Neil Heinen

Heinen: Considering shared interests and sticky situations in Madison

Our cities and our schools have lots of challenges

Heading into the recent elections, I’d been doing a fair amount of thinking about civil society, shared concerns, listening to each other and problem solving. Our cities and our schools have a lot of challenges right now, which means we citizens and fellow human beings have a lot of challenges. I’ve been reading about the need for cities, citizens and the media to be “in the solution business.” It struck me this approach might be helpful as we consider some sticky issues currently in front of us. 

Three such issues have been top of mind for me lately: The relationship between the Henry Vilas Zoo, Henry Vilas Zoological Society and Dane County; the proposal to add lights and sound equipment at the Edgewood High School sports facility; and the proposed 120-mile electricity transmission line that would run from Hickory Creek near Dubuque, Iowa, to the Cardinal Substation just west of Middleton. 

These are admittedly 21st century, First World issues. We’re not talking about war, disease and hunger here. But they all affect people’s lives, some presumably for the better and some presumably for the worse, and our ability to resolve them reflects our ability to solve the larger issues we face as a planet.

My first instinct is to apply the democratic practices identified by the Kettering Foundation as the work of citizens. These include the naming and framing of issues, identifying available community resources that can be applied to particular issues, organizing citizens, deliberating, decision making and seeing what results from all this. 

Take the zoo for example. The issues there have been named: fiscal responsibility, animal welfare, zoo accreditation, treatment of staff and volunteers, history, tradition, zoo services and amenities. Each is framed according to the person naming them with little or no effort to encourage shared concerns, thoughtful deliberation or use of resources.

The situations are similar for Edgewood and the proposed transmission line. School officials, students and parents make a compelling argument for playing their home games on their home field. But many area residents make an equally compelling case that adding lights and a sound system to the field would negatively impact the neighborhood in ways they couldn’t have anticipated. The result has been a discouraging and sad breakdown of trust. 

The transmission line issue may be the toughest of all. It’s been named and framed as unnecessary destruction of important and fragile agricultural ecosystems, and as needed energy infrastructure and reliability. How do we entertain the merits of both or all sides of these issues and reach common ground that is comfortable for all?

What’s clear is these are all shared public problems, which means citizens see themselves as actors in a solution that recognizes their concerns and values. At least it’s clear to some. It sometimes seems like high school officials, neighborhood associations, local governments, a zoological society and big utilities are pursuing technical solutions to the problems. And thus they frame policy proposals in ways that leave out citizens.  

All of these issues expose the limitations of government in solving problems. Finding solutions requires a different approach. Citizens most affected by each of these three issues view them through the values they hold dear. We have to respect that and listen closely to what they have to say. It seems possible, even likely, that there are alternatives we are not considering. And there are certainly voices not being heard. 

All three of these issues would benefit from citizens and organizations functioning as thought leaders and intermediaries to get us out of the straitjackets into which we’ve strapped ourselves. 

Let’s stop analyzing the problems. We’ve done enough of that. Let’s put all our attention and effort toward solving them.


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