The subject of civic engagement seems to be coming up around Santa Cruz more and more. Two very different organizations discussed the matter this week, and I can't say that these discussions have led to any strong conclusions in my mind.
ITEM: Santa Cruz Next, the organization of younger (under 45) folks conducted a talk on "the information needs of the community" Tuesday night. Speakers included Nina Simon, the new executive director of the Museum of Art and History, as well as Nate Hill, chief digital librarian for the San Jose Public Library and Ron Vincent, head of social media for the city of San Francisco. Essentially, what they argued for was what is an opening of their institutions to encourage civic engagement by reaching for new levels of openness and dialogue with the public.
ITEM: At a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, members of the board wondered how they could more effectively engage the public in sharing information. What several members of the board expressed was a desire to inform community members on the issues -- instead of heated debates that are devoid of real facts. Call it a desire to inform, rather than merely vent.
It's noteworthy that these discussions were held outside the context of the mainstream media, whose influence on the public debate seems to be dwindling. And institutions -- whether the government or non-profit organizations -- are trying to figure out how to rekindle the interest.
As a longtime believer in the independence of the mainstream media, I understand the challenge and sympathize with the desire of these groups to foster a sober and information-based public debate. But the challenge is huge.
Here's a major roadblock to this kind of direct sourcing of information: the nut factor. Public debates can be thrown off-track easily. In fact, they often are in Santa Cruz. Public hearings take on the feeling of a carnival, and not everyone is comfortable in speaking at these meetings when they feel the pressure of being shouted down by an audience. Anyone who has been to a heavily attended public meeting knows what I'm talking about.
And Vincent, the San Francisco social media guy, told a worrisome story about one meeting in which a small group opposing public wireless connections took people's names off an attendee list at a public hearing and actually harassed them over the phone.
It would be a shame if those at the political margins prevent the kind of open public dialogue that so many are seeking to expand.