The Case for Openness and Transparency

You may remember that back before Christmas folks out here in Antioch got in a bit of a huff over a proposal by the Metro Health Department to build a WIC (Women, Infants, & Children) clinic in Hickory Hollow Mall. While there was certainly a bit of NIMBYism happening in that conversation, with some concern over the symbolism of locating a program for the needy in what is supposed to be the area’s leading retail center, the biggest problem was that the Health Department for various reasons really didn’t inform the community about the plan, nor invite comment along the way. This also included a failure to inform the council persons in the area, so they were blindsided when the proposal came to the council floor and zoomed through two readings without public comment. The community felt that something was trying to be slipped past them, and in an area that already worries about being marginalized by the rest of the city, it didn’t take much stir up a bit of anger and wrath. The council folks out here aren’t dumb, and they recognized that there was a problem, so the Hickory Hollow proposal went away.

Fast forward to tonight. The Health Department still needs a WIC clinic, and they had been looking in the area for other possible locations. However, rather than presenting this as a done deal, they scheduled a meeting with community leaders at my church and asked me to facilitate the conversation. Once there they calmly reviewed the criteria they are using in determining a location, including their client population centers, their building needs, and their budget, inviting these leaders representing five council districts for input and conversation. In that conversation we learned that the three zip codes that make up Antioch have seen the number of WIC participants grow by over 200% since 1995, with the largest group clustered in the area between Nolensville Rd. and I-24. We also learned that the Health Department had considered seriously 8 different sites throughout the region, and that they were considering a particular site on Nolensville Rd. (Visit for more specific information).  The conversation was interesting, with question asked about funding and concerns raised about parking and safety at some of the proposed sites, but in the end every person in the room agreed that the Nolensville Rd. site was the best location, and urged the Health Department to move forward.

It’s been no more than a month since many of the people in the room tonight had been up in arms ready to take on city hall. What is the difference? They were given an opportunity to be given pointed information in a clear and concise manner, were encouraged to offer input to make the project better, and were listened to. They were treated as intelligent adults with something to offer, and not some sort of obstructive force that be cast aside. And when they were able to engage in an adult conversation about the matter, able to take in everything before them and offer their thoughts, they got on board, recognized the right decision and were able to embrace it.

This is a lesson that I think could be learned by Karl Dean‘s administration. From my perspective it’s seemed at times like certain members of the administration are reluctant to enter into substantive conversation with residents and stakeholders about various projects. It almost feels to me like they are saying, “We’re smart guys and we’ve already processed this, so you should trust us to make the right decision for you.” But that is, of course, the problem, because no adult person really wants someone to make a decision for them. No, they want to be involved in the decision making process as well, partially because they feel they have something to say, and partially because they may insights that aren’t available to the “golden boys.” Certainly, it’s easier to get things done by taking on a “Father Knows Best,” macho, bullying stance which minimizes the value of conversation. But it pisses folks off along the way, and you never end up with supporters of what you are trying to accomplish.

Did tonight’s conversation in Antioch solve all the problems of our community? Nope, and in fact it raised interesting concerns regarding the nature of the economic decline of the area, for it’s clear that more economically distressed folks have moved (or as some feel, are being moved by city housing policies) to the area. But rather than having folks yell at each other, feeling victimized by government bureaucrats, they walked out laughing energized by their community involvement, and willing to work together again on other projects.

Did it take more time? Yes. Was it worth it? Every second.

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