Citizens discuss regional progress

Sara Macho and Ryan Loew

Residents cite education, jobs, government

AKRON – For the 900 people gathered inside the University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena, discussing the future of Northeast Ohio took precedence to a crisp, sunny November afternoon.

Citizens of the 15-county region of Northeast Ohio gathered in the arena on Saturday for Voices & Choices, a town-hall-style meeting billed as the largest of its kind ever convened in the nation.

Participants sat at round tables of 10 to 12 people to discuss the future of the region, including the economy, the region’s assets and characteristics Ohio should be known for.

But those attending the Voices & Choices meeting, which was one step in a 14-month initiative, did more than provide a plan for the region. They also offered solutions.

According to information from Voices & Choices organizers, three key themes resounded repeatedly over the course of the day – ensuring equity in education, creating more jobs and improving efficiency in government.

Participants cited a need to improve public school funding to ensure equal opportunities regardless of geography, race or class; to create jobs that will ensure a livable wage and benefits for all citizens; to better prepare and train the workforce to meet the needs of the new economy; and to overcome the inefficiencies associated with multiple, fragmented governments.

Sista Jewel Jackson, 33, of Cleveland said there needs to be a radical change in the educational system.

“We need to develop our kids and provide them with a creative education,” she said.

Over the past two and a half months, thousands of people have participated in one-on-one citizen interviews in which individuals talk with each other about the region, according to information from Voices & Choices.

A cross-section of business, government, religious, educational, labor and other leaders also were convened in a series of workshops this fall. Findings from the interviews and the leadership workshops then helped shape the content of Saturday’s town meeting.

An all day event

The diverse group of residents spent most of the day in the arena deliberating about the future of Northeast Ohio.

“We live in a new global economy,” said Robert Briggs, chairman of the Fund for Our Economic Future, which oversees Voices & Choices. “The old rules simply don’t apply anymore.”

“When you combine the resources of this region, Northeast Ohio has 4 million people. Together, we can effectively compete in a global economy.”

To attain real time data at the event, each participant used a small keypad to answer questions prompted to the entire arena. That data was then transferred electronically via a table facilitator to the “theme team,” which presented the information to the entire arena.

This team also gathered all the input in a preliminary report, which will be made available to media outlets, law makers and other government officials, according to Carolyn Lukensmeyer, president and founder of AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit organization that seeks to engage citizens in the political process.

By mid-morning, the participants gathered demographic information about themselves and started on questions about what they love about the Northeast Ohio region.

Forum participants noted many positive assets in Ohio, including Lake Erie, downtown Cleveland, the Metroparks, the library systems and ethnic areas such as Little Italy in Cleveland.

As participants worked together to brainstorm ideas, local artist Danny Ratcliff worked on a painting capturing the activity of the meeting, and muralist Mark Pinto produced murals over the course of the day to reflect event themes and ideas.

Kent State’s contribution

Several Kent State students, faculty and administrators were present at the event as participants and facilitators, said Pat Book, vice president of Regional Development.

“I’m really excited that we were able to bring out this large of a group,” she said. “I’m very proud of Kent State’s contribution to making this a successful townhall meeting.”

Kent State is often a key contributor to development in Northeast Ohio counties, Book said.

“In some communities like Ashtabula, we’re the best thing going as far as contributing to not only the economic development of the region, but also the cultural resources and activities that help build a sense of community,” Book said.

Jinghuan Liu, a graduate student in educational foundations and special services, said the event was a new type of experience for her. Liu came to Kent from China in August. She said an open forum, like Voices & Choices, is not common in China.

“I’ve never been to such a forum,” Liu said. “This is a really good way to help people voice their opinions.”

Liu said young people need to become more involved in political activities.

“It seems like students don’t really care about politics,” she said. “Students need to know that their opinions are appreciated and valued.”

What happens next

In future forums, both citizens and leaders will identify and prioritize solutions to overcome the key challenges identified Saturday.

Hundreds of small group citizen forums will take place in communities across the region and online over the next several months, culminating in a final Regional Town Meeting in the fall of 2006.

Contact student politics reporter Sara Macho at [email protected] and public affairs reporter Ryan Loew at [email protected].