How do you report on an urban school system’s very deep problems without crushing all public hope for a better day?
How can an ordinary citizen who’s not an accountant tease out whether the multiple tax breaks offered to businesses actually produce the promised jobs?
Why is there so much trash on some city streets, and how do other cities combat litter so much better than “Filthydelphia” does?
And why are Philadelphians so crazy-quick to lean on the horn and honk right after the light turns green?
A group of about 50 residents of the Philly region pondered these and other deep questions at the first community forum of the Keystone Crossroads project, held Wednesday night at WHYY.
The group first heard a briefing on Keystone Crossroads’ goals and structure from editor Naomi Starobin:
Report deeply both on the root causes and possible solutions to the problems of Pennsylvania’s cities.
Make connections between what’s happening in cities in different parts of the state.
Spur a more productive public dialogue.
Then the citizens divided into five smaller discussion groups. They worked through a set of questions designed to give the Keystone Crossroads team a richer sense of what urban issues weigh most on the public’s mind, what questions are not getting answered, and which solutions and civic assets need to become more broadly known.
The sessions were planned and led by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.
Participants were asked to imagine that Pennsylvania’s next governor suddenly materialized at their kitchen table one night, giving his undivided attention for just 30 seconds. What issue would they talk to the governor about?
For this group, the goal of fixing the schools ruled the night.
Other topics that came up often included government corruption and lack of transparency, mass transit and parking, changing parochial or cynical attitudes, improving “Orwellian attitudes among city employees,” and a tax on fracking.
Asked which of their core issues the media covers well, participants pretty much said: None.
They agreed that on some issues, such as education and crime, the media do a good job of documenting the crisis of the moment and describing conflicts among factions. They said journalists do a much worse job of exploring root causes, breaking down complex topics, and explaining to the public how they can take effective steps to make matters better.
Asked what amenities from other places around the nation or the globe they’d like to see their hometown (mostly Philadelphia) adopt, folks talked a lot about better waterfronts, better mass transit (with smart cards!), better bike lanes and less litter.
Asked what bad habits they’d like to see their community break, answers included, of course, less honking, less use of cynicism as an excuse to not vote or not help your neighborhood, less factionalism, and, as one young woman (who said she was a baseball fan) put it, “Stop acting like it’s the end of the world if the Phillies lose.”
The project will hold similar forums in the fall in the Lehigh Valley, Reading, the Harrisburg area, State College and the Pittsburgh region. Follow Keystone Crossroads here on the web, on Facebook, or @pacrossroads on Twitter for details on dates and sites for those forums.
If you’d like to give your responses to any of the questions the forum participants pondered, please use the comment section below.
If you’d like us to hold a similar forum in your town, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.