A Hiker’s Guide to Citizen Engagement
When it comes to the work of improving our state, citizens deserve far more than just a chance to have their voices heard and their feelings placated. Citizens, with their countless unique and powerful experiences and perspectives, must be acknowledged as key partners in the work of making public policy. Our goal in supporting the Children’s Trust Fund’s Citizen’s Review Panel for Prevention (CRPP) this year is to ensure that citizens are included as key partners in the review of our state’s child abuse prevention priorities.
This June, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I joined members of Citizens Review Panels from across the country to learn how other states are working to ensure that citizens have a meaningful say in the work of their state’s child welfare systems. After the conference ended, I spent the weekend exploring New Mexico’s incredible landscapes and what I saw in the “Land of Enchantment” drove home exactly why Michigan’s Children is in the business of promoting citizen voice.
Experience is the best teacher.
The El Malpais National Monument in Western New Mexico is known for its acres of exposed dried lava. Its most scenic views require clambering over loose rock fields, and you can rarely tell by sight which rocks are secure and which are loose. Every step carries the risk of a sprained or broken ankle. Hikers communicate and learn from each other’s steps to navigate the trails.
A public policy or procedure can look sound and secure, but people who live the effects of public policies know where the shaky points and the gaps in the system are. When young people and foster caregivers spoke out about communication and information gaps within the foster care system, policymakers took note and passed the Children’s Assurance of Foster Care Quality Act. I learned at the conference that if we’re going to take seriously the work of improving child welfare, we have to remember that, like for anything, experience is the best teacher, and the CRPP must include those who have walked the paths that we wish to improve at every level of decision making.
Power needs process.
The loose rocks of El Malpais lead hikers to a magnificent extinct lava tube, Big Skylight Cave, through which years ago hot magma ran with unfathomable energy beneath the earth to the surface. Of course, once magma pours out above ground as lava, it spreads all over the place until it runs out of steam. Citizen voice has a magmatic quality: unbelievably powerful, especially when public spaces support citizens to flex that power.
At the conference, I learned about the skills required to facilitate complex conversations. We can learn a lot more from our fellow citizens by asking a little more than just “what do you think?” We can design spaces to encourage citizens to imagine, to remember, and to find common issues. The Michigan CRPP will be strategic and thoughtful about citizen engagement, and Michigan’s Children looks forward to ensuring that the CRPP works in coordination with community partners to design accessible opportunities for citizens to have their voices heard.
A good process needs partners.
To that point, we need to hear from as many people who have something to offer as possible. It’s the only way we can be sure that the CRPP’s recommendations reflect the true needs of Michigan’s population. To make that happen, if you have personal experience or experience working with families who have endured instability due to substance use, we need you to partner with us to make sure that your voices – and the voices of those whom you serve – are heard.
Please check out Michigan’s Children’s CRPP website, RSVP for an event as we announce more dates, and take the CRPP public input survey and share it with those who deserve a say as well.
Together, we can make Michigan the “Land of Citizen Engagement.”
– Bobby Dorigo Jones is the Policy and Outreach Associate at Michigan’s Children