Saturday, November 21, 2009

Compass in Unsettling Times, Stubborn Facts, Seismic Shift and … Hannity vs. Obama? Assault on Public Discourse?

Twin Cities Compass annual meeting keynote speaker, Kate Wolford, President of the McKnight Foundation, urged us to rely more than ever on solid information when we make critical decisions during the current “unsettling times”. She likened our situation to that of a boat navigator. Should we rely only on our impressions and past experience – or should we consult charts and reliable navigation devices before we decide where to steer the boat?

Kate congratulated Compass for our nonpartisan, objective approach – in which we convene reasonable people with multiple, and frequently opposing, perspectives to identify what we need to know about our communities, shape a vision for improving our quality of life, and determine how to work collaboratively to make a difference.

An editorial in Thursday’s Pioneer Press praised Compass for focusing attention on “what is” and then motivating people to do something about it:

Facts are stubborn, and they'll exert their effects with our approval or without. It's better, then, in our free and open democratic republic, to acknowledge what is, from various angles — and then decide what to do to about it.

That's the function of Twin Cities Compass, a not-quite 2-year-old project to assemble facts, identify trends, inspire work on things that make life good and measure the effect of that work. With its home at Wilder Research in St. Paul and with funding from a passel of great philanthropic foundations, Twin Cities Compass is a rich source of facts and analysis and ideas for policy-makers, non-profits, business-people and anybody interested in improving our quality of life.

Dan Bartholomay, Commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, emphasized the importance of housing as a social and economic asset and noted how it relates to other critical aspects of our lives: health; education; economic development; etc.

Dawn Simonson, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, expanded the audience’s understanding of the profound changes which our communities will experience as a result of dramatic growth in the aging population. She noted that Compass will provide “rich data for action”, and she explained three key measures, among many others, which Compass highlights for the aging population: volunteerism; income; and disability.

We can take pride in the fact that our region always includes a large proportion of people who volunteer. Rates of volunteerism in the Twin Cities area for people in their sixties and seventies exceed rates for those age groups elsewhere in the U.S. Given the health benefits of volunteering, this is a positive trend.

On the other hand, among residents 65-74, about one in five has a disability, with physical challenges such as climbing stairs and lifting the most common. Among those over age 85, about three-fourths have one or more disabilities. So, we need to prepare for increasing numbers of people living longer, and requiring assistance.

Did Sean Hannity debate Barak Obama at the meeting? No. (Although I seem to recall that President Obama once challenged Sean to a debate. If it has not yet occurred, I would be happy to host a faceoff between the two of them at Wilder Center.) I noted the “H vs O” rivalry simply to heighten blog readers’ curiosity, as an entrée into a very important topic which I raised as we closed the meeting: namely, the assault on public discourse which is all too prevalent as partisans and special interest groups on both the right and the left dig in and refuse to consider compromise.

Our design of Compass built on the premise that we need to move from an “old math” to a “new math”. The old equation was:

Good intentions +
No common base of information =
Inefficient decisions

We want to create the new equation:

Good intentions +
Sound, reliable information +
A common sense of purpose =
Productive decisions for a strong region

Unfortunately, we today live in a world in which interest groups try to derail democratic debate, confuse us, and sway us with false or incomplete information. Their efforts push the equation toward:

Good intentions +
Unsound, Misleading Messages +
Diversions from a common sense of purpose =

Those of us who care about our communities and who seek to work in multi-partisan collaboration must find ways to deflate the diversions. The quality of life of all of us here, as well as all people around the world, depends on it.

(If you're interesed, see the slides from the meeting at

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