color. And that as a society, it’s long past time for us to confront that. And by saying Black Lives Matter, we can say, whereas in the past, we have not pursued that level of equality and justice for everyone, by saying it now, we’re saying it’s time. It’s past time to pursue that. People often make the analogy that if you were in a neighborhood and a house was burning and you were trying to get everybody out to yell, well, everyone’s lives on the street matter, not just the people in this house. You might look at them funny because the house that’s on fire is the one that you need to care about in that moment and that you need to do something about. And so I think Black Lives Matter is saying, hey, this thing’s on fire and we need to put our attention here and we need to do something about it. Yes, all lives matter is true as well, and they can both be true, but it’s a statement that makes a difference in this moment in time. Eric: You’re watching IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television’s WGTV Channel 11. We’re spending some time with Chris Hardie, entrepreneur, person who is involved with and has been involved with a number of not-for-profit organizations, providing volunteer work, providing some advice, and who is, like me, a transplant to this community, had a chance to see it on a different level. We’ve got about 10 minutes left to go in the show. I also want to thank our sponsors for this program, First Bank Richmond, Reid Health, and Morrisson-Reeves Library. We appreciate their support. I said at the end when I invited you to do this, I don’t do this very often to people, I kind of value my places as the question person and never having to provide an opinion, but because you were kind enough to step in and ask questions of people, I said I would give you a chance, if there were a couple of questions that you wanted to throw my way that I might ask, and no, none of my other guests will get this opportunity. So, I’m curious whether there is anything that you came up with, and if there is, it better be a real soft ball. Chris: Let’s see, favorite ice cream flavor. No. Well, we’ve talked a little bit about where people get their information, and I think public media, like WCTV, has historically played a really essential role in people learning about and connecting to their communities. So, I mean… and especially, I should say, maybe the less mainstream parts, the parts that aren’t always covered in the news, more fringe parts of a community, have been able to be represented. So now that we’re in this age of Facebook and other social media where everything is shared all the time, do you see the role of public media and community television shifting in that context? Eric: I don’t know that it is, in my mind, now there are others who have been around community media a lot longer than me, I think what we are able to do is provide a place for people to share their thoughts. And I don’t know that in that way, it’s changing. I think it is maybe becoming more noticed by people and they are thinking about how they get their voice out a little bit more. And so they are finding spaces like ours that still exist, and I say that because there have been, through the years, attempts, on a local and statewide level, to kind of silence community media to a certain extent, to cut down on the ability of people to have a place for their opinion to be widespread, they want to make that in a small a space as possible. But community media allows that to continue to open. In Connersville, just south of us, where they have one channel, not three, CTV3, who we share programming back and forth with, they’ve got a program that started in the wake of some of the civil unrest at this point in time called A Black Man in a Small Community. So it is programs like that where people in communities are able to share their voices, and I think when that unrest, when that conversation continues to come up, I think people look for an outlet. So I think community media, places like WCTV, CTV3, and others around the state are maybe being noticed a bit more in their communities. What is changing is that we’re having to think more consciously about putting the information that we collect in more places. When I started almost 11 years ago as executive director of Whitewater Community Television, we didn’t have a YouTube page, we didn’t have a Facebook page, we weren’t sharing on WGTV online with a place where you can go and see full government meetings. We didn’t have all of those social media spaces, but it has made us think about using those places to put that community information out a little bit more so it is more acceptable and easier to access for folks. Chris: Yeah. Do I have time for a follow-up? Eric: Sure. Chris: Do you see people as willing to change their minds any more as the result of a conversation or an interview or a program that WCTV has been a part of? Or are we collectively still pretty tribal and just kind of set in our ways, even when we’re theoretically having a conversation about something? Eric: I think, generally speaking, generally speaking, we’re still tribal in a lot of ways. There’s still a lot of people who say, “I can’t vote for a Democrat. I can’t vote for a Republican,” without really finding out what that person feels and believes. I think as a people, we still vote against our interests a lot because we want to vote for someone who looks like us or has a certain initial behind their name, again, whether their values completely reflect us or not. But I will say that in my time, in doing particularly this program, and even the Ask the Doctors program that we’ve been doing with Dr. Huth and Dr. Jetmore during this time of the pandemic, there have been people who have said, “I learn something. I heard a question and I hadn’t thought about it in that way.” So I think we are a community that is still trying to grow, trying to develop. There are many people in the community who are trying to, and I’ll use the word that you used earlier in the show, trying to be progressive, trying to look forward. I think part of that maybe there are a number of people, a lot more than we know, like you and I who didn’t grow up here, who found this place through our travels, through coming for school, through coming for work, who have decided to make this home and who really do want to make this as good a place as we possibly can. I mean, I lament the fact that I’ve got two daughters, neither of which now live here. But my oldest who did live here moved back to Indianapolis just a few weeks ago. So I think there are more of us who would like this space to be more comfortable for our kids so that we can keep them a little bit closer than what they are. And we know that, that means being willing to make some change and think about some things differently. Chris: Absolutely. That’s great. Eric: We are coming to the end of this. I want to give you a minute or so because you’ve gone through a lot. You do have your opinions, you do have your thoughts about a lot of things. So I just kind of want to open up a space to you and say you’ve got about 90 seconds, what do you want to say to Richmond, Wayne County, whoever may be watching? Chris: Well, I won’t pass up the opportunity to encourage people, as you do at the beginning, to vote in the upcoming election. As I said… or, I mean, I ran for office. I know the difference that a few votes can make. I lost my own bid by about 200 votes, so in Richmond, that’s probably a couple of neighborhoods. I get that it’s hard for people sometimes to feel like the effort to vote has the level of importance that we hear about, but I do think it’s literally one of the most basic and critical first steps that people can take, with engaging all the decisions and opportunities that are in front of us. I think it’s how we begin to translate our values and our opinions and all the conversations that we’re having with friends and neighbors. That’s how we translate those into action that can really matter. And the people we put in office, they’re not the only ones who are shaping our future, but they are doing it every day, and we have to make sure that we have a say in that process. So, even if you don’t see an ideal candidate, even if you’re feeling disillusioned about politics in general, it’s so important to vote, and I hope that everyone who’s watching this will do that. Eric: Thank you. I appreciate it. The post IN Focus with…me appeared first on Richmond Matters.
59 minutes | Jul 17, 2020
IN Focus with Mike Britt and Brylynn Quisenberry
The third and final (for now) episode of the public affairs program IN Focus that I have been guest-hosting in July aired this evening on WCTV. Like my earlier conversations with Betsy Schlabach, Archer Bunner and Bill Engle, it again touches on some of the challenges of confronting and addressing racism in our communities. First I talk with Chief Mike Britt of the Richmond Police Department about how they are responding to national and local concerns about racial bias in policing. Then, I speak with Brylynn Quisenberry about what it was like to organize a local event demonstrating against racist police violence and affirming that Black Lives Matter. Two very different perspectives, and both were intense conversations to have in their own regard. I appreciate the time each guest took with me. I’m sure I left out important questions and could have asked better versions of the ones I did. But most of all I hope these exchanges prompt further conversation and action toward justice for everyone who lives here. We have a lot of work to do. I welcome your feedback. You can watch the video below, on WCTV’s YouTube channel, on Facebook or as the episode is replayed on WGTV Channel 11. The audio of the show is also available via the Richmond Matters podcast feed, which you can find in your favorite podcast listening app. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: Hi and welcome to this week’s episode of In Focus on Whitewater Community Television WGTV Channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie, sitting in for Eric Marsh, as your host. This is the third episode in a series of conversations that we’ve been having about what it means for our community to work on and really make progress on the serious and historic challenges of racism, and racial discrimination in policing. In particular, we’re exploring what it means for white people here to join in an attempt to understand our role in systems of racism and what actions we can take to be a part of the solution. Racism and related concepts, like white privilege, are not easy topics for white people to explore. It’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward, it’s full of potential for misunderstanding, defensiveness, hurt feelings, or just feeling overwhelmed. But it is clear that if we care about justice, if we care about making sure that everyone in our community can rise together, we have to do this work, and we have to do it urgently. We have to look inside ourselves and be willing to see what’s there, we have to have these conversations out loud with each other, and we have to show that we are listening that we are understanding and that we are willing to take action. My two guests this hour are coming from very different places in this conversation. A bit later I’ll be talking with Brylynn Quisenberry, a local high school student who recently organized a march around pursuing racial justice. First I’m talking with the Chief of Police of the Richmond Police Department, Mike Britt. Chief Britt, thank you so much for taking the time to join me today, I really appreciate it. Mike Britt: You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure. Chris: You became Chief just back in April, right in the middle of a pandemic, and a lot of other things going on but you’ve you’ve been a part of the force in the department for some time, can you just tell us briefly about your history with the Richmond Police Department? Mike: Well, I’ve been a full-time Richmond officer going on 25 years. Prior to that I was a dispatcher and a reserve officer so I’ve got about a 35 year history with the Department. And it was in January of 2016 when Chief Branum was named as the new Chief of police by Mayor Snow, he appointed me as a Deputy Chief. I’ve been in the administrative offices since 2016. Chris: Okay great. And we’ve been talking on this show about sort of the renewed national attention to problems of systemic racism, incidents of police violence and I wanted to ask what kinds of things the Richmond Police Department has done or has thought about in response to that and in that context? Mike: Well it’s it’s been a very difficult time and I want to start this topic off by saying that those of you who hate the police based on what you saw in recent news articles of officers from Minneapolis and other places in this world, as a profession, as a representative of this profession I apologize for that because I don’t think what you or anybody else saw was true modern police work. What you saw or criminal acts and it’s very unfortunate that the acts of a few officers can cause so many problems to a nationwide organization. And that is what we’ve seen in the news is not what Richmond Police Department or I or most other agencies stand for. This is very unfortunate. Chris: Thank you for that. Are there any specific changes that you, as a department, have made in training procedures or reporting policies, rules of engagement, and I know that it’s a conversation and we’ve heard about different departments looking at how they handle certain kinds of engagements as a result, is that something that has come to the Richmond Police Department as well? Mike: Yes we’ve began the discussion. We have policies and procedures in place, and one of our long-term goals, we haven’t been able to really get completed, is a complete update of our policies and procedures. So some of them are old, however they do cover the key, such as use of force, the use of force continuum and the case law that exists regarding use of force. Just the policies need updated just a bit so I’ve been spending a lot of time going over our existing policies and our training as well. Currently Major Bales and I, my Deputy Chief, been in contact with a company that has offered us an opportunity to rewrite our policy manual and bring it up to today’s standards as far as legally defensible policies. So that’s one of the things that we’re looking at. In general. I looked over our entire operation and, you’ll notice, and hopefully the public can too, the Richmond Police Department is not been involved in any unfortunate incidents, thank God, and that’s just because I have good people. The men and women of the Richmond Police Department are great officers and there’s inherent training now when police officer comes on new in the profession. They’ve integrated IS based policing training as well as the escalation techniques and the mental, emotional training that’s all part of the Academy now, and it’s also a part of our annual re-certification training which we are going through right now. Every officer on this department, and pretty much the state of Indiana, has mandatory training that they have to go through every year and we contracted with a web-based company where the officers are working their way through several hours of video along with pre and post-test and it covers most of those key areas, so we are, I think we’re doing a pretty good job keeping up on that, but we could always do better. And that’s what I’m looking at, what more can I do? And I apologize if we haven’t done that so quickly, I think it’s important think this through. I don’t like knee-jerk reactions and we don’t currently have any issues that have come to the forefront, so we’re thinking forward on this and we can take the right steps, but basically we’ve been very fortunate, I’ve got a, like I say, a great group of officers that are young and, I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but since 2016, we counted the other day, we’ve hired 36 policemen, which makes a very young department. Mike: One of the issues that I had that coming in, of course I’m an old guy, older generation, they go millennials, yeah that’s gonna be a problem but it really is not. And what I’m learning along the way it’s that one of the first things that we saw when we started putting younger policemen on the street is the complaints against officers for rudeness and that type of thing is really falling away we don’t get as many complaints of that nature. And I’m finding that these newer officers are, I guess the newer generation, are a lot more tolerant of different social status and I couldn’t be prouder. They’re a lot more accepting of other cultures and I’m not casting the shadow on my generation but when you look around us some of the major incidents in the country you’ll notice that a lot of these guys are our older officers that may be from a different generation of policing. Chris: I do want ask, at a recent demonstration here back in June you know, people sharing some stories of being treated, they felt poorly in certain circumstances because they felt the color of their skin, being treated poorly by local law enforcement and it’s hard to know, if we weren’t there, it’s hard to understand exactly what happened. But I do wonder how you track or if you track or investigate any claims of racial discrimination or bias in local policing, is that a part of some of the systems that you talked about? Mike: Yes, as long as I can remember we’ve always tracked complaints against officers. Additionally, one of the most important things that we do, I don’t think it’s mandatory in the state of Indiana yet, but we’ve been doing it for several years but any time officer has to use force of any type with a citizen, such as displaying a weapon or going hands-on with somebody, in addition to the report that the officer writes, the standard criminal report, it’s accompanied by a use of force report, which is a completely separate document that breaks down exactly what force was used and why. So those are compiled by a deputy chief and we keep a close eye on that. So far we’ve done pretty well by looking… as far as a complaint against an officer’s behavior whatever, we have complaint system in place that’s been there for years and you can come the Richmond Police Department, pick up a complaint form and fill it out and then it goes and comes back to the administration and it’s most likely where it would be assigned to someone to investigate. Chris: And just thinking about that a little bit, people talk about the power dynamic of an everyday resident like me walking into the police station and saying to someone who’s carrying a firearm who has the ability, in theory, to put me in jail, to say that I have a complaint and that could be tough for anyone. I think there’s been some recognition that racism that goes beyond just like an individual act where you can say like, yes this was clearly racism or clearly wasn’t, but we’re talking about ideas and dynamics that are spread throughout society and I think some people say like, oh a police force couldn’t actually be a part of the solution because of the way that they’re set up or because of that power dynamic, so as a department, how do you make sure that you’re open to listening to those concerns, some of which might be really hard to hear if they’re critiques of the department or of your officers and finding ways to improve how you serve the community based on that feedback that you get? Mike: Well, we’ve been getting a lot of feedback, we’ve had a number of meetings with different groups and there has been some input on that and just as I appreciate getting a phone call or an email that my officers did a good job I also want to know about when a person feels they did not do a good job. The most difficult thing is to sort out whether that officers behavior was completely unacceptable or called for, for the other particular incident that they’re involved in. Sometimes, like it or not, the policeman has to become forceful such as one of the biggest complaints that I get my policemen are on the scene of something people walking up and are not involved we shoo them away. You’ve got to stay away from this particular incident till we hit the bottom of what’s going on and people seem to take offense to that and I apologize but that’s not something that we will ever do is allow somebody not involved party to step into one of our encounters in the public. Chris: Okay. And it seems like what I think you’re saying, I just want to check on this you know and some of the stories we’ve heard elsewhere, after an incident happened where it seems like there was a racial bias at work in an incident, sometimes it’s come out later that okay there were there was a pattern with an officer who then ended up having an incident that the committed violence against a black person or against a person of color and the question always comes out then like why didn’t that pattern get looked at earlier. So do you feel like you’re in a good place as a department if a pattern did emerge with an officer’s behavior, you feel like you’re in a good place to see that, to track it, to investigate it, do something about it, is that fair? Mike: Yes that’s fair we are in a good place for that. Nobody gets any special favors because there are policemen, there’s the code of conduct that I expect from my officers and it’s also spelled out in the department policy and we also have a couple things in place such as serious incidents where a law has been broken, presumably by a police officer, we most generally don’t investigate that ourselves, we’ll call our friends at the Indiana State Police’s unbiased, unconnected agency, and have them look at it, we’ve used them this year so far on an incident he had here at the police headquarters and it’s very nice to be in a position where I can call a professional agency, such as that, and have them do an open investigation on it. Look, as far as they use the force reports and all that, if we have an officer showing substandard behavior, it jumps out because we don’t get complaints every day here police department administration in a week. We read all complaints against officers and we don’t get them that often so repeat complaints really stand out, so we’re able to be on top of that rather quickly. Chris: Okay. There have been these calls to, defund the police is one phrase we’ve heard a lot, some people are talking about the version of substantially changing how policing operates and I think what those calls are asking us to do is to try to confront some of the systems that might lead to discrimination and violence against black people especially as they play out in law enforcement situations. And I wonder what those calls mean to you, when you hear them, and what do you think those kinds of changes would mean for our area for policing in our area. Mike: Well defunding the police, I guess you would expect me to say, and I will tell you that is not a good idea. We have enough trouble staying within our means that our current budget. However, there are things that this department does that a lot of people are not aware of and it takes up a considerable amount of our resources, and that being I guess the number one thing would be mentally emotional situations that the police are called to and just some quick reference since 2014, proximately 10% of our calls were mentally emotional-based and so far up to this year is about 14%. So it continues to grow, the demand for that type of services is definitely on the increase, and I think a lot of these situations could be handled by someone other than the police, I guess better outfitted or trained to handle these. We end up handling these just because we’re the default, the fall back and between the fire department and my officers, we handle a lot of situations that should probably be handled by somebody in the mental health field professional. But those resources aren’t readily available in our community, we have some great resources but they’re just not available in the middle the night, and so that leaves very few options for us. But the scary part about that as well as some of these incidents involve sometimes violence and that’s a little bit scary as well having a non-sworn, non-armed person responding to these things but that’s an area of growth that our departments dealing with, it’s a very difficult to keep on top of and when I hear somebody say defund the police, I see other agencies around the nation that are effectively being defunded, but the pattern that I’m seeing is that they are creating non-emergency staff to handle the non-violent situations. Not a bad idea. I do believe that change is needed in this profession, policing has to keep up with modern times just as any profession does in it and it requires a change of thought process for us. But as I said, we’re pretty much good at making changes and that a lot of it has to do the younger officers. But as far as defunding the police, it’s not particularly a good idea but I am fully aware that there are change to be made that need to be made in this profession and the mental illness segment I just spoke about is probably larger facets that that needs addressed in our profession. Chris: Yeah, I was reading an example of another city, I’m forgetting which city right now, but I don’t know if it was a percentage of the police budget, but they took some funding and they set up basically a first responder service for mental health situations I believe as people who were trained in working with mental health but also then got some training that overlapped a bit with what a police officer might receive for how to de-escalate a situation and you know they had a van or something like that that was available you know 24/7 staffed and tried to get to situations where there was a mental health issue. Is that the kind of thing that you could imagine being helpful in our community, I know I’m just kind of pulling that out of thin air as an option and we’d have to figure out where the staffing and where the funding came from, but do you think your department would be able to see that transition and happen be glad for it and that would help in some kinds of situations where right now as first responders in a mental health situation things don’t always go the way you would want them to? Mike: That’s correct. Yeah, I would be in support of such a program. But as you mentioned already, it’s about the resources the funding for these types of things but it’s gotten to be a large enough problem that it needs more attention from the community as well as the city government but that is a direction I can see modern policing moving. It’s something that’s really needed. Chris: Do you have a sense of what percentage of your officers live in Richmond are very close to Richmond, just as a population? Mike: I’ve never really calculated but the majority live in Richmond were close by, let’s say two miles a lot of them anyways, as far as the exact number at live outside the city I know I don’t have an answer. Chris: I guess why I asked, some cities have talked about part of the problem is when you are bringing officers in from well outside of the neighborhoods that they are then in and policing and serving that that can create a clash, and I wonder if that’s something that could work to our benefit as a smaller city, a smaller community, where a lot of officers are part of the communities that they are then serving when on duty, part of the neighborhood’s. It seems like there’s an opportunity there for more engagement and I know some officers are very happy to if they’re taking the patrol car home and parking in the driveway, they’re kind of seen is a part of that that neighborhoods community safety program. Are there other opportunities on your mind for better engagement between the police department and the neighborhoods and the city so that the trust and the sort of understanding of what policing looks like in our community could be improved over time? Mike: Yes sir. There’s several opportunities that we intend to take advantage of. Of course, becoming Chief of Police in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and all the other problems that we’ve had, my plan when things get back to what we call the new normal is that the district officers will be attending the neighborhood meetings. We’re moving towards attempting to having the officers work the same districts so they can have a familiarity with the public in that particular area of town, and it’s my intention that, as long as the officers are available, they’re gonna be a regular fixture in neighborhood functions and especially the community watch, crime watch meetings, that type thing. But as you might imagine, it’s been a little difficult scheduling these types of things and keeping up the full manpower, that’s that’s very difficult to do, just imagine with all the negative press you’ve seen about law enforcement, how hard is recruiting officers right now, which is an ongoing… they made a news release that we’ve finally made it to full manpower, this was several months ago, and we did, were budgeted for 76 more officers and we achieved that, but it lasted for two weeks, before somebody else retired. And now I think right now we’re down four full-time positions, so recruiting and keeping the street staffed is a factor in how much time an officer would have to go to these meetings. But I guess in a best-case scenario the officer is going to have enough manpower so it won’t really interfere with anything if officer wants to take an hour to go to community meeting. But yeah, I definitely see more community engagement from our department, it just simply a time right now where it’s very difficult to pull that off. One of the other things that we intend on ramping up is social media presence. We’ve been involved with social media but quite honestly in my opinion I think we’ve done a good enough job with it. So that’s another, one thing that as I mentioned before when we find out what the new normal is, that’s going to be a part of it. Chris: In a time where people are really thinking about the role of police and police departments in communities, I wonder either for yourself, if you want to speak just for yourself, or for other people who are a part of the department, why do you think most people get into policing, what is the drive what’s the reason that attracts people to it and what do they hope to get out of it or what do they hope to do in that role for the most part? Mike: Well it sounds somewhat corny but t’s actually true, as I mentioned previously, we’re hired a lot of young officers, these officers are millennials maybe a Generation X or two, but these officers sincerely want to help their community. I mean it’s very very genuine deeply based in them. You certainly don’t get in law enforcement work for the money, that’s for sure. So the success that we had in recruiting, brought us to a generation that do genuinely want to help, and they’d like to be a part of the solution to some problems that our city faces, and that’s a very important factor. And as I mentioned, recruiting is very difficult right now so I’ll throw in a plug as well. Probably tomorrow we’re opening up another hiring process for a officer to fill these vacancies. We’ve got three applicants in the pipeline to hire right now and I’ve got probably two or three more projected openings coming up so I’d definitely love to see people have an interest of helping their community. There’s a lot of problems around here, or perceived problems and my challenge is come and help us fix that. Take an active role, there’s no bones, no mistakes, our Police Department doesn’t reflect our community or our society accurately. We need a lot more minority applicants and everybody that we hire anymore is is basically white and I’m not sure we’ve really wrestled with how to increase minority recruitment, but I’m open for ideas if somebody has some good idea so yeah I think we’re going to start reaching out and doing some radio ads here very shortly with the inception of this new hiring process. Chris: And I’m not at all an expert on hiring for police departments, my sense is that often that the traditional approach has been kind of waiting for the pipeline to be more diverse and my best understanding is that the kind of outreach you’re talking about doing more of where there’s there’s actual connection happening in the community in neighborhoods with people of color and understanding you know what some of their concerns might be that would also be an effective way to increase that understanding. Whether or not people end up applying to be a part of the force, would remain to be seen. I guess in a little bit of time we have left, again if I were a person of color and I were feeling like in this community I wasn’t always safe, if I were pulled over without explanation and I felt like it was because of the color of my skin or if I felt like you know undue attention was on me in a law enforcement situation and I wanted to talk to someone about that or I wanted to try to do something about that out of concern for what’s happening nationwide, but also with the local police department, what do you see is my next step, where do I go, who do I talk to. If it’s not just about filing a complaint form but actually keeping that conversation going, hat’s my next step? Mike: Your next step should be, you actually have several, that you could take, the most common one is calling into the police department asking to speak with that officer’s supervisor. We run three shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the patrol division, each patrol division for 1st, 2nd, 3rd shift are split into three groups. One’s led by a sergeant, one’s led by lieutenant, one’s led by a shift captain. So a call to the police department to find out a particular officer supervisor should be relatively simple to do, and you can speak with them. If you don’t get the desired results from them, then you always have the administrative officer, myself, Major Bales and Major Tonuc are available discuss these situations. But don’t be scared of coming into the police department to complain or question an officer’s conduct, I mean that’s what we’re here for. As I mentioned before, I’m not going to deny maybe some change needs to take place, I can be biased and say that we really don’t have those types of problems but I’m not naïve, I know that there are segments, areas of our profession we can improve on and implicit bias is one of those. Chris: Well Chief Britt, thank you again for your time and your willingness to talk with me about some challenging problems that I know are on people’s minds. Mike: You’re quite welcome, I appreciate the opportunity. I hope I haven’t rambled too much here but we’re very passionate about that, and like I said, it’s a very difficult time to police our community but I think we’re doing a good job, we’re going to be better from here, we’re going to go upward from where we’re at now. Like I say, we just have to find that new normal. Chris: Thank you. Mike: Thank you. Chris: Welcome back and you’re watching Whitewater Community Television WGTV Channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie, and I’m talking now with Brylynn Quisenberry, who’s a student at Richmond High School and who’s been doing some hard work, I think, to help our community make progress on issues of racism and police violence. So Brylynn, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, appreciate having you here. Brylynn Quisenberry: Thank you for having me. Chris: So you organized a march and a demonstration on June 14th that, I think, brought a lot of attention to problems of systemic racism and police violence against black people. I think you’ve said elsewhere that you wanted to do something after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that were happening in response. I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how you decided to create that event and what it was like for you to put it together? Brylynn: So it kind of happened overnight. So the George Floyd, his death had happened, and then the protests immediately started, so I learned about George Floyd and all the protests in just a day. So I was on social media and I seen it and I was just talking to someone and I texted and I said, “I feel like Richmond might need one of these protests.” So I was like, I think I’m just going do it. I said, “I don’t know how good it’s gonna be, I don’t know how many people are going to be here, but I’m just going to wing it.” So the first thing I did was make a poster. I sent it to my photographer, Sandy Strange, she did some pretty good pictures. I said to her and I was like, “Hey, can you take some pictures here so it can be on other platforms?” And she was like yeah and it just got bigger from there. So many waters being donated, I have never seen that much water ever. I paid for just about nothing, I really did. The horn that I used to talk I borrowed, people passed out snacks, I didn’t even ask for that. It just all happened from the community. Chris: Was there a moment when you knew that had it had gone from kind of a personal project to something that was really gaining lots of traction and interest, how did you know that it was going to be kind of as big as it was? Brylynn: So I actually had started a Facebook group okay so I invited people and then I had people put if they were going or not going and there are so many people interested. I was like 400 interested doesn’t sound like 20 anymore. So there were even times when I thought I wanted it back out of it because it’s so scary, so dangerous, but I’m so glad did not. Chris: I mean marches and protests are not a typical thing in Richmond right, and so I can imagine that there were moments where it was challenging to make it happen maybe where people were questioning you about it, yeah what kinds of bumps did you hit along the way and what kept you going? Brylynn: Well at first I had gotten like a few weeks in, maybe two, and it didn’t seem like there were that many people that were going to show up and at this point I was like I really want a lot of people and I would like cry and really think we need this, I really think people need to see this because there’s so much going on. I actually worked at a place and I quit actually from all of this. So during all this, it was racist comments all the time and hateful, so I had to leave, I literally lost my job because of this. Chris: People were coming to your place of work to comment on what you were trying to do or just was beyond that? Brylynn: It was my actual place of work, people that I have worked with that had comments. Chris: I’m really sorry. Brylynn: It’s okay. I kind of put my foot down, another girl had put her foot down too and we both quit and actually one of the places that passed out water for us, the Cordial Cork, they were super sweet, they passed out water, I didn’t even know they were, I got an interview there. Chris: That’s great I’m glad there were bits of silver lining and I mean it sounds really hard. I mean, what kinds of stories did you hear from people about what they’ve experienced when it comes to racism and difficult interactions with the police, and I know there was some storytelling at the event and I’m imagining you heard others along the way, what kinds of things did you hear about? Brylynn: My own grandpa has told me about ladies when he was younger because he’s this big bald black man. Ladies seemed scared about him, took their purses away and the police followed him, make sure that he’s not doing anything. The guy at my protest saying that he actually got tackled by police when he had just turned 18 because they said that he was starting trouble, He’s a big dude. I just heard so much and not even just in the town like everywhere, it’s everywhere, and it’s too much it’s way too much. Chris: And some of the refrains during the march were just talking about I mean of course, Black Lives Matter, but also “enough” about police violence and about the way that systems of law enforcement, sometimes without even recognizing it, have racism or racial bias built in. Did you feel like that day unfolded in the way that you wanted it to when the day was actually there? How did it line up with what you were expecting and hoping for? Brylynn: Like I said, I kind of just winged it so I wasn’t really planning on what was going to happen, I knew they were gonna be people, I knew that I was going to talk. But as soon as I got there, and as soon as people started to come, I got nervous. I was like, I have to talk in front of these people and I have to tell them what I feel because I actually do feel this way, I feel like I need to be heard it was really hard and I had so many people, lovely people there, that were calming me down that helped me talk that helped me, random people helping me. Just holding signs, I passed out signs, and it all went smoothly. I felt really empowered just doing it. Chris: I was able to be a part of it with my family and it was really striking to me that there was a really great spirit about the crowd and about sort of the message that was being shared. It was also striking that the Richmond, the police department was there too and they were sometimes blocking traffic accompanying the marchers on the route, sometimes even leading the way with their vehicles, and a few times it seemed like waving and indicating their support, so I how were your interactions with the police department in planning the march and on that day, what did you notice about your interactions there? Brylynn: So actually, the first officer that I talked to was Officer Benedict, I’m pretty sure. He was really sweet, I even have a picture with him. He brought me into the police station by myself just then, he talked to me about the route, he told me he had some concerns some places and just to tell people, hey you need to do this here and make sure you try to walk on the sidewalks and not just other streets. And that was really nice, he said that he’d just stay out of the way and just let me do my thing while he just blocks traffic just so no one would hit us. Chris: Yeah, I spoke with Chief Britt earlier and we were talking about the problem of racism in police violence, racism in policing that we’ve been hearing so much about for a long time, but especially in a renewed way recently, and he felt like the Richmond Police Department is doing well in not having a problem with racist police action like we’ve seen elsewhere. And when I asked him specifically about how a person of color, if they had a concern and wanted to voice that about racial discrimination in a police department, his recommendation was to call the police department itself to talk about it and he felt like there would not be retaliation or any reason to be scared of doing that. I want to ask you do you think that suggestion works? What do you make of that in the context of the stories you’ve heard and the work that you’ve been doing? Brylynn: The only reason these protests are happening is because these aren’t being taken care of properly. So when he’s saying to go ahead and just call and we’ll talk about it and blah, blah, blah, I just don’t think it’s civil anymore. That’s why these protests are happening, we are making change happen forcefully, I’m not going to sit down and talk to somebody be like, hey I think this is an issue, oh yeah I’ll get back with you maybe a year or two and see if that works. So I don’t think anybody’s going to do that at all. I think there’s a lot of people that are already completely against the police, doesn’t matter where they are, doesn’t matter who they are, so they’re not going to talk about the problems with them personally or on the phone. I feel like it’s much deeper than just to sit down and have a talk. Chris: And so this is a question that goes well beyond Richmond but if as you say we don’t have time anymore for the kind of conversation approach or the internal investigation approach, what do you think it looks like for a city like ours to make real progress and to see real change when it comes to policing, when it comes to addressing racism in our city? Do you have a sense of that, and again I realize it’s asking you to solve that in a conversation on TV is a difficult thing but yeah, what kinds of things would you hope for? Brylynn: I just like it to be seen more. You don’t go to the State Fair and see Black Lives Matter booth and then handing out things and black owned businesses you don’t see at all. And like I said, we’ve been trying to even just get an event somewhere sometime in the year because I’ve even spoken to the Mayor with a huge group of people and we’ve asked to do some things in the State Fair and he said that we should leave the State Fair alone, so we have leave the State Fair alone, we’re going to have to do something else, make it our own, make it where people can see it, educate people, that’s all we can do, because sitting down and talking to people, people are going to… you don’t have to listen. But if it’s right there you can see it no matter. Chris: Yeah, and it does seem like there’s this real tension between, oops I lost video there, there we are. Brylynn: Sorry. Chris: That’s all right. There’s this real tension between what we’re coming to understand is like, it’s a generation’s long process of people doing work on themselves of people doing work in their community and then also the need to see real progress right, like as you say, in many cases the time for conversation has kind of come and gone and I think you and I were talking a little bit before about there’s this real danger of people saying, “Okay a march has happened so great we’ve had that success we can check that box.” I think for white people, especially if we don’t work at it, and even if we do, we’re always in danger of limiting our thinking and our awareness of systemic racism just to the times when marches are happening or police violence is in the news or when people of color are really asking us to pay attention, and so I mean clearly we need to be doing that work of anti racism all the time every day, we can’t fall back to this privileged position of just hoping things will figure themselves out and I wonder what you’ve seen, if anything, that gives you some hope about the action that’s happening in our community around these topics, where do you think the greatest promise is for progress there, knowing that it’s not always going to be this like happy-go-lucky, tying a bow around it and we’re done kind of thing, but where can we make the most progress right now? Do you have a sense of that? Brylynn: We’ve actually been talking about it there’s so many areas, the places people work, the schooling, just anything like that. I think for me, since I am in school right now I’m a sophomore now, I can see it in schools, I can see it when teachers discriminate, there’s not many teachers I do love my teachers, but I’ve seen teachers that do discriminate and you just have to keep an eye out or you see kids that have been taught at home and their parents bring it there or they’re hateful there, and I just don’t think it’s a place that should ever have anything like that. Chris: I had a good conversation, in a previous show, with Archer Bunner, a teacher in the local school system, and Archer was talking about just the need for teachers to have some more training some more awareness about, both issues of bias and racism and discrimination, but also thinking about alternative ways of doing conflict resolution right because our culture is so geared toward, especially once you’re out in the world, once there’s a conflict, call the police and bring the police in. Chief Britt mentioned how shifting some first responder work to people trained with mental health services could be a way to de-escalate some kinds of conflict, remove the police from the situation. And I really appreciate what you said about just awareness raising has a really key thing that can happen right now, again I think there’s a real danger of awareness kind of fading into the background. We’re coming up on an election season, we’re coming up on you know the fall, in theory school might be starting again. Have you talked to people, who you know, who are doing the hard work every day and maybe they are white people who have been allies in this situation. Are there resources that you point people to when they are looking for a way to spend time, an organization to contribute toward a place to volunteer, or is it really about starting in our homes, in our neighborhoods in the people we spend time with every day. And it’s kind of a rambling question so I apologize for that. Brylynn: It’s okay. I think it starts in our homes and our neighborhoods where we really have to start because we teach each other all the time if you have a phone at your own house and you’re looking and on social media and your social media feed is racist, have a family that’s racist, and then you’re going be like, “Oh that’s okay,” so then it starts at home so I feel like just even putting a booth somewhere that’s like, hey I’m over here maybe you should get some information, it can help. Chris: Do you feel like young people, either students that you know, but just young people generally in our community are they thinking about, are they talking about the problems of racism and police violence in our community, or is awareness-raising needed there as well? Brylynn: No, for sure. I know that kids here for sure are, and there were kids in the last march, there were kids in my March. I have friends on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat talking about it, just even sharing a post is something, just people that aren’t being quiet. I don’t think it’s an issue because when you look at the protest, you see Gen Z, that’s who you see, you see us, you don’t really see a lot of older people getting out there and do that. For my march, I’ve seen a lot of older people and that was really nice, because you don’t really see that a lot. Chris: If someone was feeling resistant to the idea of doing a march or doing a demonstration, again, that sense that like Richmond isn’t a place that’s always been friendly to direct action like that, what did you tell them? Have they said, “I don’t really know if that’s my thing doing a march,” how did you help set them at ease about that? Brylynn: Well, I told a lot of people because a lot of people didn’t like the thought of a protest because they’re seeing social media and they’re seeing how protests are going violent and they’re seeing how people are being teargassed and shot and people are dying, people are getting really badly hurt, so I had a friend myself that was like, “I don’t know if I’m actually going to be allowed to,” when they want to but they’re minors. If the parent says no, the parent says no they can’t go. But I’ve had her me with posters, she packs some water, just simple things like that, that’s helpful. And just the people remember that the people that are working with it, they see that and they remember that. So you don’t automatically have to be marching, I know people that are disabled that cannot march. So just doing simple things, donating, posting, just helping out a little bit, it’s simple. Chris: Also, I think the paper reported that you’ve been in some conversations with the local NAACP Chapter and talking about what kinds of programs or action might be possible there. Can you say any more about sort of what’s what’s happening there and how people might be able to get involved? Brylynn: We’re actually we’re still talking about it, we did a huge Zoom, I don’t know when we’re doing another one. Pastor Chapelle, he’s kind of the one that I’ve been talking to the most, so we’ve kind of just picked out points around the Richmond where we think that we need to really focus on issues, like schools, neighborhoods, workplaces things like that, how people get their money, just all that other stuff. But other than that, we really haven’t talked about much, we’ve talked about a youth that we already have, I’m actually the president of that youth group, so for this youth group it’s just young people that’s it. Just some high schoolers that’s it, and maybe some adults I just look over us I’m sure we’re good and that’s it, because that’s what we need we’re not doing the same things every single time. Gen Z hasn’t been nice about it you tell someone something and they’re like, “Well I’m sorry that you feel that way,” and all this other stuff, Gen Z’s kind of like, “I don’t care, here’s your facts and you can take it or leave it,” and that’s kind of what we’re doing. We want it to be different than what our elders are doing. Chris: Have you had support and encouragement from grown ups, elders, adults in your life that have helped make some of this possible or do you feel like you’ve had to do some uphill battles to make things happen. what’s that been like for you? Brylynn: My mom actually knows somebody in the Roadrunners, so the Roadrunners actually contacted me personally and they just asked me if I needed protection for my march. My mom and my grandma, every single time I’ve been busy and not around, they’re the ones that collect the water and load the water and drive me and do this and that, so that’s really helpful they’ve always been there. They get water for me, they get the posters for me. But other than that, everyone just kind of lean back and let me do what I need to do, which was really nice so I don’t have someone hovering over me to do this, do that, because I feel like if it’s my voice then somebody will see it more. Chris: Yeah, if someone out there, and especially I mean a person of color, but even a white person or anyone else, if they’re seeing racism, if they’re seeing discrimination in action, if they’re not sure how to use their voice to do something about it, I mean you’ve had this experience now of using your voice going, through what at times sounds like are pretty scary process and a difficult process, what advice would you give to someone who’s not sure whether it’s worth it to put themselves out there and speak up? Brylynn: It’s 100% worth it, every voice matters. We say silence is violence because when there’s silence there’s nothing that you are doing to help. When you are just quiet you are not helping, you are just adding to a problem that can for sure be solved if you just open your mouth and say, “Hey that’s not right.” That’s it. Chris: And it feels like there’s some growing awareness in recent months that there is a distinction between just saying I’m not racist and actually doing anti-racist work and that as you were saying earlier, to do nothing, to stand by, and sort of let things go as they are, in a lot of ways is perpetuating and being a part of the problem, and that we’re long past the point where it’s important to do active work and I think there are probably people in our community who would look at a march or a demonstration and say that’s not making any progress but I really appreciate as you said that just even raising the issue keeping it in front of people, keeping the conversations going, feels like something we’ve been bad at, and that we can do better and better at of every day. How else do you think of yourself as keeping the conversations going and being a part of that now? Brylynn: I’m on social media a lot, every single time I see an article, I sign petitions, I do all that stuff on social media, super easy stuff that anybody can do. You scroll through it, you look at it you see if it’s correct do you think Google, Google is real, you can see if the information is correct, share it. I’ve even been sharing things like black lives still matter that’s it. Chris: Well Brylynn, I want to thank you for all the work that you’ve done the passion that you’ve put into this community, even when it’s been challenging for your personal life and employment and everything else, and continuing on with that. And I really do hope that as a community, we can honor that work by rising to the challenge that you and others have put out there to really take meaningful action so thank you and thanks again for your time today. Brylynn: Thank you. Chris: This has been another edition of In Focus on Whitewater Community Television. I’m your host Chris Hardie, thanks for watching. The post IN Focus with Mike Britt and Brylynn Quisenberry appeared first on Richmond Matters.
59 minutes | Jul 9, 2020
IN Focus with Archer Bunner and Bill Engle
In July I’m continuing to guest host a few episodes of the public affairs program IN Focus on WCTV, talking with my guests about racism and what it means for people in our community — especially white people — to be listening, learning and taking meaningful anti-racist action so that everyone who lives here can know justice. In today’s show, I talk with Archer Bunner, a teacher at Richmond High School and a leader with the Alternatives to Violence Project, about wrestling with bias and racism in a classroom setting, and how thinking about different models of conflict resolution could complement calls to change how policing works. In the second segment I talk with Bill Engle, member of Richmond’s Common Council and a former local reporter, about the role that local government might play in addressing racism, and what it looks like for Richmond as a city to really work on these issues together. With both Archer and Bill I appreciate that they were willing to talk openly with me about the challenges of confronting and working on racism in our lives and professions. They were candid about the concerns they’ve faced, and in that I think they modeled that we don’t have to have all the answers to make progress. I learned from these conversations and I hope you will too. I welcome your feedback. You can watch the video below, on WCTV’s YouTube channel, on Facebook or as the episode is replayed on WGTV Channel 11. The audio of the show is also available via the Richmond Matters podcast feed, which you can find in your favorite podcast listening app. Disclosure: as I note in the episode itself, I was a contributor to Bill Engle’s 2019 election campaign for Common Council. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: Hi, and welcome to this week’s IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television’s WCTV Channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie, and I’m sitting in for Eric Marsh as your host for a few episodes here in July. As with last week, in these conversations, we are continuing to look at what it means for our community to work on and really make progress on the serious, and historic challenges of racism and racial discrimination. In particular, we’re exploring what it means for white people here to join in and attempt to understand our role in systems of racism, what privileges and biases contribute to that, and what actions we can take to be a part of the solution. As white people, I think we need to show that we are listening, that we are understanding, and that we are willing to do some hard work on ourselves in the name of justice for all. My two guests this hour will help us have a part of those conversations. In a bit, I’ll be talking with Bill Engle, a member of Richmond’s City Council, and a former local reporter. First, I’m talking with Archer Bunner, a teacher at Richmond High School, and a conflict resolution workshop facilitator. Archer, thanks so much for joining me today. Archer Bunner: Thank you. Chris: If you could, just tell us a little bit about your background and the kinds of work that you do. Archer: Great. Yeah, my name is Archer Bunner. I’m a teacher at Richmond High School. I teach mostly in the Math Department under the special education wing. I work with students who have identified learning disabilities of all types. I also teach a conflict resolution class. That class comes from a nonprofit that I work with called The Alternatives to Violence Project. It’s a national and international nonprofit that runs conflict resolution workshops in schools, communities and prisons. A lot of what I spend my time doing is working with them and working at the school. Chris: Awesome. My understanding is you’ve taught that workshop in lots of different settings, lots of different contexts, group sizes and everything else. Is it material that you feel just really comfortable with at this point? Or is it an area where you are still learning? How does one master the area of conflict resolution? Archer: Well, facilitating the workshops is certainly an area that I feel very comfortable with, but practicing conflict resolution, your life is a never-ending process. Practicing all of the different skills that you learned, particularly how to be defensive and react in a way that de-escalates a situation rather than escalates a situation, and how to attempt to address conflict even when you feel some fear. Those are definitely things that I still struggle with, which is one of the reasons why I stay working with the program. It’s not a program that’s about teaching other people to deal with things. It’s a personal growth thing. Everybody who comes is working on themselves together, to try and keep getting better at addressing those conflicts that are making our lives more difficult. Chris: Sounds really powerful. We’ll, in just a little bit here, get to the connection between that exploration and personal growth with conflict resolution and racism, and systemic racism. We’ve been talking the last couple episodes here about the challenges of racism and white privilege, and especially what white people can do to make sure that we are listening, that we’re understanding, and that we’re taking meaningful action. I think about the classroom setting in the school system as a place where the young people in our community are undoubtedly having opportunities to see racism, to maybe understand it, maybe to confront it. I wonder if you can share a little bit about what you’ve seen, just as a teacher in that setting, even before some of the recent renewal of attention to racism in our community and around the country has happened. What have you noticed? Archer: I’ve been teaching for six years at the high school, and then I had a year of student teaching where I was actually Hibberd, in the LOGOS program and at the high school. Throughout my entire career as a teacher, race and racism is definitely on the minds of the young people that I work with, in ways that ebbs and flows. It seems that there will be sometimes connected to a national movement or sometimes connected to some of the shootings that have happened by police. There’ll be a big burst of energy where students are really talking about it, arguing with each other, having conversations, talking with me about it. Other times, just for seemingly no reason, it just seems to be a big topic that will just run throughout the school, and students will be really focused on thinking and talking about it. It’s definitely something that students, in particular, notice and want to talk about, want to explore. I would say, some of my personal experiences in the classroom that I’ve struggled with around racism are when students do call me racist, which definitely has happened. Especially when I was a younger teacher, and especially before I started really working on myself, I was very defensive about this. I didn’t think of myself as a racist. No, I didn’t think what I was doing was really separate, and that I was trying to tell them what they were doing was inappropriate, yelling or throwing something in class, or just being a distraction, right? Things that I saw, as a teacher, as typical things that you should try to tell students not to be doing in the classroom. Over time, well, I went through some trainings, some anti-oppression trainings, and I realized it’s less about my response, my defensiveness, or me thinking I’m not a racist, and more about whatever it was that I did that made that student say that, that’s important for me to try to understand and address, regardless of my own personal feelings about myself because whatever it was that I did is making that student feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the classroom. It needs to be worked on. That’s definitely something that I have experienced and try to continue to think about in myself. Yeah. Chris: Yeah. I mean, what does that look in an ideal situation, in that classroom setting where that exchange is unfolding? What did you notice about the difference between how you responded in the earlier days where you mentioned feeling defensive, and that was the initial response to, what do we get to? What do we try to aim for in a different response, or what’s an ideal way that a situation like that can unfold? Archer: Yeah. Well, stating, “I’m not racist,” not an effective response. Chris: Okay. Archer: Trying to have a conversation with the student one on one is the ideal thing. Finding a way to… really, the ideal thing is to have a better relationship with students that I’m disciplining in the first place, to have a relationship where they feel they can share with me when I’m being overly disciplinarian does help on the front end. Building a better classroom culture helps on the front end of that kind of a situation. Then when it happens, having a one on one conversation to ask. The ideal thing would be, “No, I’m sorry I came off this way. That wasn’t my intent. I didn’t mean to make you feel that I was treating you differently. What can we do to move forward?” Chris: Yeah. In one of my earlier conversations, we talked about the distinction. A lot of people think of racism or would define a racist is just, if someone does this overt intentional act to hurt someone because of the color of their skin, that that’s what racism is. I think we’ve been learning, some of you all have known this for a very long time, but it’s coming out again in this current conversation, that racism is much more than that. There are systems that we’re part of, things white privilege, that inform who we are, sometimes without us knowing it. Do you think an understanding of systems of oppression or systems of privilege and how they interact, I mean, is that understanding woven at all into the experience that kids in school are having? Are they aware of those things? Or is that something that that we do need to be teaching more? What does that look right now in the classroom setting, as you’ve seen? Archer: I am mostly in the math classroom, so content doesn’t often flow towards that. In the conflict resolution class, when people have had experiences, there are sometimes topics where we do flow into oppression, and talking about historical oppression, and systems of oppression, specifically against black people, often against immigrants, particularly from Mexico, or other Latin and South American countries. Those are the demographics that typically are the students that want to talk about those, the students in our classroom. I would say, as far as the curriculum goes, I can’t speak to what my fellow teachers are teaching at the high school, but I do think there are some teachers who’ve tried really hard to weed through their history lessons oppression and history of resistance, and how that plays a role on our current situations. There are definitely teachers who are doing that and I think that is the route to go. I do think there are teachers who, for whatever reason, stick to the traditional curriculum, and don’t focus on that. Maybe their own personal experience, or they just haven’t… maybe their teaching program didn’t emphasize that. It’s definitely an individual thing, and something that the curriculum is open enough to, that teachers can take it in different directions. I would say, I think that curriculum should be very much focused on people understanding. When I look back at my school history, and when I learned about systems of oppression, it wasn’t until college. I think a lot of college students are getting that. Chris: Interesting, yeah. Archer: I think that history, especially when it comes to the history of black Americans, the sense that I got from my education was, “Slavery is over, civil rights happen, the black people won, racism is gone, everyone should treat each other equally. There are those people on the far fringes, who are doing these racist things, but that’s not us. That’s not the majority of us,” and that’s a really blinded way of looking at things that doesn’t really address people’s personal experiences, or some of the ways in which our justice department, or other departments, other places still enforce these discriminations against people of color. Chris: Yeah, and those systems can be really pervasive. They can affect all aspects of life. One of my previous guests, Betsy Schlabach described it, white privilege is this backpack that white people can wear that opens up all sorts of opportunities for them unknowingly, that is not something that may be the case for a person of color, a black person who’s applying for a loan, applying for a job, that kind of thing. Do you think the school system… I mean, I think what I hear you saying is teachers in the school system would benefit from additional training, additional formal curriculum around those kinds of systems and what it means to be in a classroom setting with kids learning about that. Archer: Yes, I do think there’s a really positive trend in education nationwide, and in Indiana to focus on brain science, neuroscience, and the way that trauma adversely affects the brain and brain development, and how when we’re in these situations of experiencing something that reminds us of our trauma, our brain makes decisions for us to switch into fight or flight mode without us making conscious decisions, and that’s affecting a lot of our behavior in the classroom. I think that there can be a way to connect in the adversity of discrimination, and the trauma experiencing racism and discrimination. That as this trend towards understanding trauma continues, that there’ll be more opportunities and more interest from teachers to take trainings such as implicit bias training. We’re already taking trainings on de-escalation. There’s been a ton of trainings I took at high school, about how to respond to a person who’s escalating the situation, like ways to hold your body, how to use your tone of voice, and things like that. I think implicit bias training, which I didn’t explain what that means, but is a training where you look at yourself and accept that there might be ways that you’re treating people of color differently without realizing it. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s that racism that’s built into our system where I’m treating somebody differently, and I didn’t even recognize it. How do I step back and notice that and try to change that behavior, based on whatever it is? Some cultural thing that I didn’t realize or that I grew up just reacting towards. Chris: This is probably an oversimplification, but I’ve even seen some universities that have put some online tools up where you can go through an implicit bias exercise, and it illustrates, in just a couple of minutes, ways that you might see the world, that if you didn’t stop and really think about it, or maybe have it pointed out for you, it’s like I have a bias for or against something or someone, or a type of person. The trainings you’re describing sounds they really get into depth with that, which is really helpful. It does sound something that all of us could benefit from, at some point or another. I want to transition to the conflict resolution training. We’ve heard, in recent months, really clearly, the calls to defund or significantly reimagine the role of police departments in our lives. People, rightly, I think, noted that this kind of change would require also reimagining how we, as a community, handle and resolve conflict in our life, especially the times where we would typically call the police. The benefit that stands out to me, of course, is that if you don’t have the police showing up to an already tense situation, maybe we remove some of the occasions where black people are subject to police violence. Chris: I know that that’s a really big topic and a big place to start, but I wonder if you could talk about how traditional models of handling conflict do or don’t work, kind of what you described in the classroom, like just saying, “I’m not a racist,” is not an effective way to handle that conflict, but what does and doesn’t work? What does it look like to do things differently, perhaps in a way that makes us more self-reliant as a community, without having to call the police in every conflict situation that comes up? Archer: Yeah, so I’d say it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of personal work and personal desire to react in situations much more effectively, without… so, yeah, Chris: Yeah, wherever you want to start there, because I know I just threw a lot at you. Archer: When we talk about traditional ways of dealing with conflict that are negative, escalating the situation towards violence, or even in some cases, ignoring the conflict until it blows up and it seems like there’s irreparable harm, and oftentimes, calling the police. Those, in my mind, they reinforce systems of oppression because I think of oppression as the ability to use your power over somebody else, especially in a historical and a systemic context. When you’re calling people in to deal with a situation, specifically the police, whether or not they come into it with this intention of being racist or making a racist act, all of this history and all the systems, the way that they’re built, accidentally or purposefully, tend to lead towards these racist actions that end in statistically larger numbers of black people being shot and killed, and larger numbers of black men, specifically, being put in prison for crimes that are similar to what white people are committing. I would say that, if we’re going to dismantle our systems that we currently have, dismantle the police, dismantle the prison systems, it’s going to take so much interpersonal work on our part, we’re going to have to really dissect… I’m going to have to really dissect situations where I’m uncomfortable, versus situations where I am in danger, where I’m physically actually in danger, and be able to differentiate that. I’m going to have resources to reach out to when I’m in physical danger, that are going to help de-escalate that situation without… Let’s say I’m in a situation of domestic violence, and my husband is attacking me. Who am I calling to help de-escalate that, to get me out of that situation without them condemning that other person to this system that doesn’t exist anymore of imprisonment? What are we doing with people who have committed these crimes? How are we helping them to actually rehabilitate or repent, or whatever it is in this new system? It’s going to take so much more work and effort on the part of individual people. Chris: You talked about some of the workshops you’ve done, I know, in prison settings and other settings. I mean, what does that look like? Is that kind of personal transformation a one-day workshop? How does it happen? How does it unfold? What have you seen? Archer: It’s a lifetime process, though there are moments where people transform, or you can transform yourself or a situation that seemed very big, but it’s never a one hour or a one-day thing. This goes back to something I think about in schools, we learn math and English, and Science and social studies. There’s no class on learning to be defensive when someone’s yelling at you and how to respond appropriately. In these workshops, the thing that I’ve taken the most from them is these little tools, this tool belt that you have to build for yourself. How am I going to react and respond, when what I want to do is punch someone? What am I going to do to preemptively help myself not be in those situations, but not in a way that’s going to ignore conflict? When I’m in that situation, what am I going to use? Am I going to use my breathing, and am I going to walk away? Am I going to have some way of expressing my emotions that helps the other person empathize with me? Am I going to listen, and just let them rant at me and rant at me, and try and respond reflectively to that, and show them that I’ve heard them, so that they can see that I’m in this conversation? There’s this whole bag of things that you can use to try and respond to people when you’re in a situation where emotions are very heightened. Yeah. Chris: I mean, I hear you describing strategies and tools, but I think I’m also hearing you say that to even get to the point where you could start to pull those tools out of the bag, you have to do a lot of work on yourself first to understand what your responses are, what your biases might be. Is that where you start in those kinds of workshops? Archer: Yes. And what your triggers are based on your experience. We all have these experiences wrapped back into what I was talking about with trauma and your neuroscience. Your brain is wired to react to situations based on experiences that you’ve had previously. One, I can react and I can be triggered, and then there’s, I can recognize what just triggered me, and then I can watch for that. Becoming conscious of these subconscious processes in our brain is one of the steps to being able to react more positively in these situations. Chris: Yeah. I mean, I really appreciate the distinction you made of the difference between feeling physically unsafe, and just being uncomfortable. I mean, I feel like that applies broadly to all kinds of conflict, but I mean, so much of the conversation about racism, and especially how white people are thinking about their relationship to people who don’t look like them seems to be about discomfort that in the past, has been pushed back into that system. Now, it’s like, how can we actually confront that? How can we understand the discomfort that we might be feeling, where that’s coming from, what the origins are, and then what to do about it? I could imagine that, if you do that work, that has a real positive impact in just day-to-day interactions of all kinds, but especially in situations where you find yourself, yeah, around people who are not like you, and especially in racial differences. Do you have success stories…Have you seen transformations happen that give you hope about that kind of… I know you’re saying it’s a life-long process, but about that kind of transformation, that kind of work being effective? Archer: Great question. I mean, I’ve had transformations in myself, like what I was talking about earlier, with going from wanting to respond to my students saying, “I’m not racist,” to getting to a point where it doesn’t matter because that person felt like I was treating them a certain way. That’s what’s important in the situation. I’d say, I’m trying to think about… Chris: Or even just what AVP, The Alternative to Violence Project that you mentioned, the goals that they work on as a project. What are some of the highlights there, where those results are seen in our society or in communities? Archer: I mean, because the project is focused so much around interpersonal change. It is all these stories, and people have these stories, and we often share these stories of personal transformation or personal change. I mean, a lot of these stories do come from prison, so it can be as simple as a person in prison had a positive interaction with a prison guard for the first time ever- Chris: Wow. Archer: … because they listened to the prison guard share a story about why they had just reacted so negatively or so aggressively, and they had tried to speak to them calmly. Just little things like that. AVP is definitely about trying to find ways in your own life to change things, to bring about these resolutions by listening, and reflecting, and interacting in ways that are going to open people up to you. It’s very small. It’s not these big moments most of the time. It’s not these big shifts or changes. It’s very interpersonal changes, and so I can think of these times where I’ve been able to hear people better, and been able to explain myself better, and come to a better understanding of something because of that. Chris: That’s great. We just have another minute or two left, and I’m thinking about, if someone is watching this today and they feel… Someone might be sitting there saying, “I don’t feel like I’m a racist, but I want to be a part of the solution. I want to do some of this work. I want to think about what my biases are, and how that affects my interactions. I want to be better at conflict resolution. Is there a place that you would point them toward to start that work or to continue that work, whether that’s something they can do on their own, or through a program or workshop that you’ve been involved with? Archer: I think that’s a great question. I think in our community, I mean, we have so many wonderful groups that meet and work together, but I do think it’s often hard. You have to really work to get connected sometimes. Do a lot of research and look out there for a program or a group. Right now, there are so many really awesome webinars and things on… I would really suggest where I got started, just trying to find some webinars, finding other people on the internet talking about these kinds of things, and listening to those and feeling uncomfortable, and really exploring how you feel. Listen to something you really don’t agree with, that you really don’t agree with and then explore why you’re feeling uncomfortable and what it is you that don’t agree with, and then try to just keep pushing that. Chris: Awesome. Well, that’s a great suggestion and a great place to start. Archer Bunner, thank you so much again for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate the conversation and we’ll keep it going from here. Chris: I’m here now talking with Bill Engle. Bill, I really appreciate you taking the time to join me on the show and talk a little bit about some topics that I think are really important to the community, so thank you. Bill Engle: Sure. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate you doing this. Chris: Bill, you’ve played a lot of different roles in this community, and I wonder if you can briefly tell us about your background here. Bill: Okay. I came here in 1987 to work at the Palladium-Item. I worked at the Palladium-Item for a little over 25 years as a number of different things, an editor, a sports editor, a features editor, reporter, and at the end of my career, I was doing special investigative projects, and covering city and county government. I raised two daughters here and was involved with them in the sports that they were in, and also other school events and things. Since I’ve retired in 2017, I’ve been involved with a number of organizations, including the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono Commission, the Society for Preservation and Use of Resources. Bill: I served four years on the Richmond Parks Department Board of Directors, and also on the Plan Commission. I’m still on the Richmond Advisory Plan Commission. This is, I think, my fourth year. Also involved in veterans, and Veterans Affairs. I’m on a committee for the VA called the Veterans Stakeholders Committee that serves as a go between, between veterans and the VA, and we handle issues that they have with not getting services and things like that. Richmond has become my home. There’s just no question. I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here, and I do like the community, and I’m happy to be a part of the community. That’s why I ran for City Council. I guess that’s the other thing I should mention. Chris: You buried the lead there, yeah. Bill: Yeah. Thank you. I did run for City Council last year and was elected as the representative from District Three. Chris: Maybe now it’s just a good time to mention, I always feel it’s important to say as a quick note of full disclosure for the audience, Bill, you and I are friends and I was also a contributor to your campaign for Common Council last year. Bill: Good to note that. Chris: You’re a member of Richmond Common Council, and I know that you’re not here to speak for all of Council and you can only speak for yourself. It’s also always good to note Council’s a legislative body. It has limits in the kinds of actions it can take and the oversight that it can exercise, but on these shows, I’ve been having some conversations with folks about this moment in history and the movement that’s happening around thinking about racism, and thinking about discrimination, thinking about the problem of incidents of police violence. There’s just big topics. I wanted to ask you a little bit. Presumably any conversations about police department budgets and that kind of thing would eventually flow through Council. I know that’s got to be on everyone’s minds, but we’re in a time, I think, where people are looking for leadership in lots of different places. I do wonder, what kind of role you think members of Council, and maybe city government just more broadly, can play in the community as we wrestle with racism, discrimination, diversity and equality on a local level. Yeah, what are your thoughts on that, on what role Council might play? Bill: Well, it’s a good question. I think it’s an important question right now. Unfortunately, I’m new to Council. I came on 30 days before the pandemic became a thing that’s really interrupted all of our lives, and my life on council. I want to preference anything I say by saying that I’m still learning about being a councilman and my role as a councilman, and working with department heads, and et cetera, et cetera. But I do think this is an important discussion that we have now. It is a discussion that we as council people I’m sure will have, as we meet more regularly that are not the Zoom meetings. It is also a discussion we need to have with the Mayor to support the mayor in his efforts at both training of police and fire department heads, the ambulance service, and also in recruitment, diversity in recruitment. Those are things that I think I, as a council member, can discuss and make sure that they are a part of our efforts going forward. I did get an email from someone a month ago about defunding the police. I have to say, I’m not really in favor of defunding the police, but I think we need to look at those budgets. If you know how budgets work, the city spends way more than half of its budget on police and fire. I think we spend $6 million plus a year on both, on each one, and then the next closest is parks at about $2 million. It is something we need to discuss, something that we need to look at. I know there have been complaints about the militarization of the police department. It is worthy of discussion. We have to consider safety for our citizens, but we also have to consider how the police and fire, and every other department head represents the city to our citizens. It is a discussion that we will have. I can tell you also in about a 32nd discussion at the last council meeting with one of the other council members, we talked about tax abatements and how we hand out tax abatements. One of the criteria is do they pay a living wage? I think that’s something that we need to look at. If we are going to give abatements to companies, maybe we could look at them paying $12 or $13, or $15 an hour to their employees, but those are some of the ways we can look at that. Chris: Yeah. Well, and I’m glad you mentioned that. I mean, it’s just so important to recognize how so many systems are connected together. The ability of any given person in our community to make a living wage ties directly to the opportunities they have for, say, home ownership or investing back into the community, spending money in the community that ties into the services that we have available. We could probably have a whole separate show, and I may in a future episode- Bill: Sure. Chris: … on the question of the role the police department has, and when there are calls for defunding or significantly changing how the police department operates, the immediate conversation that comes up after that is, well, what does that mean for the frontline mental health services that first responders are often involved in, and especially in a small smaller community like Richmond in Wayne County, and the Whitewater Valley? There’s so much to unpack there. Bill: Sure. Chris: I mean, I think people generally want to know that a body like Common Council and the city government is taking all of that into consideration, and that people who represent us are able to receive emails, like you mentioned, and hear what people are thinking about, what their requests are, and balanced those with the needs of the community. I know you’re new to Council. Does it feel like there’s some momentum there? Whether it’s talking about racism or some of those other challenges, is council a place where you think good change is possible in those ways? Bill: I think that it’s possible. I can’t say that we’ve had any in depth discussions. In fact, we were meeting… the democrats on council were meeting as a group with some of the leadership, including the mayor and other people, the head of Amigos and some other organization. Of course, we’ve stopped all that and I really missed that. I hope it’s something that we can resurrect, but I do think we are leaders of the community because we are elected officials who are looking at budgets every day and passing ordinances, so it is something that we can look at. Bill: I think there are opportunities there for discussion, certainly with the mayor, certainly with the police and fire chiefs, and other people of sanitation. I mean, they’re in the community. They’re also the face of the administration. There are things that we can do to continue this conversation, and I think we need to do that. I know we need to recognize the efforts of our citizens, and to keep this conversation going, but again, I can’t say specifically what we’re going to do at the meeting Monday night or anything. Chris: Yeah. I mean, you and I have talked about the challenges of, we use the phrase ‘keeping the conversation going’, and we’ve acknowledged together that spring 2020 is not the first time that our community has had opportunities to confront racism, to think about racial discrimination. There have been organizations, there have been community projects. There have even been reporting that you tackled is as a reporter to help us think about what’s happening in our community, where is race and racism playing a role, and sometimes those can create momentum, but it’s pretty rare to see something that’s actually sustained. I think that’s a real concern for me. I think it’s a real concern for a lot of people who want it to be more than a conversation, who want it to turn into action. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the projects you were involved with maybe as a reporter, where you maybe put something out into the world and what you noticed about how people responded to that? Bill: Sure. I think it was 2004, I did a series on race and race relations in the community. I think it was a four-week thing, every Sunday for four weeks. It escapes me now, but we looked at race relations, race and education, race in the economy, and I think race in government. I don’t remember the fourth one, but one of the things that struck me when I was reporting on education was, I did a study of African American students, and I think they were male students who entered Richmond High School. Then four years later, I looked at how many of them graduated. I think the number was 27%, which-I was astounded, and I really thought when I reported on that, that that would really hit a chord in the community and spark some conversation. There was some. There were support. There were a couple of business leaders that made note of that and said they were interested in maybe even contributing some type of effort, but I didn’t get the response that I expected, especially from school officials, including the school board. I didn’t actually hear any response at all. Even if people were going to refute it or criticize it, that would have been okay, but just the fact that there wasn’t a lot of discussion was… I was surprised. I was very surprised at that. There was a discussion, we ended the series with an organizational meeting at the Townsend Center at the time, and we had black leaders and also members of the school board, city council were there, and I think the Mayor was there, I don’t remember. But it led to a reunion at Townsend Center, which also led to a series that I did called 50 Weeks of Success where I looked at our citizens and the roles that they… where they came from, how they overcame obstacles to become successful. That was very gratifying, and I think it was well received. Not initially, because I think people thought that I was going to do 50 weeks of African American people in the community, but that was never the intent, and I explained that to a number of people, but I think it was very successful in celebrating some of the successes. There was one woman that got her GED after six years of trying, and I went to her graduation. When they gave her, her diploma, they had put it in a case, and she just hugged it and started crying. That was terrific. I mean, that was just a wonderful thing. For me, it was enlightening, and I think there were some positive things, but I didn’t get the response that I was hoping for. Chris: One thing that really strikes me as you’re talking, in some of the other conversations I’ve had for the show, it’s become clear, if it wasn’t already, that part of working on racism is embracing discomfort in a way, and it’s embracing maybe discomfort because of truths that we learn about ourselves, about our own backgrounds or biases, or the way that we’ve come to see the world, and figuring out how to challenge that. I think that also needs to play out in the community, organizations, leadership, people in positions of power, especially white people, to be willing to say, “I’m going to challenge myself to think about how I look at the world, how I look at people of color, minorities, black people, and what my relationships there are.” I contrast that with your time as a reporter. If it’s fair to say, you were going after the truth of the matter. You’re going after the facts of the matter, trying to report, and often that meant going toward the uncomfortable, I can imagine, even in the study that you mentioned, that you did of high school graduation rates. When you take something that’s uncomfortable like that, and you put it out for public consideration, as a community, I think we really struggle with that. There’s often a strong impulse to say, “Yeah, maybe that’s a problem, but here’s all the good things.” Those good things may be real, and they may be true and worth celebrating, but that doesn’t do anything to help the challenges or the discomfort that we put out there. Did you find ways… I mean, as someone who’s lived here for a long time, and you are proud of the community, you seem to celebrate what Richmond is, but then you were also involved in poking and prodding at some of our challenges. How did you balance that as a reporter and as a community member? How do you do that now as someone working for the benefit of the community, but also trying to call out some of the things we need to work on? Bill: It’s a great question. I did get some blow back on some of the series. I did a series on homelessness, and I actually spent 24 hours homeless in the city. I know that that’s not a good probably representation, but I always looked at my work as being maybe I’m going too far, but I always believed it was a service to the community. When I did get criticism, and I did get criticism, I get people that called me and stopped me, and asked me why I was doing what I was doing. I would always say, “I’m just trying to reflect your community back to you. Whether you agree or disagree, I’m still looking at who lives here, how they live, what are the issues that we face?” It’s not a question of we always find nice pleasant stories about people doing wonderful things, but we also know that there are other issues where people are living in difficult situations, they don’t have the opportunities and maybe never have had the opportunities that some of our other citizens have had. I always felt that it was important to find out, to interview people. I mean, I’m a white guy and I don’t have a lot of black friends or Latino friends in this community. As I see it now, it is an opportunity to educate myself and to communicate with people to figure out what the issues are here. I see that as my role going forward as a councilman, and as representing my community, but again, I looked at it as, it was the truth as I could find it and reported fairly and honestly, and I always thought those were important things to consider in your community. The only way that we are going to be a better community is by facing those things and facing those realizations, that we do have work to do and we need to continually work on making ourselves a better community. Chris: Yeah, and I think there’s this concept of everyone coming together and helping Richmond and Wayne County, and the area celebrate our strengths, and show ourselves as a strong community. I think about that as an important effort, but I also recognize and I think that’s part of what you’re saying, is that if we don’t also stop to look at the challenges along the way, and we just try to sweep those under the rug, they’re going to come back and bite us. For one, because we’re not actually being honest with ourselves about how we’re doing as a community, and then also just purely as a matter of being good people to each other. If we are leaving behind significant parts of our community in terms of residents or the kinds of experiences people have here, if we’re not acknowledging their stories or not thinking through what their experience of the community is, then we can’t ever really get to a place where we have a unified community. It’s just some part of the community might be coming together. I think about that when it comes to the work of council, and also as your work as a reporter, just thinking about that long term arc of figuring out what’s going to work for everyone in the long run. You and I both attended a recent march that went through Richmond, and it was a moment where I felt proud of the community because a large chunk of people from lots of different backgrounds were coming together to acknowledge a hard thing, to celebrate some good things, and to try to move something forward. I wonder if you could say a little bit about what that was like for you to show up for that march, be a part of it knowing you were there in multiple roles, multiple hats on. What was that like? Bill: Sure. It was a really good experience, I have to say, and I agree with you, I was proud of our community and proud of the response that I saw. I was especially excited that there were a lot of young people there, because if you know city and county government, I think you’ve written about this before, it’s a lot of older people, that we hope we are in touch with the younger generations. I don’t know that we ever are. I’m not a young guy, and I think I was excited by the activism that I saw. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t know a lot of the people, especially the black people. As a reporter, you get to know a lot of people because you go to a lot of events. You cover a lot of government events and other events throughout the community, and you get to know a lot of people, and some of their kids and things like that, grandkids, but I saw a lot of people I didn’t know, which, it was okay. I mean, it’s still exciting, but it was a little troubling. I hope there’s a way to meet some of these people and to listen to them. I think that’s the one thing that I took from the demonstration was, you have to listen to people and you have to understand their perspective, and that’s going to be important. I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more people from Council and other representative boards there, but again, that’s up to them. I felt good about my role in that. I was pleased that I did it. I was inspired. As you know, the woman that organized the thing was, I think, a high school student, and that’s exciting to me. We need young people to be involved, just like we need old people and middle aged people, and black and white, and Latino and Asian and et cetera, et cetera. I hope we can keep that going and move that forward. Chris: Yeah, and I think about maybe five years ago, a demonstration going through the streets of Richmond, I think, would have been seen in a much more negative light, just culturally, because of the way that our city works. I think marches, demonstrations, protests have traditionally not been seen as an okay way to express oneself. I remember when the Occupy Wall Street movement was happening, there were a couple of folks who took it upon themselves to stand downtown with some signs related to the concerns of wealth inequality in our country. They were yelled at and not treated very well. I understand that for a lot of people, acts of disruption can be seen as threatening or can be seen as uncomfortable- Bill: Sure. Chris: … but what I saw in participating in it was that, if we have taken a lot of what might have happened in the public square, if we’ve taken that online and people are in their factions on social media, and holed up with other people who think the same way, then we don’t have as many opportunities to express ourselves. That march and marches like it are a place where people can have a voice, they can say, “Hey, this is a point of view you might not be aware of or exposed to,” and I think it’s really important. I mean, I’m really glad that you participated in that. I’m really glad that other folks who, yeah, may not have even agreed with everything that was on every sign, or everything that was said there. Do you have a sense of… like, when Richmond has made progress on hard issues, racism or other issues in the past, what have been the kinds of things that have led to that progress? Is it conversation? Is it committees? Is it government leadership? Is it something else entirely? Do you have a sense of that? I know that’s a big question. Bill: Yeah, it’s a big question, and I bring the sense of my years as a reporter more so than my years as a councilman, because I haven’t been a councilman very long, but I think confrontation is part of it, and that you hope leads to conversation. I can remember when the city council, and I can’t remember the year but was considering its affirmative action and updating its affirmative action ordinance. There was a request that we include gay, lesbian people in the protection. Chris: Right, making sexual orientation a protected class. Bill: Yes. There was a major response from conservative folks, including ministers about that, that it was a horrible thing, and actually it wasn’t included, but we needed to have that. We needed to have that confrontation and that led to discussion. These things have to progress. I always think that’s how they progress, is we have to make them progress. As you know, there’s no progress just on its own in general. You need to have those issues raised and discussed, and then you hope that facts will take over, that there will be progress, because I always think there’s a lot of citizens that are in the middle and they’re okay with it. They’re not opposed. They don’t hate Black Lives Matter, science and that kind of thing, but they need to be aware of these situations, whether it’s across the country, in our state or in our community. That’s how I think you have these things, is to have a thorough discussions about them and confronting the issues. Chris: I’ve always appreciated, I mean, you’ve talked about times where you’ve confronted someone in your role as a reporter and say, “Hey, I’m writing a story. I need to ask you some questions that might be a little uncomfortable,” but then you can have that conversation, you can have that confrontation, and then you can go back to being members of a community that are all trying to do the right thing, or move things forward. It doesn’t mean burning bridges and tearing everything down. I think that’s helpful for people to see models of, yeah, we can have hard conversations, and then we can move forward. In just the little bit of time we have left, what do you hope is next for this conversation about racism and discrimination in our community? What do you think our best next steps might be? Or what do you hope to be a part of in that? Bill: I hope to be a part of the group. I know there is a group that’s organizing to continue the conversation. I think Reverend Ron Chappell is part of that organization. I hope to be part of that and to contribute in any way I can, but again, on Council, I hope we can have a conversation, and I hope we can have a conversation with the Mayor about his practices for recruitment, and his diversity practices. Also, then I again, I need to educate myself. I’m not connected to the black community, I’m not connected to the Latino or Asian community, and I need to have some type of connection. I need to take the time, whether it’s to go to a community festival, to go to a march, to go to these meetings. Excuse me. The last thing you want to do is have a bunch of meetings and then you’re done, because we’re not done it. I guess what I’d like to see is this thing continue. I think it’s important. I think we need to include as many people as possible from throughout the community. I think that’s how you see things change. Again, I thought of the demonstration as a way to confront this, and we need to confront it and then talk about it. You mentioned my years as a reporter. I had screaming matches with the Mayor and with members of council, and county. Ken Paust and I yelled at each other a couple of times, but I have the utmost respect for him. I think he respects me. We’ve always been able to work through these things. That’s how you work through these things. You do them. Chris: Well, Bill Engle, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for your time and your insights, and the work you’re doing, and best wishes. Bill: Thank you, Chris. Appreciate it. You take care. Chris: You too. The post IN Focus with Archer Bunner and Bill Engle appeared first on Richmond Matters.
32 minutes | Jun 14, 2018
What you make of it: Shana Nissenbaum on power tools & building a life in Richmond
Shana Nissenbaum is an educator, a builder, a community organizer, and a non-profit founder…and that’s just the start of a long list of the many ways she spends her time to make Richmond a better place. In this conversation we cover a lot of ground including Shana’s work empowering women through power tools via Women’s Workshop Richmond, how she measures success in her classroom, what it’s like to run a maker space, and the different ways she’s learned to build a life and community for herself here. Enjoy! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: You and I know each other from a variety of things around town, we were neighbors at some point. I think I put a small dent in your vehicle when I got overconfident about backing up a trailer. Shana Nissenbaum: I thought about that today in fact. I was like, “Who was that?” Chris: Yeah, that was me. I probably owe you some money for a fix up paint job there. But moving on from that, we also recently connected over your work in the Women’s Workshop in Richmond. Let’s just start there. Tell me a little bit about the Women’s Workshop and how it got started, what it’s for and what kinds of things you’re taking on right now. Shana: That covers an awful lot. Women’s Workshop Richmond is in the process of becoming a nonprofit in Richmond. The focus is empowering women through power tools. The way that it works is, women sign up for an individual workshop which typically runs about three hours. They come, they learn to use the tools, they build the confidence and then they actually physically build something, whatever that something is, and then able to take it home and say, “I made that.” In addition to having some actual practical use, they also gain the confidence of, “Here’s how a drill works,” or, “Here’s how a miter saw works.” And then being able to take that back home and say, “Hey, is this picture broke, or if the doorknob needed to be tightened or whatever, I would feel comfortable using the tools to do that.” Chris: What gave you, I guess, who started it and what gave you the idea to start it in the first place? Shana: Three years ago we moved into my house and I wanted a porch. I got some estimates on a screened porch and it was anywhere between seven thousand and thirty thousand dollars. I just didn’t feel like that was reasonable for literally screens. So a buddy of mine helped me build a foundation, build the frame of it, and then I turned it into a porch by the end of two summers. And I realized like, “Hey, I can do this.” So I had a couple other woodworking projects from there. Then I was at a friend’s house in Minnesota last summer and she was talking about how once a month she gets together with these other women and they go to this one woman’s house and that woman teaches them how to do a craft. She had mentioned that recently they had done a pinata. And I thought, “Hey, I could teach women how to make something.” I had these plans for these giant dice, you play Yard Yahtzee with. You put them in a bucket and you cut up a four by four to make them. I thought, “I guess I could do that.” That was last fall and it very quickly snowballed from there. It was clearly something that was missing from Richmond and for women in general that are missing that skill. This filled that void really easily. And women were interested in it as a hobby, but also for the empowerment piece. Shana: I’ve actually had quite a few men say, “Well, what about me? No one taught me.” And there is a social stigma associated with the men not knowing how. So they don’t really have any opportunity to learn. So at some point, I would like to expand and have a couple of novice men’s classes, but, for now, it’s women and girls. Chris: There’s all sort of interesting cultural things going on there. Yeah, you don’t often see classes for men on how to use power tools. I assume that is tied to some very broad stereotype about men know how to use power tools, “They’re born with a drill in their hand.” Then the corresponding very problematic assumption and stereotype narrative that women don’t know how to use power tools and, in some cases, I’m sure you can find parts of our culture that would say, “Oh, women don’t need to use power tools because the men will do it.” I heard you use the word empower and, yeah, I wonder what you’ve experienced in the women that you’ve worked with and talked to, just beyond the basic knowledge of like, “Hey, here’s how to be comfortable with a power tool.” What kinds of empowerment are you seeing happening? Shana: Honestly, it’s even more than I had imagined and I’m blown away by that part. For example, I had someone come to one workshop and was like, “Ah, I’ve never really thought about owning a drill.” And she came to a second workshop and was like, “Nope, I need one. I need to have one at home just in case.” Her husband is, we’ll say, not particularly handy so we secretly told him around Christmastime that that would be the perfect gift. While I picked it out, he physically went to the store and bought it for her for Christmas. That’s something that she now feels comfortable with in her home. Or I had another woman that came to a couple of workshops and then called me up one day and said, “Hey, I found this thing on Pinterest. I think I can build it myself if I can use your miter saw.” I said, “Sure. Come on over.” Then she ended up going on a semester long workshop where she learned how to refinish furniture and build her own stuff. Chris: That’s amazing. Wow. Shana: Yeah, it was really cool. They’re not all quite that big, but … and just like the little pieces, of a woman staring at her finished project. We always take pictures at the end and line all the women up with whatever they made and them all standing there and just the pride in their faces of like, “Hey, I made this thing.” It’s awesome. Chris: It seems like it has implications too for something that sounds simple like home repair. You mentioned building a porch, but being able to fix something, repair something, bolt something together, drill something together. That could represent huge economic savings for someone over the course of their life, just being comfortable with that. Has that come up at all in the workshops and training that you’ve done? Shana: Not that specifically, but absolutely the idea of that is part of the point. One of the reasons that we’re transitioning from an LLC to a nonprofit is that, right now, my clientele typically have a little more expendable income. That’s great, I want all women to be empowered, but I’m not able to hit the demographic that I think most needs the power and that would be typically the single Moms that don’t necessarily have a support network or don’t have somebody that could do it for them and allowing them to do it. So part of the reason for going nonprofit is to get more funding so that those women can come either at a reduced price or for free, just making sure everyone has access to it. And another group of the population, or another population, that I’ve been trying to focus on is, I’ve met with Centerstone and I recently set up something with Meridian where they have a residential facility for people that are going through rehab, specifically their women are going to come in … I’m going to bring things to them and they’re going to build things for the facility, like some picnic benches, some yard games, just a couple different things. I think those are probably a subset of women that really have lost all of their personal power. And this is something very hands-on, but also going to give them that empowerment piece back and hopefully that control back into their lives. Not entirely, there’s lots of other things involved, but just another part of it really. Chris: It seems like every step, every piece helps. Where are you holding these workshops now? Do you have one facility or does it move around? Shana: That’s a great question. Right now, they’re in my “workshop” and we’re going to put that in quotes, it’s a two car garage. But I am in the process of working with a couple of different people. There’s a couple that owns a storefront downtown that is interested in helping out if we can get that going. I’ve also spoken with RCT, the Richmond Civic Theater, about maybe sharing their workspace and in return, the women could help build the sets. That would be a nice symbiotic relationship. I’m not really sure. I’m open to anything. I’m looking for, with a nonprofit looking for something very low cost, but I’m definitely expanding faster than my space will allow. Chris: That’s amazing. It’s also worth mentioning that we connected through the KIND.ARMY project that I started in. There’s a project that you and your group are taking on as a part of that. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s about? Shana: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done a ton of partnerships so we can come back to that piece, but one of the ones that I did through the Institute for Creative Leadership is, I paired up with Deirdré Schirmer who works at Morrisson-Reeves. I said, “What’s your take on Little Free Libraries?” I didn’t know if Morrison-Reeves saw that as competition or whatever. She said, “The more books, the better.” So she and I got together with Alis
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