Spurring change

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A coalition of more than 40 local groups is recruiting a broad cross-section of citizens to help shape collaborative efforts to improve the lives of children in Mecklenburg County.

At a high-tech “town meeting” set for Dec. 11 at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart that it hopes will attract at least 1,000 residents, the coalition aims to map the community’s top priorities for addressing children’s health, safety and education needs.

Community leaders could use that map over the next three years to remake the way community resources and services are invested, delivered and tracked, says Anne Udall, executive director of The Lee Institute, which is spearheading the project.

“We think that over $1 billion is spent in this community on kids and children when you add up public and private money,” she says.

By involving citizens in identifying the most critical issues involving children, and the most promising ways to combine funding and services to meet their needs, she says, the community can make the most productive use of existing resources.

The town meeting, to be run by AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that works to engage citizens in governance, also will be designed to help break down the walls that can keep people from working together to fix community problems, Udall says.

Based on a July 2002 AmericaSpeaks town meeting in New York City that drew 5,000 citizens and rejected initial plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center site leveled on 9/11, the Lee Institute has worked for roughly a year to enlist support for a similar session in Charlotte on children.

It has raised $740,000 to cover the $1 million cost of the three-year project.

To ensure the town meeting reflects the makeup of the population in areas like income, education, religion and race, organizers are working with civic, neighborhood, religious and business groups to recruit participants.

People at the town meeting will be grouped at tables of 10, with an electronic keypad for each participant to “vote” on issues, and a laptop computer for each table to recommend key “themes” the community should address.

The entire meeting then will be asked to vote on up to 15 themes most recommended by individual tables.

Based on recommendations by the town meeting, teams then will be formed to work to encourage public and private funders and agencies to streamline and strengthen funding and services for children, Udall says.

Possible long-term outcomes, she says, could include consolidation of county and school budgets, and of public and private services for children, the pooling of philanthropic dollars, and creation of a scorecard for measuring the impact of those changes on the well-being of children.

“There’s not been a lot of large-scale collaboration, and in some ways there’s been competition for services and attention,” Udall says. “The school system and nonprofits and the county services and the city services tend to work in silos.”

Now, with the retirement or death of long-time business and civic leaders like Hugh McColl, Ed Crutchfield and Bill Lee, she says, “there’s a lot of opportunity for more citizen leadership.”

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